LOCKDOWN. We knew it was coming but the question is, has it come to soon – or too late?

Despite appeals to ‘Blitz spirit’ and the war-like parlance of Boris Johnson as he urged citizens to stay at home by stating that the fight against Covid-19 was one in which “each and every one of us is directly enlisted”, this is a battle in which most of us will do our bit by sitting it out.

The heroes on the frontline are the NHS staff risking exposure as they struggle to save patients’ lives and the scientists racing to find a vaccine or unravel how this new virus works.

It has seemed at times – if it were not so serious – like a comedy of errors.

Britons massing in parks and beaches as soon as pubs, restaurants and leisure venues were shut down because they had been told it was still safe – and encouraged – to exercise outdoors, only to discover that everyone else had had exactly the same idea.

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Timetables cut as workers were told to limit public transport use and work from home, only for commuters still travelling to find themselves packed onto rush-hour trains.

Both factors undoubtedly helped to finally tip the scales away from voluntary ‘social distancing’ in favour of the full ‘stay at home’ lockdown we always knew was coming, but had been told was too hard on the collective psyche to implement early.

So, will it achieve its aim of flattening the curve and cutting the death toll?

Much has been made of the fact that other countries – for example – Ireland rolled out school closures, bans on mass gatherings and pub shutdowns after one death and far fewer infections than the UK.

Both cited scientific evidence and modelling as the basis for acting early (Ireland) and delaying (UK). If we want to know who got it right, unfortunately we have to wait until the dust has settled.

China has been hailed as the blueprint for how to curtail the outbreak. On Tuesday, Beijing announced that the two-month lockdown of virus epicentre Hubei province was to be lifted following a steady fall in cases, with Wuhan city – which reported its first case in a nearly week on Tuesday – due to follow on April 8.

However, Bruce Aylward, the World Health Organisation’s assistant director general, has cautioned countries against thinking that a Chinese-style lockdown on its own will be enough.

“The first thing [China] did was try to prevent the spread as much as it could, and make sure people knew about the disease and how to get tested,” he told New Scientist on March 13.

“To actually stop the virus, it had to do rapid testing of any suspected case, immediate isolation of anyone who was a confirmed or suspected case, and then quarantine the close contacts for 14 days so that they could figure out if any were infected.

“Those were the measures that stopped transmission in China, not the big travel restrictions and lockdowns.”

Mr Aylward said the problem with the approach taken in Europe, including countries such as Italy and the UK, is that anyone with a cough or fever is automatically told to stay home without being tested.

“After a couple of days, people get bored, go out for a walk and go shopping, and get other people infected. I f you know you are infected you are more likely to isolate.”

He makes a strong point – but there are glimmers of hope.

A study published last Friday for the European Society of Anaesthesiology found that infections appeared to have peaked in Italy around March 14 and predicted that the rise in new Covid-19 admissions to intensive care will “flatten out” in early April.

The research, published a day after Italy’s death toll overtook China’s, credited quarantine measures for helping to slow the spread but warned the slowdown would only come if citizens respect the lockdown.

That same day, Italy cracked down even harder on social distancing by closing parks and banning any outdoor exercise – perhaps a sign of what is to come in the UK in the weeks ahead.

In the US, where testing rates have lagged far behind Chinese or even UK levels and authorities were initially slow to act, the WHO has warned there are signs it is becoming the next epicentre for the pandemic with most of Europe now in lockdown. Only China and Italy have more confirmed cases.

Meanwhile, a study published this week in the journal ‘Lancet Infectious Diseases’ concluded that a combination of quarantining infected individuals and their families, school closures, and high volumes of the population working from home was the “most effective” way of reducing cases.

It varied in effectiveness, however, depending on how infectious the virus is – something of which we are not yet sure.

In simulations where every infected person passes it on, on average, to two and a half others, the researchers concluded that “outbreak prevention becomes considerably more challenging”.