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Explainer: Why have people been talking about a 'circuit breaker' lockdown - and is there evidence it would work?

A circuit breaker lockdown involves a short, sharp period of tightened restrictions.

A near empty Dublin city during the early days of lockdown
A near empty Dublin city during the early days of lockdown
Image: Sam Boal via RollingNews.ie

YOU MAY HAVE heard the phrase “circuit breaker” mentioned in regards to Covid-19 discussions over the past week. 

On Tuesday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told his parliamentary party meeting that the idea of a “circuit breaker” lockdown cannot be ruled out

The meeting was told that a circuit breaker was not contained in the current government roadmap for Living with Covid-19, and that it would need to be planned for. 

Other senior government sources have also said that ‘circuit break’ restrictions are “not off the table”. 

So, what exactly is a ‘circuit breaker’ and where did the idea originate? 

The idea of a ‘circuit breaker’ is a short, sharp period of tightened restrictions intended to curb a rise in coronavirus cases. 

The temporary lockdown in New Zealand is seen by some as circuit break that gave contact tracers the time to get on top of case numbers.

The term ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown originates from Singapore, where it tried the measure in April during the height of the first wave of coronavirus.

People will be most familiar with the phrase being used in electrical terms: a circuit breaker is a device which can stop the flow of electricity around a circuit by switching itself off if anything goes wrong. 

Did NPHET recommend the circuit breaker method? 

Last Sunday, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan wrote to the government recommending the entire country move to Level 5. 

Dr Holohan did not explicitly mention the term circuit breaker in the letter, and hasn’t since. 

However, in the letter Dr Holohan recommended that the government apply Level 5 – the highest level of measures – across the country “for a period of four weeks”. Arguably, this could be seen as being somewhat akin to a circuit breaker.

Following a meeting the next day between Dr Holohan and the Taoiseach, the talk in government circles was that NPHET tried to ‘bounce the government into a circuit breaker situation without consultation’. 

007 NPHET meeting Professor Philip Nolan (left) Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn (centre) and Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan (right) Source: Sasko Lazarov via RollingNews.ie

On Monday evening, Varadkar told RTÉ presenter Claire Byrne that what NPHET was proposing in the Level 5 advice was a circuit breaker. 

He said it had not been tried anywhere in Europe, including some countries that have much higher cases that Ireland.

The “short, sharp shock” is a bid to stop the transmission of the disease suddenly, explained Varadkar. Nonetheless, he said he didn’t believe NPHET’s idea “had been thought through properly”.

Varadkar said a number of questions were posed to the NPHET team at the meeting on Monday, such as how long would the Level 5 period last for? What would happen if it didn’t work – would the strategy be abandoned?

He said they also asked the public health experts if the schools would remain open, saying that the Taoiseach and ministers were not sure they could be.

Varadkar said NPHET had not contemplated any of the questions it was asked.

“We need to plan for this kind of thing,” he said. 

Has it worked elsewhere in the world?

Senior sources have said a circuit breaker is being considered. But whether it works in other countries which are implementing such circuit breaks is something that’s being watched closely.

Sources have said that circuit breaker options should be looked at in Ireland, but that they also need to be thought through. There are concerns in Ireland that there is no Plan B if a circuit breaker move does not work.

Government sources have said attention should be given to when it would be best to implement, how long would it last, what other places have had success and what doesn’t work before any sort of move is contemplated.

Some point to Israel and Melbourne cases as examples of circuit breaks. 

However, serious concerns have been raised about the time period of both those cases, with one source saying that Melbourne’s attempt of some kind of circuit break began on 7 July and it is still not over.

On 7 July, after 191 new cases were recorded, Melbourne was put under lockdown for a period of six weeks. However, restrictions remained in place for longer. 

Melbourne, the capital of Victoria, became the epicentre of Australia’s second wave after security bungles led to the virus escaping from hotels used to quarantine travellers returning from overseas.

victoria-coronavirus-covid-19-lockdown A general view at the Albert Park Lake in Melbourne in July Source: Daniel Pockett/AAP via PA Images

On 28 September, an overnight curfew in place in Melbourne was lifted. This curfew was first imposed on 2 August. 

The relaxation came after 16 new infections and two deaths were reported in Victoria and the state’s active cases fell below 400 for the first time since 30 June.

Looking at Israel, the country imposed a second nationwide lockdown on 18 September, which was to last for three weeks, to tackle one of the world’s highest coronavirus infection rates.  

The new restrictions saw a significant backlash from the public, with protests being held around the country. 

Last week, the Israeli parliament approved a law restricting demonstrations as part of a coronavirus-related state of emergency. However, protests remain ongoing. 

As noted above, the term ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown originates from Singapore. 

This approach was implemented on 3 April, when Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said it was time to apply such a measure to halt the virus’s spread. It should be noted that this is the first time Singapore went into lockdown, so it’s not too dissimilar to Ireland’s approach at that time. 

In the week that followed, all non-essential workplaces closed, all schools transitioned to home-based learning and all food establishments were only permitted to offer takeaway. 

This circuit breaker was initially due to end on 4 May, however Loong announced on 21 April that it was being extended to 1 June as a result of an increase in case numbers. 

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“The number of new cases in the local community has levelled off, to below 30 new cases daily. This is the result of the circuit breaker, and all of us working together. But as you know, our total case numbers have risen sharply since the last time I spoke to you, just 10 days ago,” Loong said on 21 April.  

It’s still too soon to know if circuit breaker lockdowns work as there isn’t widespread study into the usage of it. However, it does appear to be close to the types of lockdowns already implemented in March/April. 

Northern Ireland

Covid-19 cases have risen dramatically in Northern Ireland over the past week. Over the past 24 hours, there have been 1,080 further cases of the virus confirmed in the North, a new record. 

The North’s Minister for Finance Conor Murphy has said the Northern Executive might have to look at circuit breaker restrictions, adding it would be preferable if this happened on an all-island basis.

Yesterday morning, Taoiseach Micheál Martin spoke to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson about the rising number of cases on both sides of the Irish border. 

Martin said the two leaders did not discuss introducing an island-wide “circuit breaker” short-term tightening of restrictions.

“The UK has its own issues and challenges in relation to regional approaches that it is adopting to the Covid situation,” he added.

He said: “It was really around the idea of supporting the North in whatever measures the First Minister and Deputy First Minister might decide to take and highlighting the concerns about the growing numbers in the North and the need for coordination. But also, critically, also supports.”

The Prime Minister recently told the BBC he will provide extra resources to help the Stormont executive fight a second wave of coronavirus.

He said he will work with First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill if they opt for a “circuit breaker”.

With reporting by Christina Finn, Press Association and AFP

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