Leak of November lockdown plan linked to 'surge in new infections'

People in all age groups up to 60 rushed to socialise before the shutdown in England, say researchers

The leak of plans for a November lockdown in England to the media approximately a week before restrictions came into force has been linked by researchers to a jump in Covid-19 cases caused by people rushing to socialise before the deadline.

“There was a surge in new infections starting a couple of days before the lockdown – and running for about a week or so after the lockdown was implemented,” said the study’s lead author, Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia.

The three-tier system, with varying degrees of restrictions, was introduced in England in mid-October. On Friday 30 October multiple outlets, including the Times, Daily Mail and Sun, reported that the government planned to announce a national lockdown the following Monday, prompting the launch of a leak inquiry. The lockdown eventually came into force on 5 November and ended on 2 December.

infection rates

Using data procured from 315 local authorities, the researchers observed that case numbers were increasing up to about 24 October, after which they appeared to stabilise, even declining in tier 3 areas. However, over the “notice period” between the news becoming public and the start of lockdown, case numbers started to rise again until they reached a peak around 10 November.

The observational study – which is still to be peer-reviewed – found that this boost in infections was largely seen in tier 1 and tier 2 areas, where there were more opportunities to socialise compared with in tier 3 regions.

The surge was most notable in the 20 to 24 and 25 to 29 age groups, although there was an effect in all age groups up to 60, noted Hunter. “Those of us over 60 are boring old farts who stay home all the time,” he joked.

Using Google mobility data, the researchers noted an increase in visits to non-grocery retail and leisure venues just prior to the start of lockdown.

The spike was not observed in tier 3 areas, where a key difference was that hospitality venues could only open if operating as a restaurant. This finding, combined with the atypical surge in infections in young adults, suggests there had been increased socialisation ahead of the lockdown.

“I believe it probably almost certainly is,” said Hunter. “You can’t say that’s absolute proof, but I think it’s excellent strong supportive evidence.”

“If that is the case, then … whoever leaked that indirectly would have been responsible for increased cases and, and almost certainly increased deaths.”

As December approached, infections in areas that were previously in tier 1 were pretty much at the same level as they were on 1 November. So, after about a month which largely included the lockdown, “we were back to square one”, Hunter said.

Tier 2 regions did a little better – the infection rate was lower, but not by much. Tier 3 areas – which did not see a spike ahead of the lockdown – saw a dramatic decline, he added.

However, in London, the south-east and east of England, cases started rising in the week before lockdown ended, which was later attributed to the fast-spreading variant discovered in Kent. “So that that surge towards the end was almost certainly … driven by the new variant,” added Hunter.


Natalie Grover

The GuardianTramp

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