Coronavirus: fire break

Published 23/10/2020   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

On Monday 19 October the Welsh Government announced that a ‘fire break’ will be introduced at 6pm on Friday 23 October 2020 until Monday 9 November 2020. This articles outlines what led to the fire break and what restrictions will be in place.

The term ‘fire break’ refers to the national restrictions coming in from Friday 23 October. Although this has been used interchangeably with ‘circuit break’, the term ‘circuit break’ refers to a number of indicators that are being used as an early warning to alert the Welsh Government when infection rates are rising. Circuit breakers will be explained later in this article.

How did we get here?

Since September the Welsh Government has imposed restrictions in a number of local areas to control the spread of coronavirus. You can read more about the local coronavirus restrictions in our blog post which includes an interactive map.

In announcing the national ‘fire break’, the First Minister, Mark Drakeford, said:

While the national and local measures put in place across Wales have helped to keep the spread of the virus in check, there is a growing consensus that additional action is now needed.

The fire break will replace the local coronavirus restrictions with a national set of measures.

Scientific advice

The Welsh Government uses scientific advice from its own Technical Advisory Cell (TAC) and the UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). You can find out more about these groups in our blog post which also includes definitions of key terms such as the R number.

Minutes from SAGE’s meeting on 21 September says that “a package of interventions will need to be adopted to reverse this exponential rise in cases” and that “single interventions by themselves are unlikely to be able to bring R below 1.” SAGE also has “high confidence” that:

The more rapidly interventions are put in place, and the more stringent they are, the faster the reduction in incidence and prevalence, and the greater the reduction in COVID related deaths.

Circuit breakers

In July 2020, TAC published a report on ‘circuit breakers’. that would be used as an “early warning of rising infection rates” and “when lockdown measures need to be considered”.

TAC’s report of 19 October says that “two indicators for community transmission and one for hospital activity have been breached”:

  • The number of cases across Wales is above 40 per 100,000 of the population and has been since 17 September. The report estimates these to be 126.8 per 100,000.
  • The positivity rate (the percentage of people who tested positive for COVID-19 out of those who have been tested) is above 5% and has been since 27 September. The report estimates this to be 11.9%.
  • The total critical care bed occupancy (for COVID-19 and non-COVID patients) is above 150 and has been since 30 September.

TAC says that the first two circuit breaker indicators being breached suggests “that the number of cases is likely to be uncontrolled” and is “likely to continue growing exponentially”. It also states that “there is an insufficient number of critical care beds and/or staff to sustain a large COVID outbreak”.

TAC’s recommendation

TAC’s report to the Welsh Government recommends:

…a swift and short-term period of simple, extreme restrictions across the whole of Wales that would significantly reduce the prevalence of the virus in Wales.

TAC states that the fire break will have to reduce the national R number (the latest is between 1.1 – 1.4) to below 0.9 which “requires a national approach rather than the current locally driven approach”.

What are the fire break restrictions?

From 6pm on Friday 23 October 2020 a new set of fire break measures will come into effect and replace the previous local coronavirus restrictions.

The main measures being introduced are:

  • People must stay at home except for very limited purposes, such as for exercise, to access childcare, education and medical or other public services;
  • People must work from home where possible;
  • People must not visit other households or meet other people they do not live with either indoors or outdoors; and
  • All non-food retail, hospitality businesses (cafes, restaurants and pubs unless they provide a take-away service), close contact services (hairdressers and beauticians), and events and tourism businesses must close.

There are some differences from the national restrictions introduced in March as during the fire break:

  • Adults living alone or single parents will be able to join with one other household for support;
  • Primary schools will be open after the half-term along with secondary schools for pupils in years seven and eight and vulnerable children; and
  • Local parks, playgrounds and outdoor gyms will remain open.

The Welsh Government said that it isn’t re-introducing shielding because the restrictions in place “act to reduce the circulation of the virus and by sticking strictly to the rules, people who are vulnerable will reduce their risk of exposure”.

The fire break is underpinned by The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 3) (Wales) Regulations 2020 (“the regulations”). The regulations expire at the end of the day on 8 November 2020.

For further information on the fire break measures, the Welsh Government has published frequently asked questions.

What’s next?

The Welsh Government said:

Following the end of the fire-break, a new set of national rules will be introduced, covering how people can meet and how the public sector and businesses operate.

TAC’s report to the Welsh Government recommends that the fire break should be followed by a second phase of a new national approach to restrictions. It says that “some existing restrictions may be removed if they are shown to be less effective or more harmful than originally expected”. However, TAC states that “there would need to be sustainable changes in behaviour in many areas of life in order for R to remain as near to 1 as possible.”

SAGE says that a fire break “could put the epidemic back by approximately 28 days or more”. It also notes that:

If the strategy is to retain control of the pandemic until a vaccine can be deployed at scale, then maintaining a low prevalence will be essential until this time. Government will continue to have to juggle social freedom, economic activity and transmission for many months. It is imperative, therefore, that a consistent series of measures is adopted over the next 6-9 months.

Article by Lucy Morgan, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament.