What is a ‘circuit breaker’, and how could it help curb rising Covid-19 cases?

circuit breaker

Pressure is growing on the Government to impose a short-term circuit-breaker lockdown in England in a bid to get rising coronavirus infections under control. 

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer has called on the Government to impose a two-to-three week long circuit breaker to prevent a “sleepwalk into a long and bleak winter”.

Some scientists have warned the newly announced three-tier local-alert system does not go far enough, and only universal measures have any chance of curbing the second wave of the virus.

What will this mean for our daily lives, how long could a circuit-breaker lockdown last, and where is the proof it will work?

What is a circuit breaker?

An actual circuit-breaker is an automatic switch installed in an electrical circuit that flips and breaks the flow of electricity when there is a power surge or a short-circuit, preventing fire and other damage.  

A circuit-breaker lockdown would therefore see Britons sever almost all contact with people outside their own household by shutting non-essential businesses and stopping social interactions.  

Restrictions on daily life might include: 

Pubs, restaurants and entertainment venues forced to close. 

Household mixing banned in areas where it is not already.

People would be told to work from home if possible and warned not to take public transport unless necessary.

One option under consideration is for regional circuit breakers, which might be preferred by Prime Minister Boris Johnson after he likened a second national lockdown to a “nuclear deterrent”. One senior Government source said the chances of a circuit breaker were “at least 80 per cent”.

How long could it last?

A circuit-breaker, if imposed, would probably last a maximum of two to three weeks.

The idea is to interrupt the flow of the virus and allow time for a longer-term plan to be put in place, before cases overload the NHS.

Professor Calum Semple, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), warned last week that prevention is better than cure. 

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It’s always easier to reduce an outbreak at the earlier stage than to let it run and then try to reduce it at a later stage.” 

When is a circuit breaker likely to be imposed?  

Government sources have said the Prime Minister could order a two-week closure of pubs, restaurants and some other businesses if measures brought in on Wednesday in Covid hotspots do not reverse the spread of the virus.

A decision will be taken toward the end of next week, ahead of the half-term holiday for state schools which begins on October 26 and would mark the start of any temporary lockdown.

The Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) – which provides advice to the Department of Health and Social Care – recommends a short, sharp lockdown is imposed on England from October 24.

The date coincides with school half-term, and would minimise disruption to education.

Other Government advisers have said a two-week circuit-breaker in December could save thousands of lives in the short term and allow the UK breathing space to control the coronavirus epidemic.

Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of Sage, said it may be too late to implement a two-week circuit-breaker in the October school half-term but December could be an option.

Prof Medly said any circuit-breaker should ideally be timed with school holidays to minimise disruption to education.

What is the evidence?

SPI-M modelling suggests coronavirus deaths for the rest of the year could be reduced from 19,900 to 12,100 if a circuit-breaker is imposed, with hospital admissions cut from 132,400 to 66,500.

If schools and shops remain open, the death toll could be cut to 15,600, it found. 

However scientists from Oxford University have disagreed with this prediction, arguing there is no good evidence for a circuit-breaker lockdown and that more research is needed before such a measure is taken. 

Who is in favour of a circuit-breaker lockdown?  

It emerged on Monday that members of Sage have reportedly been pushing for such a lockdown for the past three weeks, but the Government overruled the idea. 

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer has now come out in support of a circuit-breaker, saying it would prevent a “sleepwalk into a long and bleak winter”. 

His intervention provoked a bitter backlash from the Government, with a “senior source” branding him a “shameless opportunist”.

However, the public seem to be of the same mind as the Labour leader – 54 per cent of people surveyed by YouGov on Tuesday said they feel the Government should have introduced a national lockdown in September, while just 28 per cent  of the 4,222 adults polled disagreed.  

Meanwhile the Tory leader of Bolton Council has said he is “absolutely disgusted” that Sir Keir Starmer “misrepresented” him in the Commons by claiming he supported a circuit-breaker to control coronavirus.

David Greenhalgh said it was “absolutely untrue” that he backed the proposal for a short nationwide lockdown – which Labour is calling for – and demanded an apology from the opposition leader.

Sir Keir made the comments during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons on October 14. 

He said: “(Boris Johnson) probably hasn’t noticed that this morning, the council leaders in Greater Manchester that he’s just quoted, including the mayor and including the Conservative leader of Bolton Council, have said in a press statement that they support a circuit-break above Tier 3 restrictions. Keep up, Prime Minister.”

Has it worked anywhere else?

The term ‘circuit breaker’ came to prominence in April to describe the steps taken by the Singaporean Government.

While the virus had been detected in the country in January, it took until spring for the state to implement a widespread lockdown measure, including restrictions on movement and gatherings, as well as the closure of schools and non-essential businesses.

The so-called circuit breaker was only supposed to last for roughly a month, but ultimately it lasted for almost three.

Although the measures were in place for longer than anticipated, Singapore’s response is hailed worldwide as a successful model.

On Wednesday, the country registered four new cases, all of which were imported. The term circuit breaker has come to mean different things in different countries.

As with Singapore, many countries have introduced what was intended to be a short, sharp lockdown only to extend it.

Not all circuit breakers involve widespread lockdowns.

Who has gone for the circuit-break option in the UK?

Last Wednesday, pubs in central Scotland were ordered to close across several districts for 16 days.

In Northern Ireland, a four-week circuit breaker will come into force on Friday in an attempt to stall the rise in coronavirus infections.

Pubs and restaurants will have to shut unless they offer a takeaway service, but places of worship, shops and gyms can stay open.


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