Ross Clark

What would we gain from a circuit break?

What would we gain from a circuit break?
(Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
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Could a two-week ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown really ‘save’ nearly 8,000 lives, as is being widely reported this morning? Not according to one of the authors of the paper on which the claim is based. Matt Keeling, a mathematician at the University of Warwick, was questioned on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning about the paper — which predicts that there will be a further 19,900 deaths by the end of the year if no circuit breaker is introduced, falling to 12,100 if we do have a two-week lockdown.

The crucial point is that the figures quoted above relate only to what may happen by the end of 2020. But neither time nor Covid will stop on 31 December. As interviewer Nick Robinson then asked:

Isn't the whole problem with this idea [of a two week lockdown] that it doesn't stop deaths at all… it doesn't stop hospital admissions. Surely it simply postpones them? You stop it briefly. And then what happens, as happened when we came out of lockdown last time, is as soon as we come out of the circuit breaker — the lockdown — up it goes again.

Matt Keeling responded: 

I would completely agree with that. And that's what we say in the paper. We look at what would be the impact between now and the New Year and we stress that this is only a short-term measure. It buys us time to put other things in place. But at the moment, we do need that time.

How much time would a two-week lockdown buy us? This was a crucial detail that was missing from much of yesterday’s reporting on the Sage minutes from 21 September, at which the advisory body came down in favour of such a measure. Yet it was perfectly prominent in the Sage minutes. It was calculated that a two-week national lockdown would succeed in getting infection numbers back to where they had been around 28 days earlier. 

What we would achieve in the time gained from a two-week lockdown is hard to say. If Matt Hancock and Dido Harding have failed to get an effective test and trace system working after six months of trying — according to Sage the system is having only a marginal effect of numbers — then what might they achieve with the extra couple of weeks?

A health warning needs to be placed on all these figures. They are simply pieces modelling and are only as good as the assumptions which go into them. Moreover, what we haven’t seen yet is any modelling of the economic effect of a two-week lockdown. The Prime Minister is reported to have been presented with such modelling by Treasury economists whose findings may well have led him to reject the idea of a circuit-breaker.

That research has not yet been published. But just to run through some figures: in March, before lockdown was imposed, the Office for Budget Responsibility was forecasting a deficit for this financial year of £55 billion. In July, after three months of lockdown, the Institute for Fiscal Studies was forecasting that the deficit would turn out to be £350 billion. On that basis, we might crudely say that lockdown costs the public purse around £25 billion a week — i.e. £50 billion for a two-week circuit break. That’s a pretty stiff price for a could of weeks of delay to the epidemic.

Written byRoss Clark

Ross Clark is a leader writer and columnist who, besides three decades with The Spectator, has written for the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and several other newspapers. His satirical climate change novel, the Denial, is published by Lume Books

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