U.K. Coronavirus Lockdown: What Are the Options for Ending It?

(Bloomberg) -- The U.K. has been in partial lockdown since March 23 to stop the spread of coronavirus, and there are currently no signs the rules will be relaxed when they’re up for review next week.

But what are the options for an exit strategy when it comes?

Immunity Certificates

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said last week the U.K. is looking at certificates for people who have had the coronavirus and are therefore immune from infection as a way to potentially ease social-distancing measures. But he also warned that the science of coronavirus immunity is still in its infancy.

The plan would also require a significant ramping up of testing, and it’s not clear how those who have not yet contracted the virus would react. Scientists have warned that younger people especially may actually expose themselves to the virus to bring forward their escape from lockdown measures.

Vaccination

The ideal way out of the crisis would be for the rapid development of a vaccine. But they typically take months if not years to develop, and there are no guarantees that timeline can be accelerated even with the best scientific minds working on it. That could mean social-distancing measures linger.

“We’re fooling ourselves if we think we’re going to be out of lockdown until there’s a vaccine,” said Nick Chater, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Warwick who used to be on the government’s “nudge unit” or Behavioural Insight Team. “I’d be surprised if we can go back to normal life before there’s some completely watertight solution.”

Easing by Region

The government could decide to ease restrictions in parts of the country where the virus hasn’t taken hold -- or where the caseload has peaked.

But given the measures were brought in across the whole country at the same time, it could be politically difficult for ministers to give some regions a head start on returning to normality. Policing the movement of people between zones could also be problematic.

Using Demographics

Ministers could ease restrictions for younger people -- for whom the mortality rate is much lower -- and so get parts of the economy back to work. At the same time, those considered vulnerable including people over the age of 70 could be kept in lockdown for longer.

A potential advantage of the strategy “is that it has some chance of being sustainable,” said Andrew Oswald, an economics and behavioral science professor and Chater’s colleague at the University of Warwick. “Young people are very substantially safe compared to everyone else.”

Sector by Sector

Another possibility is allowing certain areas of the economy to re-open -- perhaps starting with non-essential shops. The aim would be to reduce as much long-term damage to the economy as possible while still keeping tight restrictions in place for areas where people congregate and the risk of spreading the virus is greater, such as pubs and restaurants.

On-Off-On

Another option discussed by the government would see the relaxing of restrictions for a period, then tightened again if the infections start to accelerate. But the idea is not currently in favor because of the risk that people obey the rules less with each successive lockdown.

A Hard Stop

The government could also end restrictions as quickly as they were brought in. But ministers and their advisers would have to be confident the virus would not re-emerge suddenly again and overwhelm the National Health Service. There’s almost zero likelihood of this being the chosen strategy.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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