Will there be a fourth COVID lockdown?

·5-min read
A woman walks past the National Covid Memorial Wall on the Embankment in London, following the further easing of lockdown restrictions in England. Picture date: Monday May 3, 2021.
A woman walks past the National Covid Memorial Wall on the Embankment in London, following the further easing of lockdown restrictions in England. (PA)

Boris Johnson has not ruled out the prospect of further lockdowns again as he says the UK faces a "rough winter".  

The prime minister said on Monday it is “looking good” for 19 July to be the “terminus point” to England’s coronavirus restrictions.

But Johnson also did not rule out putting the country back under lockdown later this year, despite previously saying lifting lockdown would be "irreversible".

He said: “You can never exclude that there will be some new disease, some new horror that we simply haven't budgeted for or accounted for.

Read more: When could double-vaccinated people face fewer COVID restrictions?

"Obviously there are big pressures on the NHS, which is all the more reason to reduce the number of COVID cases now, give the NHS the breathing space it needs to get on with dealing with all those other pressures."

Daily confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK. (PA)
Daily confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK. (PA)

He added: "We're certainly going to be putting in the investment to make sure that they can," but said the country could be in for a "rough winter for all sorts of reasons".

It comes after several experts warned a fourth lockdown may be needed.

Potential lockdowns in winter

Sage member Professor Calum Semple said children and elderly people will be vulnerable to other endemic viruses in the coming months, with the possibility of a “fourth wave winter”.

Semple told Times Radio on Sunday morning: “I suspect we’ll have a pretty miserable winter because the other respiratory viruses are going to come back and bite us quite hard. But after that, I think we’ll be seeing business as normal next year.

Watch: Boris Johnson won't rule out further lockdowns this winter

“There’s a sting in the tail after every pandemic because social distancing will have reduced exposure, particularly of pregnant women and their newborn babies, they will have not been exposed to the usual endemic respiratory viruses.”

He said diseases like bronchiolitis and pneumonia that have no vaccine mean the scientists are “predicting a rough July, August and then a rough winter period.”

Government adviser Dr Susan Hopkins also warned at the weekend that there may be the need for winter lockdowns if hospitals become "overwhelmed".

She told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show: “We may have to do further lockdowns this winter, I can’t predict the future, it really depends on whether the hospitals start to become overwhelmed at some point.

“But I think we will have alternative ways to manage this, through vaccination, through antivirals, through drugs, through testing that we didn’t have last winter.

Covid-19 vaccine doses in the UK. (PA)
Covid-19 vaccine doses in the UK. (PA)

“All of those things allow us different approaches rather than restrictions on livelihoods that will move us forward into the next phase of learning to live with this as an endemic that happens as part of the respiratory viruses.”

Criticism of lockdowns

Other experts have criticised the government’s response to the pandemic, saying the country can “live with the virus” with an effective NHS test and trace system combined with adequate financial support for those needing to isolate.

Anthony Costello, director of the Institute for Global Health at the University College London, has previously argued that contract tracing and isolation support are key to helping the country cope with coronavirus.

In response to Hopkins's comments on lockdown, he tweeted: “On BBC, Dr Susan Hopkins, strategic response director for Covid-19 at PHE, argued we have to live with coronavirus, like influenza. But 'We may have to do further lockdowns this winter'. This is not public health strategy. No mention of contact tracing + isolation support."

Meanwhile, Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at Edinburgh University Medical School, tweeted: “Another lockdown in winter would be unthinkable. We must get things in order now instead of accepting rises in hospitalizations & then lockdown as inevitable.

“The harms of lockdown are huge and we now have vaccines, testing, and isolation measures to avoid blanket restrictions.”

More government support

The group of scientists who make up the unofficial Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergenices (Sage) have also taken this line of argument in the past.

In a paper published on its website last week, the group attacked comments made by the prime minister about people needing to use their own “common sense” during the pandemic.

The scientists said this attitude is “dangerous” since it puts the emphasis on the public and off what the government must do.

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They said: “While it is quite right to propose that people get vaccinated, tested and observe COVID safeguards, it is quite wrong to suggest that they do so on their own.

“So while the lifting of restrictions may lead to an increased emphasis on the public appraising and responding to risks, this cannot work if the government fails to provide (or worse, removes) the forms of support which are necessary for members of the public 'to do the right thing'."

In the paper, Independent Sage also outlined various forms of support the government should continue to provide after lockdown restrictions are eased.

These include paid time off to get vaccinated, for those suffering from the effects of the vaccine, for those who need to get tested if symptomatic and for those asked to self-isolate.

Watch: What is long COVID?

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