The key factor in ending lockdown and other measures is the coronavirus reproductive number, commonly talked about as the “R” value. This is the number of people each individual case can be expected to transmit the virus to, effectively the rate of the virus spreading through the population.
What we know
Unchecked and with no social distancing in place, the coronavirus R value was calculated to be somewhere between 2 and 3, in the UK it was estimated around 2.4.
Currently with strict lockdown and social distancing measures in place the R value is being estimated between 0.5 and 1, in the UK its stands around 0.7.
1 is the magic number. Above 1 and the virus spreads exponentially, below 1 and the virus is “under control”.
What we don’t know
Understanding and knowing the R number of the virus requires having the right data to a level of statistical certainty. Because the virus is new, that data simply doesn’t exist and will take time to collect, at the moment the R number is a best estimate of scientists with no statistical certainty.
The challenges to ending lockdown measures
The main challenge to the government is that the current lockdown is a combined set of many different measures:
- School closures
- Different Business closures
- Home working
- Travel restrictions
- Stay at home/ shielding
- Social distancing when outside
- Protective measures such as hand washing and masks and face shields
- Ban on large gatherings and events
The scientific data does not exist to show which of these measures have had the most effect on the coronavirus R value dropping from 2.4 to 0.7.
A current R value of 0.7 does not give the government much room for manoeuvre in testing out which measures to ease without risking the R value moving back up above 1.
Without clear scientific data, this therefore becomes a political and not a strictly scientific decision, factoring in not just the likely impact of easing on the R value but the social, economic and political value of which measures to ease. The government is understandably going to be very nervous about making such decisions:
Opening schools may be possible and not drive the R number above 1.
Opening some businesses may be possible and not drive the R number above 1.
However opening schools and businesses in one go may combine to drive the R value above 1.
It therefore becomes a political decision, opening schools has significant social benefits in terms of the education and wellbeing of children, but may have little economic benefit. Opening businesses would have more economic benefit but to the growing problem of social wellbeing with families still being mostly confined to home. These are the choices the government will need to make and the lack of a clear plan at the moment suggests there is still significant debate.
The best case scenario
Some form of social distancing and protective measures are almost certainly going to remain in place until a proven vaccine or herd immunity is in place.
The best case scenario governments around the world are working towards is that a combination of maintaining 2 metre social distancing, the use of face masks and continuing to shield vulnerable people would keep the virus at a manageable spread while allowing the rest of the economy to be reopened. However, that theory is unproven and it is unlikely we will get to that point in the next few months unless evidence emerges in other countries that such a policy would work.
The likely scenario
The likely scenario for the UK is a step by step easing of measures every 3 weeks. 3 weeks because with an incubation period of 7 days or over, 3 weeks is the likely minimum period needed to be able to get some measure of impact on the R value of each set of easing measures.
Our educated guess is something along the below lines of a staged easing. This guess is based on both looking at what politicians have been saying over the past few days and weeks, the frequency with which they’ve been saying things, and the experience were seeing from other countries ahead of us:
It does not seem likely that schools opening will be part of the first phase of easing or if they do it will be very limited. Schools would need time to prepare social distancing and health and safety measures before allowing pupils back into classrooms and this will take time. Based on government noises, it is likely that primary schools opening sometime in June may happen, but this may not be opening as normal but with controls like reduced hours or split classes, e.g. half the pupils in one day and half the pupils in the next. Older children may be unlikely to return before the September term. This is based on some evidence that the rate of spread between school pupils rises the older they get, and also on the basis that younger children are likely to be suffering more without the contact with friends and teachers as they are less free to make use of technology.
The decision to open schools may be complicated by the emergence of a slight increase in children suffering a rare immune disease over the last 3 weeks. This may not be linked to coronavirus, for example it could be because parents are not seeking medical help quickly enough for more minor conditions which are then able to deteriorate. However, the emergence of anything that suggests a rise in chid deaths will almost certainly take opening schools off the table for a longer period until the facts are understood.
Universities represent a greater problem as they are 24 hour social institutions and there is the added complication that they drive significant population movements in and out of university towns. Whether universities will be able to fully open for the new term in September is a big unknown currently.
Retail Businesses reopening
Reopening of some retail businesses and encouraging those offices and other workplaces who can maintain social distancing to open again is likely to be the first phase of easing, sometime in the latter part of May. This should include encouraging more restaurants to open for takeaway and delivery. Strict social distancing and protective measures will need to be in place, limiting the number of people in shops at any one time for example.
Leisure and hospitality businesses reopening
It is unlikely that reopening of leisure and hospitality businesses will happen in the first phase given the nature of these places encouraging social gathering. Our best guestimate is some easing over the summer, but only if we have not seen any flare up in the virus before then.
The stay at home order
This will likely remain in place for vulnerable people for some time. In the first phase we expect a loosening of the order but not a total relaxation. The amount of time people can spend outside will increase as well as the guidelines on what activities can be undertaken, but we do not expect a full easing. These may be eased further each 3 weeks depending on the R number remaining below 1. There have been reports of wider but still family groups being allowed to meet and socialise.
Work from Home
We expect the work from home if you can order is to remain the general advice to businesses for some considerable time.
Travelling outside your area
People are effectively limited from travelling outside their area by the current stay at home order. Population movement will be a significant challenge and unlikely to be eased in the short term. The big question here is whether the stay at home order may be eased but with other restrictions on population movement being put in place. This will be a major decision for the government to make before the summer holiday season, the impact on the tourist economy is already huge and we suspect if the virus is being contained come July then there will be pressure on the government to allow people to holiday within the UK, however we have heard very little on this topic so it is difficult to judge.
These were almost certainly likely to remain banned for the best part of the year. We expect some easing allowing larger family groups to interact and visit each other in either phase 1 or phase 2. i.e. people may be able to pick 5-10 close family members or friends they elect to be able to socialise with. We expect the number of people allowed at weddings etc to remain limited.
Public transport is a major issue, as for cities it represents a bottle neck to social distancing. While shops and businesses may be able to maintain social distancing, for employees and shoppers to get to them may mean maintaining social distancing on public transport becomes a problem. We haven’t seen any suggestions to a solution on this.
The other variable factor in considering how quickly and how much lockdown measures can be eased will be contact tracing.
Contact tracing means that as soon as someone is diagnosed with Covid-19, everybody they have been in contact with in the previous 7-14 days is traced, found and ordered to stay in isolation.
Again, this is about reducing the R number. By contact tracing, while the first patient may have infected 3 other people, those three other people are isolated early enough to stop them spreading it to the next 3 people, reducing the reinfection rate.
The government has developed and app and is hiring 18,000 people to act as contact tracers announced it expects this to be complete by mid-May. Contact tracing will not be ready in time to impact what we see as the first phase of easing, but if successful it would allow the government to further in easing in later phases. The success of contact tracing may not be statistically apparent until late June or July but might allow some of the easing such as allowing people to holiday within the UK to happen.
The reports of people being able to meet and socialised with an identified group of up to 10 people would support the government in their ability to contact trace quickly in the event of an infection in the group arising.
The success of this will depend on having a good process and technology in place and of course the will of the people to support it.
Worst Case scenario
The worst case is that even some easing of the lockdown causes another surge in the infection rate and we are back to square 1.
Extension of government support measures
Based on the above we expect most of the government support measures to be extended beyond June and into July at least. Support for the hospitality and leisure sectors may have to last even longer.