Why We Could Be Heading For A Third National Lockdown

With millions more plunged into the toughest tier 4 Covid restrictions this week, and cases continuing to rise despite the increasingly strict measures, it has felt to some like a matter of time before the UK goes into a third national lockdown. 

Politicians say there is no need for country-wide restrictions, but some scientists are claiming the exact opposite, with calls for schools to be closed completely as the country struggles to get to grips with the new mutation of Covid-19.

What do the current statistics tell us? 

As of December 31, 2020, the UK is in a dire position in its fight against Covid-19. Amid the ongoing outbreak of a more infectious mutation of the virus, case numbers have rocketed and deaths have returned to levels not seen since the April peak.


On Wednesday, 55,892 people tested positive for coronavirus.

People in hospital

The most recent available figures, for December 22, showed that 2,433 had been admitted to hospital with Covid-19 in 24 hours. And 1,847 were in mechanical ventilation beds.

As of December 28, 23,813 people across the UK were in hospital with Covid-19 – the highest number to date.


On Wednesday it was announced that the UK had recorded 981 Covid-19 deaths in the previous 24-hour reporting period, the highest since April 24, when it hit 1,010. Thursday’s figure, 964, was scarcely better.

The R rate

The R is currently between 1.1 and 1.3, which means that on average every 10 people infected will infect between 11 and 13 other people. 

On top of this, it is still too early to understand the impact the festive period has had on infection rates. 

Speaking at the Downing Street press conference on Wednesday evening, deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van Tam said: “It is a pretty grim and depressing picture. The situation in the UK is precarious and it is almost certainly true that the NHS has not seen the impact of the infections that will have occurred during mixing on Christmas Day, which is also rather sobering.”

Are we in a worse position than we were before the March lockdown? 

Back in March, very little was known about the virus. There was no precedent of national lockdowns and the idea of a vaccine seemed a distant dream. 

We now have a far greater understanding of what lockdowns can do to a nation – both from an epidemiological viewpoint and an economic one. But with soaring case numbers, an R (reproduction) rate well above 1, and hospitals still struggling to cope, our methods of dealing with an outbreak have changed little over the course of the past nine months. 


Testing capabilities were very different in March. On March 23, when the first lockdown was announced and came into immediate effect, 967 people tested positive for Covid-19, bringing the total to 12,657.

People in hospital

Government data show that, on March 23, 1,271 patients were admitted to hospital with either confirmed Covid-19 or, in Wales’ case, suspected Covid-19. A total 4,861 had been admitted since the pandemic began (but no breakdown is available for previous days).

The first data about patients on mechanically ventilated beds listed on the government’s Covid-19 dashboard are from April 2, at which point 1,813 patients were recorded – still lower than the 1,847 recorded on December 28.


Some 165 people had died on March 22 having tested positive for Covid – a daily total that rose extremely extremely quickly over the following weeks to the peak of 1,073 on April 8.

The R rate

There was no official R rate at this point of the pandemic either, as the government only started publishing these figures in June. 

What about before the November lockdown? 


There had been 24,405 positive coronavirus tests in the previous 24-hour reporting window – again, half of current levels.

It is important to note that on October 31, 292,573 tests had been carried out in the last day, while on December 30 this figure was 420,492. But that doesn’t get us off the hook: about 8.3% of tests on October 31 were positive, compared with 13% now.

People in hospital

October 31 saw 1,457 admitted to hospital with Covid-19.

It brought the total of in-patients to 12,291 – a little over half the number currently in hospital. 

A total of 1,003 patients were in ventilated beds.


On October 31, the UK recorded 320 more deaths of people who had recently tested positive for Covid-19. That’s less than a third of the current figure.

The R rate

When Boris Johnson announced the November lockdown on October 31, the nation’s R rate was deemed to be between 1.1 and 1.3, meaning on average that every 10 people infected would infect between 11 and 13 people. That’s the same as it is now. 

What do scientists want us to do?

National coronavirus restrictions are needed to prevent a “catastrophe” at the start of 2021, a member of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) warned on Wednesday. 

Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious diseases epidemiology at University College London, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think we are entering a very dangerous new phase of the pandemic and we’re going to need decisive, early, national action to prevent a catastrophe in January and February.

“A 50% increase in transmissibility means that the previous levels of restrictions that worked before won’t work now, and so Tier 4 restrictions are likely to be necessary or even higher than that.

“I think we’re really looking at a situation where we’re moving into near lockdown, but we’ve got to learn the lessons from the first lockdown.”

The Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Independent Sage) warned on Wednesday that unless the entire country was put under national lockdown there could be tens-of-thousands avoidable deaths. 

The Guardian reported quotes from Christina Pagel, professor of operational research at University College London and a member of Independent Sage, who said the situation was as dire as it had ever been.  

She told the paper: “The frightening thing is that they are going to continue to get worse.

“Action is needed now to avoid the collapse of the NHS in a few weeks. It is that serious.”

What has the government said about a third lockdown? 

Speaking on Thursday morning, education secretary Gavin Williamson insisted that he was “confident” the country wouldn’t be moving into another nation lockdown.

He told Sky News: “We’re taking the absolute right approach to pursue the tiering system.

“It’s really important that areas have the opportunity to move down the tiering system as well as having to sometimes move areas up the tiering system.

“We recognise there are impositions that this has on everyone’s lives but it is the right approach. It’s the proper approach.

“This is a robust approach, so I’m confident that we won’t be moving into a national lockdown situation because the tiering structure is the right place to be.”

But the PM himself has previously refused to rule out a third national lockdown. On December 18, Johnson told Sky News: “Obviously we’re hoping very much that we’ll be able to avoid anything like that, but the reality is that the rates of infection have increased very much in the last few weeks.” 

Since then the number of infections have continued to rise rapidly, alongside an increase in the R (reproduction) rate. The final week of 2020 saw cases rise by 50,000 in 24 hours for three consecutive days, the highest increases on record.


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