Coronavirus: How can the UK lockdown end? Is it likely to be extend into May?

16 April 2020, 06:27

The lockdown has been happening for three weeks
The lockdown has been happening for three weeks. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

The Government is expected to extend the current Covid-19 lockdown measures on Thursday, but what are the key factors behind the restrictions being lifted?

Dominic Raab is expected to chair a meeting of Ministers and senior advisers where a further three weeks of coronavirus social distancing controls are agreed, amid signs the epidemic in the UK is beginning to peak.

Number 10 has said the three-week review of regulations will happen as planned while Prime Minister Boris Johnson recovers from the virus at Chequers.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said the party will back an extension but has called on ministers to set out an "exit strategy" explaining how they will eventually be lifted.

Who are the key people in the decision making?

The cabinet, guided by scientific and economic experts. Occupational health officials, workplace representatives and people from the education sector, among others, could also have some level of input.

What data will guide the decision to ease the lockdown?

Officials will be closely monitoring the spread of the virus through hospital admission data, death figures and other information from across the health and care sector.

One of the main considerations will be whether Britain has succeeded in its attempts to "flatten the curve" - or significantly slowed down transmission of the virus.

Real-world evidence from other countries as they emerge out of lockdown will also be important, as will predictions made by epidemiologists and other researchers.

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Where could things ease and where will it be harder to lift restrictions?

Travel to outdoor spaces could be one of the first restrictions lifted - as long as social distancing is properly adhered to.

But visiting loved ones in care homes could be off the table for some time.

Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh said: "One of the things being looked at is outdoor activities - there is not a great deal of evidence that this virus transmits very well outdoors. It thrives in institutions - hospitals, care homes, prisons, cruise ships.

"My personal view is that if people are social distancing properly and if people are properly self isolating if they have got symptoms - so they're not going anywhere if they have got symptoms - then outdoor activities something we should be looking at.

"As far as I'm concerned, if people get out of their house, into their car, drive to a park, do their business with social distancing in mind, and then come back, the risks of that are very low."

Play areas in parks would still be off limits as it is difficult to teach children social distancing.

But on visits to elderly relatives in care homes, he added: "At the moment, I think it is difficult to do that safely."

What role will testing play in easing the lockdown?

Experts agree that much more testing is needed to get the UK out of lockdown.

The great hope is that an antibody test will soon prove reliable enough to be sold on the high street so that those people who have had the virus can resume normal life.

But so far none of these tests have been deemed good enough for widespread use.

Once the virus is circulating at a low level, experts also hope to return to contact tracing in the hope of controlling future outbreaks.

Sian Griffiths, emeritus professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and co-chair of the Hong Kong government's Sars inquiry, said: "A vigorous testing programme with isolation and follow up of contacts of positive cases - much as during the containment phase of the epidemic - will be needed at least in the initial period as a safeguard against re-emergence of outbreaks in the community."

Would it help to certify those who have had it?

There are a number of factors which need to come to fruition before so-called "immunity passports" are effective tools.

Dr Will Ponsonby, president of the Society of Occupational Medicine, said: "The current antigen testing only identifies those who are currently infected, it would require daily testing.

"Certification would rely on effective antibody testing. Currently, no antibody test has been passed in the UK as being effective."

What measures could the Government impose to lift restrictions?

Social distancing measures could still be required as lockdown gradually lifts, for instance, people may be advised to maintain the two-metre distance from one another while out in the community.

Some countries have imposed the use of face masks but the World Health Organisation does not recommend these for the general public.

The shielding of people with serious health problems could also continue longer than the initial period of 12 weeks proposed by the Government.

Officials may also look to invest heavily in public health initiatives to encourage people to lead healthier lives - people with some pre-existing conditions are more likely to suffer serious illness if they become ill with Covid-19.

What are the dangers of lifting the restrictions?

"The obvious danger of the easing of lockdown is failure to take into account the potential risks of re-emergence of the virus and working conditions, school timetables etc may need to be adapted to protect against this risk," Prof Griffiths added.

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