What is the Coronavirus traffic light system?

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Photo credit: Alexander Spatari - Getty Images
Photo credit: Alexander Spatari - Getty Images

From Harper's BAZAAR

Pressure is being piled on the government to announce a plan for how the country moves out of the coronavirus pandemic-necessitated lockdown. There has been much speculation as to what that will look like, and one story that's been doing the rounds in recent days is regarding a so-called coronavirus 'traffic light system'

Touted as a possible exit strategy and reported on by the national press, it is a proposal from a pair of academics that involves a staggered release of the UK population from living under (save from grocery shopping and outdoor exercise) effective house arrest. But where did it come from, is it legitimate and is there a chance of it actually being implemented?

What is the coronavirus traffic light system?

The coronavirus traffic light system is one of a number of proposals crafted by experts dedicated to getting the UK out of lockdown. It has been submitted to the government by two economists at University College London (UCL). Professor Paul Ormerod and Dr Gerard Lyons' paper maps out a road back to 'normal life', which they posit could resume over three stages. At present, the government denies that this plan is set to be followed.

The proposal from the two experts, per UCL, looks like this:

Red phase (1 May)

  • Deliberately called red to ensure people think before they act

  • Visiting friends and family allowed, but no visits to grandparents

  • More – but not all – types of shops could open and they would have to exercise strict social distancing, as most supermarkets do now

  • Travel should still be discouraged and many international flights banned

Amber phase (22 May)

  • Private car travel no longer limited

  • In order to minimise pressure on public transport, and crowds, there would have to be attempts to vary the rush-hour, with different opening and closing times

  • Wearing masks and disposable gloves could be compulsory when using public transport

  • Restaurants could reopen but with strict seating demarcations, to uphold social distancing

  • Home working advised for those that can

Green phase (13 June)

  • Public fully released from lockdown if health experts allowed it

  • Sporting events or mass gatherings could take place, and places of worship re open

  • International travel could return to normal

"A lockdown is necessary to limit the spread of the virus and save lives, but it is not feasible or practical to prolong it for too long," Professor Ormerod said of the proposal. "A long lockdown will wipe out large swathes of the economy. There will be a negative impact both financially and mentally on too many people.

"While full support must be provided to the health specialists, on a parallel track the economic experts should be planning now, for an exit strategy from the lockdown and for a restarting of the economy. This has to be in addition to the implementation of policy, to minimise the hit to income and to demand."

Will the coronavirus traffic light system be implemented?

Right now, it doesn't sound that way. On 19 April, senior minister Michael Gove denied reports that this is set to be used.

When asked if it was correct that the government was considering a 'traffic light' strategy to ease the country out of lock-down measures, Gove told journalist Sophy Ridge: "No, it is not."

The minister elaborated, saying that the government is 'looking at all of the evidence,' and that "We've set some tests which need to be passed before we can think of easing restrictions in this lockdown."

"We're looking at the data, it is the case that the rate of infection appears to be flattening, but we do not want to take steps too early because the most important thing is to make sure that the NHS and the public's health is protected."

What does a public health expert think about the proposal?

Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, is sceptical that this specific plan would be the one taken up. "The government has formal advisors, such as SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), and will be discussing multiple plans with these groups. Modelling is now underway to map out various scenarios, and, right now, it's clear that they [the Cabinet] are not ready to commit to one set of measures," she says.

Professor Bauld adds that she has 'no doubt' that the UCL plans have been seen by the government, but stresses that theirs will be one of many options.

"My opinion is that the timeline from UCL is very optimistic – I can't see the public being fully released by June. And the "traffic light system" [terminology] might smack too much of things like food labelling and other not so successful measures. However, if we look at what other countries are doing, they are releasing the population in staggered ways, so a phased approach is likely. Officials from the Czech Republic have released their stages of lock-down relaxation today, for example."

Photo credit: Christian Vierig - Getty Images
Photo credit: Christian Vierig - Getty Images

So, what might the UK's staggered release plan look like? Professor Bauld notes that each country's priorities will have an impact on what goes first – for example, in Germany, vehicle production is to start back up this week, while in Denmark and Norway, there's a focus on education, with schools and nurseries top of the agenda.

Robert Dingwall, Professor of Sociology at Nottingham Trent University explains that key to a phased approach would be working out how we know to move from stage to stage.

"We need to think about what has actually contributed to interrupting virus transmission," he says. "Probably not school closures or sunbathing in parks. What presents manageable risks? Could we restart the Premier League by only using one seat in every three and enforcing sitting in them? What is clearly high risk? Probably pubs but not pub gardens, providing they are not overcrowded. What risks should people be allowed to decide for themselves? Fit over 70s with no co-morbidity choosing to go out, shop, meet grandchildren, etc?"

When will a plan on lockdown easing be announced?

Right now, we do not know. Professor Bauld notes that Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has said that she hopes for a Scottish strategy to be published this week, but that Westminster has not committed, yet. "Pressure is building, though," she says – and mentions that the next two weeks could be when we see some signs from Downing Street way.

There are also six criteria that the World Health Organisation (WHO) says that countries should meet before lifting lockdown restrictions. This includes that transmission of the virus is 'controlled' and that systems are in place to 'detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact.'

Short story? When it comes to segueing, little-by-little, back into life as it was before, the tale is likely going to be more complex than we like to think. To regurgitate the key coronavirus-era cliche: this is a marathon, not a sprint.

Disclaimer: The information in this story is accurate as of the publication date. While we are attempting to keep our content as up-to-date as possible, the situation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic continues to develop rapidly, so it's possible that some information and recommendations may have changed since publishing. For any concerns and latest advice, visit the World Health Organisation. If you're in the UK, the National Health Service can also provide useful information and support, while US users can contact the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

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