For and against: which coronavirus strategy is best for Norfolk?
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
Nationwide lockdown? Circuit breaker? Or strive for herd immunity?
The list of possibilities being banded around in terms of the next step in combatting coronavirus is seemingly ever-growing.
Moreover it has become increasingly confusing, with politicians publicly squabbling and an endless hotchpotch of medical “experts” adamant their solution is the way forward.
So, just what are the options available to Norfolk and Waveney, and what benefits or downsides would they bring?
Here, Tom Chapman takes a look at each potential measure and runs the rule on their suitability.
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Full-scale national lockdown
A way of life we all became uncomfortably familiar with for several months of this year.
Nationwide lockdown would see us return to the kinds of rules imposed in March, when the government’s ‘stay at home’ mantra was born and Boris Johnson gave that historic address to the nation.
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It means people would only be allowed to go out for very limited reasons.
A widespread lockdown is arguably the most efficient way to prevent the spread of Covid-19
By tightly restricting social contact, the chance of transmission is dramatically reduced - in turn saving thousands lives and preventing the NHS from becoming overwhelmed.
In April, when the virus had taken hold, more than 1,000 people died every day in the UK for 22 consecutive days
However, from there, the death toll continually declined during the summer months as measures had the desired effect.
Many even highlighted the joys of lockdown, which served as an opporunity to spend more time with close family, learn new skills and paint that pesky garden fence.
The very obvious drawback and first thought of millions of workers and businesses across the country is economic disaster.
Business leaders from across Norfolk united in recent weeks to urge the government not to re-impose draconian stay-at-home rules, highlighting inevitable job losses and a “devastating” impact on livelihoods.
Then there is the issue of mental health, with a survey carried out by this newspaper revealing 72pc of young had struggled during the crisis.
Much of it stemmed from worries over their education and, once again, the sector would likely suffer again in the event of another lockdown.
The government has previously insisted that schools will not shut for a second time, but Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said last month that the policy would be “looked at again” if cases surged.
There is, of course, the matter of freedom being diminished, as some anti-lockdown protestors have been keen to point out.
Recent developments have seen us become more accustomed to the concept of local lockdowns.
England is now in the midst of a new tier system comprising risk levels of ‘medium’, ‘high’ and ‘very high’, with Norfolk and Waveney currently in the former category.
The higher the risk, the tougher the measures.
The nation’s first local lockdown was imposed in Leicester in July, when non-essential shops, salons, gyms and restaurants had to remain closed while rules loosened elsewhere.
Like a nationwide lockdown, local restrictions have significant potential to limit the transmission of coronavirus.
And, unlike a national lockdown, they prevent areas of the country where the disease is relatively under control from grinding to a halt.
From Norfolk and Waveney’s perspective, the three-tier system - as opposed to a blanket shutdown - is favourable, as the virus is far less prevalent compared to other areas.
As a result the region’s economy can, for the most part, continue to thrive and operate as normal...
... to an extent.
While local lockdowns currently serve to protect the interests of Norfolk and Waveney, the region is far from a sovereign state and requires external support in order to function.
Countless businesses and attractions require the custom of visitors in order to survive, and taking that away could push them towards financial ruin.
Then again, local lockdowns have failed to dissuade some people from travelling further afield which, technically, there is no law against in much of the country.
That, however, presents a health risk, with MP Duncan Baker suggesting there should be a travel ban on people from places with a high infection rate entering areas such as north Norfolk, where rates remain low.
A so-called circuit breaker would see the country enter some form of stringent lockdown, with restrictions similar to those imposed in March.
The mini lockdown would likely last two to three weeks and has been advocated by, among others, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
It emerged this week that the government rejected advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) three weeks ago, when they called for a circuit breaker.
At Sage’s September 21 meeting, experts said the policy would be the best way to prevent a further rise in Covid-19 cases.
Minutes from the meeting revealed advisers had warned of a “very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences” if immediate action was not taken.
And this week, Paul Hunter, a medical professor at the UEA, said implementing a circuit breaker would help Norwich and the rest of Norfolk avoid emulating the worst-hit areas of the country, such as Liverpool and Nottingham.
Taking this route would suppress transmission of the virus and should relieve pressure on the NHS.
The negatives of a circuit breaker are comparable to that of a full-scale lockdown, only for a shorter period of time.
Sage’s recent advice suggested banning social contact with members of other households inside their homes, as well as closing all bars, restaurants, cafes, indoor gyms and hairdressers.
All university and college classes would also be taught online.
However, Prof Hunter highlighted that the impact of a mini lockdown would not be instantaneous and may not have the desired effect in the long run.
Although temporary, there would be discernible impact on the economy and general freedom.
Effectively the flip-side of a national lockdown, herd immunity is the argument that we should simply let nature take its course.
This means there would be no restrictions on normal life and the virus, ultimately, would be allowed to flourish.
The argument in favour of herd immunity is that allowing a large portion of the population to contract the virus will see them become immune.
As a result, the chances of sudden peaks in winter months are supposedly reduced.
In mid-March, when the threat of Covid-19 was coming into view, England’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance advocated herd immunity to help prevent wider transmission in the future.
He said: “We want to ... allow enough of us who are going to get mild illness to become immune to this to help with the whole population response, which would help everybody.”
Adopting a policy of herd immunity would evidently strengthen the economy, protect jobs and allow us to enjoy freedoms we cherish.
Opting to pursue herd immunity by exposing the population to coronavirus would see the government treading on ethically unsteady ground.
While it is expected most healthy people would experience only mild symptoms, others would endure serious illness and lives would be lost.
As recently as this week, the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Ghebreyesus, ruled out such a response due to a lack of scientific evidence and ethical issues.
“Letting Covid-19 circulate unchecked therefore means allowing unnecessary infections, suffering and death,” he said.
“Herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus, not by exposing them to it.
“Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic.”