The Speaker
Sunday, 21 July 2024 – 08:12
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Coronavirus: What could happen next?

Its been another week of fast-changing Coronavirus restrictions in the United Kingdom, with cases of the virus back on the rise.

This week, large parts of Northern England saw their restrictions tightened, and while not a full lockdown, the restrictions are definitely significant – especially for those who planning to celebrate Eid just hours after they were announced. It’s now illegal for separate households to meet in each other’s houses or gardens in Greater Manchester, East Lancashire and parts of West Yorkshire.

We also saw travel restrictions change this week, with both Spain and Luxembourg removed from the ‘travel corridors’ list at short notice. Arrivals to the UK from the countries not on that list have to quarantine for 14 days – the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is also now advising against all but essential travel to Spain and Luxembourg.

The changes came with the government concerned about rises in Coronavirus cases and fearing a potential ‘second-spike’ of COVID-19 infections. The changes to restrictions have been supported by Labour, though the communication over them has been heavily criticised, with there being confusing, late-night announcements multiple times during the week. 

As well as immediate changes to restrictions, we’ve heard a bit this week about plans for protecting the public from the virus as winter draws closer. The jury is of course still out on what impact the pandemic will have during the Autumn and Winter months, but many have expressed fears that the public and health system may be badly hit by the Coronavirus pandemic in addition to the normal winter flu season.

Many will be hoping that a Coronavirus vaccine is just around the corner and at least so far, vaccine trials in Oxford have shown positive results. There have been suggestions that a vaccine could be ready by the end of the year, though many have cited this as particularly optimistic – even if a vaccine does work and is available by the end of the year, it’s very unlikely that the majority of the wider public will get vaccinated before 2021. Boris Johnson recently said that he wanted to see a “significant return to normality” by Christmas, but with a second-spike of Coronavirus cases now looking a rather real possibility, that statement could now be seen as short-sighted. Indeed, speaking on Friday, First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford said: “We are facing the likelihood of a resurgence of the virus over the autumn and winter –this will not be over by Christmas.”

So, with a second-spike of cases looking likely, what could happen next?


A new lockdown?

Another national lockdown isn’t off the cards – but it is no doubt something that the Government will be wanting to avoid. The economic impacts of months of lockdown have already been catastrophic for many sectors of the UK economy and the effects are expected to be felt for some time to come. 

During the lockdown, the government helped millions of people through its Job Retention (furlough) scheme. The scheme was extended by the Chancellor until October, but any further extension or a new version of the scheme probably just isn’t viable. The scheme itself was highly unprecedented, with the government paying 80% of the wages of millions of employees up and down the country.  According to data from the Treasury, the scheme has already cost £30 billion and that number is expected to rise over the coming months.

What is perhaps more likely than a national lockdown is multiple sets of regional restrictions. The government has already announced a strategy of local lockdowns to tackle the virus and this week’s changes to restrictions suggest that we could soon be looking at more regional restrictions – or perhaps regional lockdowns if infection rates rise particularly high.


Closings in order to reopen?

‘Headroom’ has been one of the words used to describe how much governments can ease Coronavirus restrictions, without then seeing the virus become uncontrollable. 

There have been suggestions in recent days that pubs and restaurants could close again in order to allow schools to reopen in September. There isn’t anything in particular about pubs and restaurants that are stopping schools from reopening, but it follows the theory of closing down one area of potential infections and opening another. Reopening too many parts of society could increase the spread of the virus and potentially put the NHS under too much pressure. 

The closing of pubs and restaurants has just been one suggestion – if anything is closed, it will be a difficult decision for the government with it likely putting more jobs on the line in already economically challenging times.


Age-based and health-based restrictions

It is believed that some more ‘extreme’ plans have been under consideration in Downing Street that could see restrictions set out for people of different ages and with different health conditions.

Placing restrictions based on the risk people face from the virus could help to protect the economy and allow some normality for those facing the least risk from the virus. There would, of course, be major challenges though – not least how to police restrictions. Scientific evidence around the virus is also still developing and changing, so whether someone is at significant risk from the virus can still be a topic of debate.

While shielding paused in England on Saturday, there have been suggestions that millions of people aged 50-70 with certain health conditions could be asked to shield from the virus in the future. Shielding is being increasingly described as unethical and if any such policy was to be put in place, there would no doubt be huge questions asked about how it would work and if it would be effective.


Data has suggested in the last week that a large proportion of Coronavirus infections are being spread in household settings – it seems a strong possibility that visiting friends and families in indoor settings could soon be banned in more parts of the UK to try and control the virus. And it would appear from the changes to the ‘travel corridors’ that the UK Government now doesn’t want to take many risks either in terms of people arriving from abroad.

This week has shown how quickly things can change in this pandemic and how quickly new restrictions can take hold of our lives. While nobody quite knows what will happen next in the pandemic, trends are starting to show and what might happen in the winter is starting to be discussed more and become more apparent.

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