Following the science or taking a different path? The key questions answered
The Government’s scientific advisers suggested a “circuit-breaker” lockdown should be considered for “immediate” introduction three weeks ago.
The revelation emerged in official papers just hours after the Prime Minister announced a new three-tier system in England which will see areas put into different categories labelled as medium, high or very high risk.
The difference between what the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) advised Government last month, and what Boris Johnson announced on Monday – 21 days later – is now the focus of much scrutiny as the UK grapples with what exactly needs to be done to halt the spread of Covid-19.
– Was Boris Johnson following the science when he announced the new three-tier system?
No, not according to Sage documents dating back to September 21 which said a package of interventions was needed to reverse the “exponential” rise in cases.
The papers set out a shortlist of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) that should be considered for “immediate” introduction, and top of the list was a short period of lockdown known as a circuit-breaker “to return incidence to low levels”, followed by advice to work from home for all those who can.
Third on the list was “banning all contact within the home with members of other households (except members of a support bubble)”, and fourth was the closure of all bars, restaurants, cafes, indoor gyms, and personal services such as hairdressers.
The final measure was that all university and college teaching has “to be online unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential”.
Apart from advice to work from home, Mr Johnson has not introduced these measures.
– So what is the new system announced by the Prime Minister?
Different areas of England will be split up into medium, high and very high alert levels.
These three tiers represent an advancing scale of local lockdown restrictions with Tier 3 referring to areas in the “very high” category.
In these areas, social mixing will be banned both indoors and in private gardens, while pubs and bars will be told to close unless they can operate as a restaurant.
Local leaders will help to determine whether other venues should be closed, such as gyms or casinos.
People will also be advised against travel in and out of these areas.
– What about areas placed in the medium or high categories?
Areas classed as “medium” will be subject to the same national measures which currently apply across the country.
These include the 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants and a ban on most gatherings of more than six people.
Areas categorised as “high” will see household mixing banned indoors, although support bubbles will still be permitted, while the rule of six will continue to apply outdoors.
Most areas which are already subject to local restrictions will move to this level.
– What does all this mean for people who shielded during the first wave of the pandemic?
The Government said none of the alert levels will automatically trigger a warning for those who shielded before to shield again and stay home at all times.
In the future, those living in Tier 3 areas could be advised to adopt formal shielding if necessary, but they would receive a letter setting out the precautions they should take.
– Can I get a pint if I’m in an area on “very high” alert?
Yes, but there’s a caveat. You can only be served alcohol as part of a meal, and packets of crisps or pork scratchings do not count.
The good news is that Cornish pasties are a viable option, provided they come with a side.
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick suggested that as long as food items such as Cornish pasties came with a side of chips or salad and were served on a plate, to a table, they could be considered as “a normal meal”.
Outlining what constitutes a meal, the legislation refers to a “table meal”, which is one which might be expected to be served as “the main midday or main evening meal”, or as a main course at either of those meal times.
– Which areas have been placed under “very high” alert?
The Liverpool City Region faces the toughest local lockdown restrictions and will move into the “very high” alert level from Wednesday.
This includes the local authority districts of Halton, Knowsley, Sefton, St Helens and Wirral, as well as the City of Liverpool.
– What has been said about the difference between the scientific advice and the Government’s actions?
On the political side, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “The Government now needs to urgently explain why it ignored its own scientists and what it will be doing to get control of the virus.”
Sage scientist Professor Calum Semple warned the new restrictions announced by the PM had come too late and a “circuit-breaker” could be needed within weeks.
England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said he was “very confident” the measures being put in place would slow the virus but suggested tighter restrictions may be needed for regions in Tier 3.
Prof Whitty was among attendees at the September 21 Sage meeting which was held via Zoom.
– The three-tier system doesn’t apply to all of the UK, does it?
No. It does not. While England will be carved up into three tiers from Wednesday, the other three nations have yet to go down that road.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said England’s tiered system would “give an idea” of a similar scheme to be proposed in Scotland.
There are currently tighter restrictions in 16 areas of Wales, including Cardiff, Swansea and parts of North Wales, prohibiting people entering or leaving an area without a reasonable excuse such as work or education.
And in Northern Ireland, senior health officials have urged Stormont ministers to take “urgent and decisive” action to stem spiralling coronavirus infections.