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Can the UK Avoid Another Christmas Lockdown?

Another cold British winter worries those in charge of the United Kingdom's coronavirus response. British citizens have been increasingly aware of the risk of a similar situation to last winter when the rug was pulled out from beneath them and Prime Minister Boris Johnson rescinded his allowance of a "normal Christmas" just a few days before the holiday. The ease with which the virus thrives in colder climates poses a problem despite the fact that, as of 6 November 2021, 50,199,371 people have received a first dose of the vaccine and 45,812,839 have received their second. Booster vaccinations have also had a successful rollout with 9,653,041 jabs being administered in total.

Despite this, cases of Coronavirus in the UK are causing an intense strain on the National Health Services' resources. Many hospitals in England are already at their peak winter occupancy. Chris Hobson, Chief Executive of NHS Providers, told Times Radio on 31 October 2021 that:

“The bit that’s particularly worrying is… if you look at acute hospitals, where effectively you look at bed occupancy, which is a very good measure of how busy a hospital is, we’re seeing bed occupancy levels, it’s sort of 94, 95, 96% at this point before we’re into peak winter. We’ve not seen that before. That’s unprecedented. So, there’s a real sense that the NHS is going to be under real pressure".

The issue is that the NHS already faces increased admissions during the winter months because of incurring respiratory infections, heart problems and an increase in accidents. Cases of COVID-19 only increase this pressure.

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, the UK’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, has urged that both citizens and the government act cautiously in order to reduce the spread of the virus and reduce the possibility of a disastrous winter. The government violated these suggestions on England’s "Freedom Day" (19 July 2021) by removing many of the final restrictions which were in place such as allowing venues like nightclubs to re-open. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, approached Scotland’s reopening more cautiously, allowing similar restrictions to be lifted on 9 August 2021. While this seemed like the long-awaited return to normality, the worries of winter remain.

Last week Sir Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, quit the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). He has been a member of this group since the beginning of the pandemic and his exit has marked speculation that he was unhappy about how ministers have handled the scientific advice which has been given to them recently. In his leaving statement, he said that “The COVID-19 crisis is a long way from over, with the global situation deeply troubling”. Sir Jeremy has been vocal in his criticism of the government handling of the Winter 2020 Coronavirus figures, writing to express his view that not enough had been done to plan for the winter, and that, regarding the government’s delay in introducing a further lockdown in November 2020, “The absence of a decision [was] a decision in itself”.

Labour's Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth, commenting on Sir Jeremy's departure, stated, "To lose a heavyweight figure like Sir Jeremy from SAGE is a serious blow that reveals the level of concern about the government's mishandling of the pandemic”.

The government is faced with the tricky balancing act of both the public’s desire to continue life as normal and the need for widespread public safety.

Nevertheless, the recent UK approval of Merck’s COVID-19 antiviral pill - which will be put through drug trials later this month - brings hope to public concern. The new medicine reduces the risk of hospitalisation and death for those who are at heightened risk due to underlying health conditions, thereby easing the immense pressure on the NHS.

Recent discussion surrounding Boris Johnson’s COVID-19 "Plan B" reveals the government’s general consense that it is not necessary to consider the plan yet. It would involve a five-month return to mandatory mask-wearing, an increase in COVID-19 certifications and the introduction of guidance to work from home. However, the internal treasury has undertaken an impact assessment of this plan, estimating that it would cost the economy between GBP 11 billion and GBP 18 billion over the course of the five-month period. While Johnson has stressed that current data does not warrant this plan as of yet, public sentiment on this issue seems to be one of increasing worry. Many question the economic risk of another last-minute lockdown in comparison with the deaths which would incur as a result of delaying such a decision.

Imposing a temporary lockdown each winter cannot be a permanent solution to the COVID-19 pandemic. The question, then, of what can and should be done by the government to ensure that cases decrease constantly, while still keeping restrictions low, remains unanswered. What is required is a proper plan to be put in place, effectively communicated to the public and followed when necessary rather than when it is too late. This delay to act was a large cause of the UK’s initial failure to respond to the pandemic in March 2020 and again in the winter of 2020. What is certain is that question of whether the government will decide to be transparent and quick-to-act worries many. This is also a question that will be answered as we move deeper into winter.


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