Lockdown review: What are the risks of schools, pubs and shops reopening?on February 21, 2021 at 12:06 am

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Lockdown could slowly be lifted soon but what are the risks associated with relaxing certain restrictions?

Chart showing closed restraunt

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to announce what he has called a “road map out of lockdown” for England and there has been much media speculation about which restrictions might be relaxed first.

Over the course of the past year, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has advised the government on the pandemic, assessing the risks of transmission of coronavirus in many areas of daily life.

This advice looks at how closing or opening certain sectors could affect its spread – although with varying degrees of confidence, as the precise impact of each measure is difficult to assess.

The assessments which have been publicly released have not yet factored in the impact of the vaccine rollout or the new, more transmissible Covid variants.

We have looked at what Sage has advised about the risks in a number of areas.

Sage has said (with “moderate confidence”) that schools have a “moderate” impact on transmission.

Boris Johnson has called the reopening of schools in England “a priority”. The phased reopening of schools in Scotland and Wales has already been announced.

But the role schools have played in the spread of the virus is not clear-cut.

One report from Sage notes, perhaps unsurprisingly, that cases were highest among children when schools fully reopened in September 2020.

Chart showing age groups and cases

There is no clear evidence that schools are the driving force behind broader community spikes.

“It is difficult to quantify the size of this effect and it remains difficult to quantify the level of transmission taking place specifically within schools compared to other settings,” Sage reported in November.

Its evidence suggests that primary school children are “less susceptible to infection than adults,” but the risk increases among older children.

Sage concluded that closing secondary schools was “more effective” than closing primary schools due to this.

In fact, some recent research from the University of Warwick concludes that there is no hard evidence that primary schools spread the virus.

School corridor with secondary school pupils wearing masks

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When announcing the reopening of schools in Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “The key risk in reopening schools is not transmission of the virus within schools; instead, the risk comes from the increased contact that the reopening might spark among the wider adult population.”

This could include parents gathering at the school gates, or people returning to work.

All recent Sage documents agree that the risk of serious illness to children is very small compared to adults over 60.

Sage has said (with “high confidence”) that outdoor gatherings have a low impact on transmission.

One of the first restrictions to be loosened after the first lockdown was outdoor gatherings.

Currently, you are only able to exercise outdoors with one other person.

Wales is relaxing its outdoor rules and there is speculation about whether England’s restrictions might be loosened to allow for a return to outdoor gatherings with five other people (also known as the rule of six), outdoor sports or something smaller, such as being allowed to sit on a park bench with one other person.

Chart showing parks

Sage has long been confident that small outdoor gatherings have a lower impact on transmission because coronavirus “does not persist in well-ventilated outdoor areas for long” and the virus’s “survival on surfaces is reduced under UV light [the sun]”.

But despite being considered low-risk, the virus is still able to spread outdoors. This is why when a lot of people had the virus in January, the government stopped gatherings outside.

And, as ever, the closer you are to someone – for example, standing close to them and chatting – the higher the chance of droplets passing between you. So it is likely social distancing measures will still be encouraged.

Chart showing a man walking by a Primark

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Sage has said (with “low-moderate” confidence) that retail has a low impact on transmission.

Before the last lockdown was lifted, Sage recommended that “opening non-essential retail safely would require a significant effort to ensure that environments are appropriate to minimise transmission (for example social distancing and hygiene measures, ventilation)”.

This follows the idea that contacts between people are more dangerous indoors as particles in the air are replaced less slowly with clean air.

Sage estimated that opening non-essential retail such as clothes shops would see a 10% increase in indoor contacts between people.

Chart showing shops

This is why when shops reopened we saw crowd control, one-way systems and designated spaces for people to queue.

Sage thinks that in general non-essential retail is “low risk” when these measures are in place and masks are worn.

But once again, if coronavirus is already highly prevalent in a community as it was in December, these “low risk” actions can become riskier as more people have the virus to begin with.

Sage has said (with “moderate confidence”) that hospitality has a moderate impact on transmission.

Without restrictions, the hospitality sector can see people from different households mixing indoors for long periods of time.

Throughout the pandemic, Sage has said:

  • “Smaller gatherings such as bars and nightclubs are higher risk as you can be in closer contact with others
  • “Japan, China, South Korea, and Indonesia noted that their largest super-spreading events originated from pubs, clubs, restaurants, gyms and wedding venues”
  • “The general picture in the UK (and overseas) is that it has only been possible to get R consistently below 1 in places where there have been substantial restrictions on hospitality.”
A woman pulling a pint wearing a mask

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In the past year, we have seen attempts to limit the spread of coronavirus in hospitality, such as caps on the number of households allowed to drink together, and limiting service to outdoor areas.

“Allowing customers to sit outside only [is] likely to be much lower risk,” Sage reports.

Another restriction implemented in England was a 10pm closure for hospitality, but as Reality Check has previously reported, the evidence-base for this was minimal.

Sage has not issued specific advice on the risk of transmission in this sector.

It briefly mentions the need for greater understanding of “travel patterns and existing levels of seeding (or spreading from one region to another)” before making conclusions on restricting travel between UK nations and between regions within them.

It also seems unlikely that any changes to self-catering holidays would coincide with the reopening of the broader hospitality sector.

Picture of police on the beach

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This would mean most activities taking place outdoors, where the risks of spreading the virus are lower.

Last year, Reality Check looked at whether large gatherings of tourists on Bournemouth beach had an impact on case numbers, but found no evidence of it leading to a spike.

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