The failure of England’s Test and Trace system means we will be in and out of lockdowns for some time

Whether we will come of the 4-week lockdown on schedule will depend on how low the government’s Covid-19 strategy brings the R-value for the country. The R value is the average number of people that each new case of Covid-19 infects. If the R value for England is less than one, the daily number of cases will start to fall; and if the R value is greater than one, the daily number of cases will continue to increase. Once the R value is below one, and the daily number of cases start to fall, the number of people being admitted to hospital and the number of deaths will also start to fall.

There is though a lag before the number of hospital admissions and deaths begin to fall. This is because it can take 1-2 weeks from becoming infected before a person is unwell enough to need hospital treatment. There is then as further period of time before death. Hence, case numbers start to fall first, followed by the number of people admitted to hospital and then finally, the number of people dying from Covid=19.

The “nightmare scenario” that we will face is that the new lockdown measures are not strict enough or people do not comply with them, meaning that the R value stays above one and the numbers of cases, hospital admissions and deaths do not fall. This will mean continuing restrictions after the 4-week lockdown period ends. Even if the number of Covid-19 cases does fall to a more manageable level by the end of the lockdown, there will still be ongoing restrictions on social activities, resulting in Christmas 2020 being very different from a normal Christmas.

It’s also possible that we will see future waves of Covid-19 infection after lockdown measures are relaxed – as we saw earlier in the year – meaning that we may get further lockdowns followed by periods of relaxation of lockdown measures. Unfortunately, ever since the start of the pandemic, England’s Test and Trace system has not worked well enough to suppress local outbreaks promptly and keep the number of cases low – as we have seen in countries such as New Zealand, Taiwan and South Korea.

Hence, this cycle of lockdowns and restrictions of activities, followed by some loosening of these restrictions, may not end until we have a safe and effective vaccine that can finally bring Covid-19 under control in England and across the rest of the world. The encouraging news is that the early results about the safety and effectiveness of the new vaccines being developed for Covid-19 are very positive; and we may be able to launch a large-scale vaccine programme in the United Kingdom very soon. This vaccine programme is going to be complex and challenging to deliver but the NHS does have the expertise to do this.