Government ‘ignored scientists’ advice’ on circuit breaker lockdown three weeks ago
The Government has been accused of ignoring its own scientists after documents showed that a “circuit-breaker” lockdown was recommended for England by expert advisers three weeks ago.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) suggested immediately introducing a national lockdown lasting between two and three weeks to halt the rapid spread of the virus, with the Government’s failure to act on the advice branded “alarming” by Labour.
Downing Street insisted that “robust but targeted and proportionate” action had been taken in September, including the rule of six and the 10pm hospitality curfew.
The Sage document, dated September 21 and released hours after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his three-tier system of alert levels for England, said a package of interventions was needed to reverse the “exponential” rise in cases.
The paper set out a shortlist of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) that should be considered for “immediate” introduction, also suggesting that all university teaching should be online unless face-to-face teaching was “absolutely essential” at a time when students were starting or returning to university.
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 Government now needs to urgently explain why it ignored its own scientists and what it will be doing to get control of the virus
The final measure was that all university and college teaching has “to be online unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential”.
Attendees of the September 21 meeting, held on Zoom, included the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty.
The document says both local and national measures are needed, adding: “Measures should not be applied in too specific a geographical area.”
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.”
A Government spokesman said: “We took robust but targeted and proportionate action in September, including introducing the rule of six, restrictions to hospitality opening hours, and advice for people to work from home where they can, alongside tougher enforcement.
“This was carefully judged to protect lives and reduce the transmission of the virus whilst minimising the impact to livelihoods, and followed extensive engagement including with scientific advisers.”
The Sage details emerged after Mr Johnson warned that rising coronavirus cases and hospital admissions were flashing like “dashboard warnings in a passenger jet” as he set out the three-tier system.
The new system in England will see areas put into different categories labelled as medium, high or very high risk.
Pubs and bars across Merseyside will close unless they serve food and alcohol as part of a sit-down meal, as the Liverpool city region moves into the “very high” alert level.
MPs will debate and vote on the measures on Tuesday and, should it be approved, the tiered system will come into effect on Wednesday.
Addressing a Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson said cases nationally had gone up four times in four weeks, there are more Covid-19 patients in UK hospitals than on March 23 when the country went into lockdown, and deaths are rising.
Areas in the top tier will be able to impose extra restrictions, and in the Liverpool city region this will mean the closure of leisure centres, gyms, betting shops and casinos.
Prof Whitty warned the measures could become stricter should more be required to suppress the virus.
He told the Downing Street press conference: “I am not confident, and nor is anybody confident, that the Tier 3 proposals for the highest rates… if we did the absolute base case, and nothing more, would be enough to get on top of it.”
Mr Johnson said he did not want another national lockdown but did not rule one out either, adding he would not impose such “extreme” measures “right now”.
He said authorities placed in the “very high” alert level would receive extra support from Whitehall, including the possibility of military assistance to support local services.
There was £1 billion of new support on offer to local authorities across England, he added.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said England’s tiered system would “give an idea” of a similar scheme she is developing, which could come into effect when stricter measures are due to be eased on October 25.
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said he was “deeply disappointed” that Mr Johnson had not imposed an outright ban on travel from “very high” alert areas, while Health Minister Vaughan Gething said a new national lockdown could be needed in Wales.
In Northern Ireland, regulations currently prevent mixing of households, with exceptions for those “bubbling” with another household, and up to six people from up to two households can meet outdoors in a private garden.