The First Minister has said they are “planning very seriously” for a circuit breaker lockdown for Wales.
There are currently local lockdown restrictions in several areas of Wales, but a circuit breaker would be a short, set period of maybe two or three weeks, where tighter restrictions are brought in to break the trajectory of rising coronavirus cases.
Mark Drakeford has said they are “very actively talking about and preparing for that should it be necessary”, following an announcement in Northern Ireland that a four-week breaker will be enforced from Friday. Pubs and restaurants there will have to shut unless they offer a takeaway service, but places of worship, shops and gyms can stay open.
The half-term holiday in Northern Ireland has also been extended by a week, so that from Monday school are shut for two weeks, but it is currently unclear if that would also happen in Wales. A decision on schools is “under consideration” but no decision has yet been made.
Here, we explain the thinking behind a circuit-breaker, what it could involve and the benefits and disadvantages:
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 short-circuit, preventing fire and other damage.
A circuit-breaker lockdown would therefore see people sever almost all contact with people outside their own household by shutting non-essential businesses and cutting social interactions.
How long could it last?
A circuit-breaker, if imposed, would probably last 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.”
In Northern Ireland, they have announced the pubs and restaurants will only be able to serve takeaways for four weeks from Friday (October 16).
Places of worship, shops and gyms can stay open, and schools are to close for two weeks. Overnight says in other homes are also banned.
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Is a circuit-breaker the best option to deal with the continuing rise in cases?
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.
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 in England from October 24. If there is one in Wales, it could be around the similar time as most half-term holidays begin on Friday, October 23.
But in a paper published on Wednesday, it said: “There are no good epidemiological reasons to delay the break as this will simply push back any beneﬁts until later, leaving more time for additional cases to accumulate.”
Dr Richard Stanton, an expert in infection at Cardiff University, says the “only way to stop the spread of coronavirus is by limiting contact between people”.
He says: “We know that the previous lockdown worked well to get cases down. No-one wants to go into those kind of measures again, but if current measures don’t have enough of an impact, then the only solution is to go into a tighter lockdown.
“Doing this for a short period of time buys time, to ensure that hospitals aren’t overwhelmed, and to start getting the level of spread under control again, hopefully without causing too much harm to wider society.”
But he thinks that two weeks is a “relatively short amount of time”, so it’s not going to bring the levels back down to where we were in the summer – it buys a small amount of time, and that time has to be used wisely.
He added: “Test, track, & trace has a critical role to play in allowing some easing of restrictions, while keeping virus spread under control. It’s also important that people who should isolate (following contact with a positive person), do so.”
Are schools in Wales going to close?
A decision has not yet been made but Welsh Government has confirmed it is something that is “under consideration”.
A spokesman for the education department said: “The measures we have put in place at both a local and a national level, with help from the public, have kept the spread of the virus under check.
“However, there is a growing consensus that we now need to introduce a different set of measures and actions to respond to the virus as it is spreading across Wales more quickly through the autumn and winter.
“We are actively considering advice from SAGE and our TAC [Technical Advisory Cell] group. A ‘fire-break’ set of measures to control Covid-19, similar to that described in the SAGE papers, is under consideration in Wales. But no decisions have been made.”
Why would schools have to close?
In Northern Ireland, schools will be closing for two weeks from Monday as part of the circuit breaker.
There has been no decision yet on whether schools in Wales will extend the autumn half term, but some experts think that closing schools for a short time will stop children spreading it.
But Dr Stanton from Cardiff University says it should be a “last resort”.
He said: “We know that younger children don’t get sick very often with the virus, and they don’t spread it as much as older children and adults.
“However this doesn’t mean they don’t spread it at all – we know that they can spread it to classmates and teachers, and those classmates/teachers can spread it to their families and friends. There’s also a risk that parents will spread the virus in the playground.
“So schools are not the highest risk for spread, but they are still a risk. We want to try our best to keep them open, because it’s bad for children’s mental health and education if we don’t, and their parents can’t work from home if the kids are there too, which means accepting that other places (pubs, bars, restaurants, offices) should be closed first. Closing schools as well would then be a last resort.”
What would a circuit-breaker’s impact be on schools?
It is a very difficult subject for teachers.
Some scientists suggest that keeping schools closed for an extra week over half-term would not have a significant impact on learning.
Professor Calum Semple, a senior lecturer in child health at the University of Liverpool, who attends Sage meetings, said that “circuit-breakers are something we should be thinking about on a national basis”.
No decision has yet been made in Wales, but Laura Doel, National Association of Head Teachers’ Cymru director, says: “A decision of this magnitude needs to be based on the advice of medical and scientific experts and it is not for schools to say whether circuit breaks are the right or wrong thing to do.
“What is clear is that if schools were to be part of any planned circuit breaks and close, our concerns would be for vulnerable children taking more time out of school when schools play a vital role in their support network; more time out of education when children have already lost so much and we don’t we don’t know how long that may continue.
“We are also sympathetic to the difficulties this will cause parents, as many school leaders are also parents themselves and having to find childcare at short notice will put more pressure on families.
“There is no doubt that time out of school would be of benefit for school staff, many of who worked throughout the summer holidays to make sure schools were ready for a September return. But the overriding factor needs to be the health benefits from slowing the spread of the virus.
“Any decision on schools needs to be made nationally by the Welsh Government to avoid a mixed picture across Wales, that decision needs to be communicated clearly to schools and parents and it needs to be made to give everyone enough time to prepare for the impact any school closures may have.”
Does a circuit-breaker not force people into each other’s homes more?
Dr Richard Stanton, from Cardiff University says: “Potentially, yes. This is where the success of lockdown is critically dependent on people following the rules – that means not socialising in each other’s homes, and isolating when testing positive.
“Limiting interaction between people who have the virus is the only way we have of keeping virus spread low.
“If people ignore these rules, virus rates increase, hospitals become overwhelmed, and large numbers of people could die, either directly from the virus, or because they have other conditions, that there now isn’t healthcare capacity to deal with.”
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Would pubs, restaurants and shops close?
Dr Stanton, of Cardiff University says: “We know that the virus spreads wherever people are in close contact, particularly if they are indoors, and especially if an area is poorly ventilated.
“Many pubs and restaurants obviously fall into that category. Lots of these places have put in place sensible precautions to reduce virus spread, but they aren’t going to stop it completely.
“Especially when alcohol is involved, people find it harder to socially distance. Added to which, even if people obey the rules in the pub, they might still congregate outside in large groups, or on the way to the pub, adding to spread. So closing pubs and restaurants is a sensible thing to consider as part of attempts to keep spread low.
“The chances of spread in a shop are going to vary widely depending on the shop itself – how easy is it to go to that shop without coming into contact with other people, how well ventilated is it. In a large store, that isn’t too busy, and is well ventilated, I’d imagine that the chances are spread are quite low.
“However, as with pubs, it’s not just about that one single shop. It’s about the whole shopping area – if the shops are open, are lots of people congregating outside, are they queuing for some lunch, are there some shops that are cramped and poorly ventilated. Taken together, even if some shops are relatively safe, having lots of people in town pushes that risk higher.
“So, again, it’s sensible to consider closing them to minimise interactions.
“Obviously with all of these considerations, there is also a risk of harm from closing the shop/restaurant/pub, whether that’s harm to the owners and staff, or to the mental health of the public at large. It’s important we do everything we can to minimise those harms, but unfortunately, unless we keep the rate of virus spread relatively low, the harms from the virus will be far greater.”