Circuit Breaker lockdowns, what are they and do they work?

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Empty streets in Liverpool as Circuit Breaker lockdowns take hold across the UK

Circuit Breaker lockdowns, what are they and do they work?

With the UK seeing multiple local lockdowns with varying degrees of restrictions it is important to understand Circuit Breaker lockdowns and consider how they will work in practice.

The coronavirus pandemic has become the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to “Buzzwords” and new terminology, and now we have Circuit Breakers.

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Circuit board which controls electronics and is the basis for the new Circuit BReaker lockdown terminologyThe new term on the block is “circuit breaker” which is adapted from the idea of electronic circuits that switch appliances off when electrical current is interrupted.

The new terminology, in relation to the coronavirus pandemic, refers to short periods of draconian lockdown measures which are aimed at slowing the virus by quickly stopping the infection rate before opening up society back to their new normal.

The term brings to mind images of resetting the global society by flicking as switch and turning our pandemic ridden world off, then on again.


However, beyond the political bluff & bluster, there is a very real issue to be considered. Do they work or is this just further evidence of political spin for a Government who has run out of ideas?

Where have Circuit Breakers been used?

In a number of Asian countries these “circuit breaker” lockdowns have been used to some promising effect with Singapore, South Korea and New Zealand demonstrating their effectiveness in cutting community transmission rates. However, it is also important to note that none of these countries allowed the virus to overcome their communities to begin with as they implemented fast and effective procedure to stop the virus taking hold in their communities.


Member of the public masks up on the UK streets to protect himself from coronavirusFurthermore, other countries, including Sweden, are considering the strategy as a way to curb the viral spread while maintaining some semblance of normal life.

It is suggested by UK politician that a short two-week national shutdown on non-essential services and a full restriction on the public would see the virus set back in its spread by approximately one month. However, the UK’s top scientist have said that their current approach to three-tiered regional restriction does not go far enough in achieving their aim.

This period of time would allow the UK much needed time to regroup and fix fundamental problems in the trace, test and trace methods which have been subject to continuing issues such as the failings of the Test and Trace app since its launch.

Boris Johnson, UK Prime Minister, speaks to the public in a press conference where he suggests that circuit breaker lockdown may be requiredHowever, the SAGE paper which recommended these swift and immediate lockdowns to curb the virus is already outdated as it was presented to ministers almost a month ago on September 21. In a new normal where we are subject to a global contagion that is ripping through our communities at an ever-increasing rate, it would be assumed the urgent action should have been taken much sooner.

At the time when SAGE presented their paper to the government, cases were only reaching 4,500 per day. On Wednesday, October 17, while the UK still awaits confirmation of a potential national lockdown, cases have dramatically risen to 19,724 new cases.

Does the Circuit Breaker lockdown idea have merit?

Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a World Health Organization (WHO), David Heymann, has said that he believes the scientific merit of “circuit breaker” restrictions is being overlooked as the terminology and have been hijacked as a means of political point scoring rather than seriously considered as means of protecting the public.

He said, “In Asia, a circuit breaker is a precision instrument, not a blunt tool,” he said. “When a transmission event is traced back to its source, a precise, localised shutdown is enforced.”

“In Hong Kong they shut down nightclubs in parts of the city when students came back from China; in South Korea they shut down Daegu when the church cluster was identified,” he continued. “This contrasts to blunt shutdowns, which are a crude tool to stop transmission everywhere.”

However, it is important to understand that these areas also have robust and effective track and trace methods in place that find outbreak sources and ensure that people within the contact of a positive individual are briefly removed from the general population until they are proven to be negative of the virus.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), in June, recommended a two-week on/off strategy as a means of keeping infection rates at a manageable level and would enable a relatively normal life routine in the “off” period. However, this strategy was never adopted on a local, national or global level by global Governments.

In Israel, they are currently in week four of a marginally longer “circuit breaker” lockdown which has seen daily recorded infections half.

How does the public feel about Circuit Breaker lockdowns?

Empty street in Chester show the eerie result of lockdown to a normally busy evening in the townBehind the buzzword there is a very real issue at hand. If these “Circuit Breaker” lockdowns are implemented as a regular fixture to our new normal in modern life until an effective and suitable vaccine is developed, how will the public react to the ongoing on and off stay-at-home strategy.

In a video from Liverpool TV a number of members of the UK public gave their opinion to the potential strategy evidencing that public opinion is ultimately divided on the issue as everyones opinion on their potential effectiveness differs.

With a range of conflicting information readily available online, on television and in printed news media, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the facts and the fiction.

So, do “circuit breakers” work?

Ultimately, Yes. If people stop mixing, the virus will stop spreading. However, whether the UK has the political acumen to implement a successful “circuit breaker” strategy remains to be seen.


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