SHOULD WELSH BUSINESSES HAVE BEEN CLOSED DURING THE FIREBREAK LOCKDOWN?


Last Monday, First Minister Mark Drakeford ordered a “firebreak” lockdown for two weeks to break the spread of coronavirus in Wales. This came into effect yesterday and will last until November 9th.

As a result, people must work from home unless they are critical workers or cannot do their jobs from home and all gatherings with people outside households have been banned. Whilst primary schools will reopen after half term, secondary schools will shut for all but years seven and eight. For businesses, all non-essential retail, gyms, leisure centres, bars, restaurants and hospitality must close for this period.

The rationale for this ‘sledgehammer’ approach of shutting everything down for just over a fortnight through a combination of different measures is that it is the only way to bring down the R rate (i.e. the average number a sick person could pass the virus onto) from its estimated current level of 1.2-1.4 to below 1.0 when the numbers of those infected start to fall.

The scientific evidence behind this decision comes from a paper produced by the Technical Advisory Cell (TAC) which advises the Welsh Government. Interestingly, this shows that the biggest impact on reducing the R rate would come not from shutting businesses but from school closures, managing higher education activities and working from home. 

According to TAC, closing all schools associated would result in a reduction in the R number by up to 0.5 although the political fallout from such a move would be considerable which is probably why this latest lockdown is happening over half-term when schools are shut for part of the time.

Similarly, whilst closing universities could result in a potential reduction in R of 0.3, TAC recommends that there should be a strong steer towards online learning for all but essential practical activities, something which Welsh institutions have already done.

Despite being an integral part of the targeted local lockdowns imposed across Wales, TAC suggests that stopping all contacts between different households in the home might only reduce R by 0.2. In addition, restrictions on outdoor gatherings is likely to be result in only a small reduction in transmission i.e. reducing R by less than 0.05.

So what about the business community? According to TAC, the biggest impact on reducing R within the business community would be more homeworking and if all people who could work from home did so, then there will be a reduction in R of 0.2-0.4.

In contrast, the closure of bars, pubs, cafés and restaurants would only result in a reduction in R of 0.1-0.2. although TAC does argue that the risk could be higher because of the close proximity of people, long duration of exposure and no wearing of face coverings by customers although disappointingly, no mention is made of the extent to which many businesses have gone to make their premises safer to mitigate against these risks.

It is also worth noting that whilst there have been 10pm curfews on bars and restaurants in Wales, the Mayor of London has recently asked for this to be lifted in his city, arguing that there may be little scientific basis for this restriction and that scrapping it would allow more sittings of single households in restaurants throughout the evening. 

In terms of non-essential retail which have also had to shut, there is only a low impact on transmission as the short duration of visits, the ability to distance in most settings and use of face coverings are likely to mitigate well. 

In addition, the closure of gyms will only result in a potential reduction in R of up to 0.1 although a precise estimation is very difficult although it is worth noting that last minute changes this week to restrictions in Tier 3 areas in England means that gyms and leisure centres can actually reopen in Liverpool.

For close-contact personal services such as hairdressing or beauty therapy, TAC argues that whilst each event is likely to be high risk as it involves prolonged, close, face-to-face contact, the use of these services is infrequent so any closure will only have an impact on R of up to 0.05.

Therefore, the scientific evidence seems to suggest that the closure of businesses will only have a small effect on significantly reducing the R number from its current level as compared to other measures. Certainly, those businesses that have done everything possible to ensure the safety of their staff and customers may find it hard to understand why they are again being closed down when the evidence given to the Welsh Government suggests that this may only have a marginal effect on reducing overall transmission rates. 

In its paper, TAC recognises that from an economic perspective, limiting the size of a pandemic related recession will save lives in the future as mortality is closely related to income and life chances. Indeed, the additional support announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Thursday may help businesses to remain viable in the short term and, more crucially, enable them to retain staff. 

However, many will only survive in the future if customers return and will hope that when Wales comes out of this lockdown, the Welsh Government will look again at the scientific evidence in considering a more nuanced national approach that will suppress a coronavirus that will be with us for a considerable period of time whilst minimising the effect on businesses and the economy over the next twelve months.