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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Europe is using longer, stricter lockdowns to fight coronavirus variants. They show signs of working.

A sign in the window of a store on the main street in Maidstone, England, informs customers that the shop is permanently closed. (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)
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For months, one pesky number had undermined Britain’s fight against the coronavirus. It wasn’t the daily number of new cases, the ever-increasing death toll or even the spread of an alarming new variant — though none of these were reassuring, of course.

It was a far smaller figure that British authorities call the R number, also known as the reproduction number, or simply R0.

The R number is a representation of how fast the coronavirus, or really any other disease, is spreading. If the figure is above 1, as the coronavirus stubbornly was for months in Britain, it means that on average, a person will spread the virus to more than one person and that the outbreak is spreading.

But on Friday, the British government had good news: The R number had dropped to between 0.7 and 0.9 this week, finally below 1 for the first time since July 2020.

Many were quick to point out what they thought the cause was: a longer, stricter government lockdown in place since early January.

The R number showed the “lockdown IS working,” wrote the Daily Express, a patriotic tabloid. “The lockdown has really driven down cases quite fast,” Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, a former government adviser, told Politico’s “Westminster Insider” podcast this week.

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Outside of Britain, other nations appear to be having similar successes against fast-spreading variants like B.1.1.7, the variant first found in Britain.

And though the spread of the coronavirus throughout the pandemic has often confounded experts, in many cases the most effective form of containment is longer and stricter lockdowns.

After more than six weeks of severe restrictions in Denmark, authorities announced this week that rates of infection had dropped from growing exponentially to essentially constant — suggesting an R number of around 0.99 for B.1.1.7 by the week of Feb. 1.

The positive moves have allowed Denmark to partially reopen schools, though most other restrictions are to remain until at least Feb. 28, if not longer.

Ireland, which implemented its own tight restrictions after a huge surge in cases over Christmas, also saw a steep decline in new cases after the lockdown was implemented, with its R number declining to between 0.5 and 0.8 by mid-January.

As in Britain and Denmark, the B.1.1.7 variant is believed to be widespread in Ireland. Likewise, many experts view a strict lockdown as the likely root of the success against it, with schools and construction sites among those closed.

“Ireland’s experience yet again shows how straightforward it is to bring case numbers down,” Luke O’Neill, an immunologist at Trinity College Dublin, wrote for the Conversation, a website for academic discussion.

That unambiguous logic has existed in some form or another since the very start of the pandemic, when China took the then-unprecedented approach to limit spread of the then-mysterious virus of locking down millions of people roughly one year ago.

As cases subsided in many nations over summer, many governments relaxed these restrictions. But as infections surged again in the fall, many countries imposed a second lockdown. After a surge of cases at the end of 2020, as well as the rise of more transmissible variants, governments opted for not just another lockdown, but stricter and longer measures than before.

Those measures now look to be working, though the exact nature of the success is hard to measure.

Brazil, another country home to another fast-spreading variant but without a national lockdown, has not seen a substantial decline in new cases in recent weeks.

In South Africa, where strict measures such as a ban on the sale of alcohol were only recently relaxed, new cases have recently declined substantially.

But in the United States, where restrictions are at best a regional patchwork, new cases overall have also declined. It is not clear if such differences are because of the comparatively low levels of variants or something else.

Vaccination may soon play a role, though both Denmark and Ireland are far behind Britain and the United States in the number of doses they have given out to their population.

Many governments still view lockdowns as a necessary tool against new variants. Despite a drop in new cases in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders on Wednesday extended the country’s lockdown for another month.

“We have this great uncertainty with the mutation,” Merkel said, justifying new, stricter requirements for reopening.

With lockdowns taking a significant personal and economic toll, governments will have to consider when to ease them. In the past, they have been criticized for ending restrictions too early.

In Britain, an announcement is expected before the end of the month on how long the lockdown will last. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he plans to reopen schools in March, though some restrictions are expected to last months.

In Denmark, some policymakers expect restrictions to be extended past a Feb. 28 deadline currently in place. “It is too early to assess whether there is a stable trend,” the country’s public health agency, the State Serum Institute, said of the low R number in a statement this week.

Although there was pressure to reopen in Ireland, O’Neill, the immunologist, warned that the sudden spike in cases after Christmas showed that even a limited amount of social interaction could allow the virus to “re-erupt.”

“Ireland must keep up with public health measures into the foreseeable future,” O’Neill wrote. “This virus will exploit any weakness and the task now is to learn from mistakes and move to the next phase, with what has become the mantra of these times: cautious optimism.”