Five days of freedom ruined last lockdown, say experts

Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the UEA, believes it is the right time for increased social in

Prof Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia. - Credit: Archant © 2013

The last lockdown did not work as well as it could have because leaks of the announcement meant people made the most of their freedom in the run-up - and helped spread coronavirus.

That is the conclusion of scientists at the University of East Anglia, as the country enters its third national lockdown.

The study, which has yet to be peer reviewed, shows how infection rates nationally rose dramatically in the five days before lockdown rules came into effect, as people in Tiers 1 and 2 went out shopping and socialising.

A man walks past a poster in the window of a Primark shop in Manchester, in the final week of a four

The UEA study looked at how the last lockdown worked. - Credit: PA

Covid-19 expert Prof Paul Hunter, from the UEA's Medical School, who led the research, said: "A tier system was introduced in England on October 14, but just three weeks later a national lockdown was implemented on November 5 which should have curbed the spread of the infection.

“People were instructed to stay at home except for specific purposes, non-essential retail was closed, but schools and universities remained open.

"However, news about this new lockdown was widely leaked in the last two days of October.

“This gave people almost a week of ‘freedom’ and it seems that this window caused cases to surge.

“The lockdown ended on December 2 but when we emerged, almost all areas were moved up at least one tier.

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“We wanted to analyse how well the November lockdown worked, which is particularly important as the prime minister has announced a new lockdown starting today to help cope with the surge in cases.”

The research team studied data on new Covid-19 cases across 315 local authorities in England and estimated the virus’ reproductive rate (R value).

University of East Anglia

The study was carried out by scientists at the University of East Anglia. - Credit: Archant

Prof Hunter said: “We found there was a clear surge in infections from a few days before to several days after the lockdown was implemented.

"But this surge was almost exclusively associated with Tier 1 and Tier 2 authorities. In Tier 3, where hospitality venues were only allowed to operate as restaurants, there was no such surge. 

“After this initial surge, cases declined in all three tiers with the R value dropping to a mean of about 0.7 across all tiers.

"But the East of England, London and South East regions saw rising infection rates in the last week or so of lockdown primarily in children of secondary school age.

“In Tiers 1 and 2 much of the beneficial impact of the national lockdown was lost - probably because of the leak of its likely implementation several days before, leading to increased socialising in these areas before the start of lockdown.

“The effectiveness of the tier system has also been challenged by the emergence of the new variant which appears to be much more infectious.

"And we further conclude that given that this new variant is estimated to have an R value of between 0.39 and 0.93 greater than previous variants, any lockdown as strict as the November one would be insufficient to reverse the increase in infections by itself – though it would still slow its increase."

However, the team’s previous research has shown school closures - which do form part of this latest lockdown - had the biggest impact in slowing the spread of Covid-19 in Europe.

The team also looked at whether the mass testing service in Liverpool had helped reduce cases.

And Prof Hunter said: "We could find no obvious benefit of the trial mass screening programme in Liverpool city on the trajectory of the epidemic so the value of city-wide mass testing to control the epidemic remains uncertain.”

Prof Hunter and Dr Julii Brainard were funded by the National Institute for Health Research Health Protection Research Unit in Emergency Preparedness and Response at King’s College London in partnership with Public Health England and collaboration with the University of East Anglia.

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