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What exactly is a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown – and will it even work?

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Short, sharp lockdowns have been tried in other countries with some degree of success.

he idea has been floated here, but many think the move could be detrimental to people’s mental health.

Why is there speculation that Ireland may be heading toward a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown?

Some health experts think it’s our best chance to finally get on top of Covid-19 or at least save Christmas.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar floated the circuit breaker idea in a Sunday Independent article last weekend, warning that another severe lockdown “may well be needed”.

Three days later, Northern Ireland imposed its own circuit breaker, prompting the Government here to put the border counties of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal on Level 4 and ban household visits nationwide.

Now a debate is raging between those who claim we need to shut down society even harder and those who argue it would only break our economy and mental health.

Before we go any further, what exactly is a circuit breaker?

As the name suggests, it’s a scientific concept. A circuit breaker helps to prevent fires by automatically cutting off electricity whenever too much current is flowing.

In Covid-19 terms, it means a short, sharp shock that places tight restrictions on human interaction for a few weeks.

Different countries have used different kinds of circuit breakers, but the basic idea is always the same – to dramatically reduce case numbers while giving contact tracers enough breathing space to stop the virus from spreading further.

To put it another way, a circuit breaker is the universal nuclear option as opposed to Ireland’s current whack-a-mole policy that addresses outbreaks on a regional basis wherever they pop up.

Who first came up with the circuit breaker notion as a plan to stop Covid-19?

It started in Singapore last April when the virus was still relatively new and prime minister Lee Hsien Loong decided drastic measures were needed.

He imposed a series of rules, such as people only being allowed to enter supermarkets on certain days, determined by their ID numbers. This regime was initially supposed to last for a month, but Loong ended up extending it to three.

Whether Singapore’s circuit breaker actually worked is still unclear. Although the country’s Covid-19 numbers duly fell, sceptics claim this had more to do with its compulsory masks and efficient contact tracing system.

Where else has a circuit breaker strategy been tried?

Australia and New Zealand have both applied it to cities where Covid-19 was particularly rampant. However, the place circuit breaker proponents usually point to is Israel.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a blunder last May when he said coronavirus was more or less defeated and told Israelis to “enjoy yourselves”.

He admitted his mistake by imposing an exceptionally harsh lockdown on September 18, which involves large fines for anyone straying more than one kilometre from their homes.

As Leo Varadkar noted in his weekend article, Israel’s circuit breaker “seems to be producing results”, but again, the jury isstill out.

If the North is now using a circuit breaker, shouldn’t we be trying to find an all-island strategy?

Perhaps, but unfortunately the old tribal attitudes of orange and green could work against this.

According to Sinn Féin, lives will be lost because unionists are too pig-headed to agree policy with Dublin instead of London. Health experts, naturally, have no time for such political squabbling.

“If this was an animal disease affecting sheep or chicken or cattle, you could bet your life there would be an integrated effort north and south,” said leading epidemiologist Dr Gabriel Scally on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland yesterday.

“That is not happening and it’s very, very disturbing.”

What about the rest of the UK?

England, Scotland and Wales are on the brink of a circuit breaker too.

It emerged this week that the British government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) recommended another lockdown on September 21, but prime minister Boris Johnson refused.

Since then, the UK’s Covid-19 situation has gone from bad to worse. Sage still estimates a circuit breaker would reduce British deaths for the rest of 2020 from around 20,000 to 12,000.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer also supports the idea, and told Johnson last Wednesday: “Follow the science. If we don’t, we could sleepwalk into a long and bleak winter.”

So how seriously is Taoiseach Micheál Martin considering a circuit breaker?

His lack of enthusiasm is palpable. Only last week, the Government controversially rejected Nphet’s advice to move the whole country to Level 5.

On Monday, the Taoiseach gave a cool response to Mr Varadkar’s circuit breaker article, declaring: “I’m not sure that’s a runner, quite frankly.”

How does the public feel about all this?

While nobody actually wants a circuit breaker, there’s a growing sense that Ireland’s current strategy is simply not having the desired effect.

According to an opinion poll carried out last Monday by Amárach Research for the Department of Health, 61pc think it’s time to introduce further restrictions.

This is the highest percentage of people in favour of tougher action since Covid-19 first reached our shores last February.

When will we know one way or the other?

If Mr Martin opts for a circuit breaker, it would make sense for it to cover the schools’ mid-term break, so a decision will probably come quite soon.

Some health experts hate the circuit breaker image as it suggests ending Covid-19 is as easy as flicking a switch.

If the past few months have taught us anything, it’s that we need a more sophisticated strategy to beat this killer virus.

Online Editors

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