How the UK got into and out of – and back into – a national lockdown
On March 23, Boris Johnson placed the UK on a police-enforced lockdown with drastic measures in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak.
The Prime Minister ordered people only to leave their homes under a list of “very limited purposes”, banning mass gatherings and ordering the closure of non-essential shops.
Mr Johnson announced his phase two strategy on May 10, outlining a gradual easing of the restrictions, rather than a wholesale lifting of the lockdown. However, reaction to his speech was fierce, with many accusing the Prime Minister of confusing the British public.
On May 11, Mr Johnson published his “roadmap” to leave lockdown, setting out a three-phase strategy to gradually lift the current restrictions.
Mr Johnson later announced on May 28 that the five tests to ease lockdown had been met, confirming that gatherings of up to six people could take place in outdoor spaces from June 1.
On June 23 – exactly three months after the country was put into lockdown – Mr Johnson hailed the beginning of the end of Britain’s “national hibernation”.
The Prime Minister allowed families and friends to mingle indoors and even go on holiday together from July 4. This day, which became known as Super Saturday, also saw pubs, restaurants and hairdressers reopen, as the two metre social distancing rule was reduced to one metre.
But Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, warned that many of new social distancing measures would have to remain in place “until this time next year” because a coronavirus vaccine is still a long way off.
On July 17, Mr Johnson set out his roadmap for ending lockdown, which allowed remaining leisure facilities to reopen and all beauty treatments to resume from August 1. Mr Johnson also relaxed official guidance advising people to “work from home if you can” in a bid to restart the economy.
The government is keen to avoid another blanket lockdown. However, preventing a national lockdown will depend on how effectively the Government can respond if the infection rate rises quickly in multiple areas of the UK.
As of September 14, gatherings of more than six people are banned in England. The Government has introduced these tough new measures to combat a sharp rise in coronavirus infection rates.
On September 22, the Prime Minister announced a raft of new measures including a 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants, a 15-person cap on weddings and a return to working at home for office workers, which are likely to remain in place until March, a year on from the start of lockdown.
As the rate of new cases showed no sign of slowing, Mr Johnson announced on October 12 a new three-tier system of local lockdowns.
Faced with rising infections, Mr Johnson announced a new national lockdown across England on Saturday 31 October, after a rapid rise in coronavirus cases. The new measures came into effect on Thursday 5 November and will last until Wednesday 2 December.
On November 11, the Department of Education introduced a ‘student travel window’ between December 3 – 9, during which universities should organise the staggered departure of students back home for Christmas so as not to overload the public transport system.
How might we prevent another lockdown in the future?
On November 9th, the UK welcomed the news of an exciting new coronavirus vaccine from Germany, known as the Pfizer vaccine. This scientific breakthrough, which is over 90 per cent effective in preventing Covid-19, may prevent national lockdowns in the future.
On November 20, Pfizer/ BioNTech sent their vaccine for emergency approval in the US and the Health Secretary asked British regulators to start their assessment.
British regulators will receive full safety data on Monday and the vaccine is ready to be shipped ‘within hours’ of approval, meaning the UK may start implementing the vaccine by mid-December.
The Government is in talks with Derby City Council about using Derby Arena as one of the first locations for administering the Pfizer vaccine.
A mass rollout of Covid-19 vaccinations is also expected to start on December 9 in Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, but only if the vaccine is approved by the Government.
On November 28, Boris Johnson appointed Nadhim Zahawi as a health minister responsible for the deployment of the coronavirus vaccine.
Meanwhile, scientists at the University of Oxford have said they hope to have vaccine results by Christmas and confirmed regulators are conducting a so-called “rolling review” to speed up the process.
Prof Sarah Gilbert, lead researcher of Oxford’s vaccine development programme, said the team had already been in contact with several regulators to give them information to assess before Oxford produce a final clinical data set.
Moderna has also revealed a vaccine which was up to 95 per cent effective in trials. Combined with the Oxford and Pfizer vaccine, the UK authorities have ordered enough shots to vaccinate most of the population.
With a majority of the population vaccinated, we would be able to avoid a lockdown in the future.
However, despite this promising breakthrough, the Prime Minister has emphasised the need for caution, as the vaccine is still in its “very, very early days”. Johnson then went on to stress the need for the current lockdown restrictions, saying:
“The biggest mistake we could make now would be to slacken our resolve at a critical moment.”
“This winter will be hard, so this will not have a big impact on the infection numbers,” Professor Uğur Şahin told the BBC.
Professor Sahin admitted that he expects the antibody response in patients “will decline over time”, but mooted the idea of combining vaccines for people who no longer had an immune response.
Head of the Imperial College vaccine programme, Professor Robin Shattock, has also told Sky that “one vaccine isn’t going to be enough” to tackle Covid-19.
“We need as many vaccine candidates as possible for a number of reasons,” he said.
“We don’t know if [the Pfizer vaccine] will be effective in all different groups, so the more vaccine candidates we have, the better the toolbox is.”
Prof Shattock described it as an “incredibly complex operation” to distribute a vaccine to the most vulnerable groups, while convincing the population that a vaccine is safe.
“I think the biggest danger now that we’ve got a vaccine is that people may stop taking it seriously,” he added. “We need to remind people that it’s not all over until enough people have received the vaccine, and that we really know it works.”
A mutation of coronavirus in Denmark linked to mink may also impact the effectiveness of a vaccine.
Professor Wendy Barkley – an Imperial virology scientist who sits on the Government’s Sage committee has expressed her concerns.
“If mutations affecting the way antibodies can see the virus, maybe the vaccines we’re generating now won’t work quite as well as we’d hoped,” she told The Andrew Marr Show.
“But this might turn out to be a rather one-off situation. It doesn’t mean vaccines won’t work at all. If we think this might be the case, then a vaccine platform which is very adaptable and fast-responding could be the best of the different platforms.
“We really do need to understand whether these mutations are going to significantly effect the way these antibodies can work.”
New guidance issued by American health officials has also offered some insight into why Covid-19 outbreaks have been more severe in the European countries, such as the UK.
The US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) has said that cloth face masks help shield the wearer from coronavirus infection and are not just to protect surrounding people. The guidelines go well beyond earlier declarations that masks should be worn in consideration of others, and say they prevent the wearer breathing in virus carrying water droplets.
The health body suggested that the failure of America and European nations to grasp quickly the protective importance of masks could be the reason Covid-19 outbreaks have been far worse than in Asian countries who managed to quickly subdue the virus.
What else is being done?
Free vitamins for the elderly and vulnerable: On November 28, health officials shared that over 2.5 million vulnerable people across England will be given free Vitamin D supplements to assist them through the winter months. Those in care homes and those who are categorised as clinically extremely vulnerable will be offered the vitamin, which is renewed for its bone and muscle health benefits.
Normally, the skin produces Vitamin D after spending time in the sunlight; however, those at most risk have spent a significant amount of time inside while shielding from Covid-19. Officials suggest that everybody should consume 10 micrograms of Vitamin D over the winter period, however, there is no evidence that vitamin D will protect against catching, or treating the virus.