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Is the UK waiting until after Christmas to go into lockdown?

In short, it all depends on booster shots

Written by
Time Out editors
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Thankfully, it looks increasingly unlikely that the UK will be locked down again over Christmas. Yesterday England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty recommended that people scale back on social interactions over the next week in order to avoid having to isolate over Christmas. But there was no talk of any kind of lockdown. 

All of which is somewhat to be expected. Last Christmas, all households were kept apart by law. Enforcing another festive lockdown would be tremendously unpopular both among Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s own Tory MPs (many of whom revolted against the vaccine passes bill earlier this week) and among the wider electorate – particularly after recent scandals over Christmas parties held both in Downing Street and the Conservative party HQ in 2020.

After Christmas is where things get a little more uncertain. From a political point of view, locking down the country over Christmas Day itself would almost certainly provoke an angrier and more emotional public response than doing so after. But a more important question is this: is there (or will there be) a need for another lockdown?

On the one hand, case numbers are rising to record-breaking levels. On Wednesday the number of new positive daily cases in the UK reached 78,610, the highest since the start of the pandemic. Prof Whitty reckons that the number of cases could double every two days, and NHS England has returned to its highest level of emergency preparedness.

But the name of the game right now isn’t so much case rates as the number of hospitalisations – and therefore the likelihood of the NHS being overwhelmed. This is where vaccines come in. The jab prevents people being seriously affected by Covid and so causes fewer people to have to go to hospital. It’s too early to know just how deadly the new Omicron variant is, or how much protection is given by one or two vaccine doses, but what we do know is that a booster jab is still very effective against the strain.

One potential outcome in the next few weeks is that the current booster drive cuts off Omicron before it can overwhelm hospitals. In this case, it’s unlikely there would be a lockdown after Christmas – or anytime in the near future. This is the dream scenario.

Another outcome is that not enough people get a booster, which then causes Omicron cases to spiral over the festive period. In this case, the government may be forced to take extreme measures and lock down to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed by Covid patients. This is the kind of scenario echoed by the likes of epidemiologist Prof Neil Ferguson, who says that we certainly can’t rule out another lockdown.

Of course, a lockdown is no light step. It’s a last-resort measure that would take a huge financial toll on dozens of industries and millions of families – particularly those who rely on retail and hospitality. The government would have to set up furlough and business support again, as well as lay out another path out of the restrictions. It’s difficult to see a lockdown being imposed unless it’s totally necessary.

So, in short, we’ll all just have to wait and see. In the meantime, following government advice is the least we can do. Get a booster shot, wear a mask where you’re supposed to and get tested regularly. Do those simple things, and hopefully another lockdown will remain a distant nightmare.

Want to get jabbed, like, now? Here’s how to get your booster this week (and help stop another lockdown).

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