Coronavirus: 10pm pub curfew is ineffective, says Sage — and other guidance from No 10’s scientific advisers

Of all the measures proposed by Sage, just one was implemented by the government

Samuel Lovett
Tuesday 13 October 2020 14:27
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Just hours after Boris Johnson briefed the nation on the latest Covid-19 set of restrictions, documents from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) were released into the public sphere.

The minutes, taken from a Sage meeting on 21 September, have highlighted a concerning disconnect between No 10 and its dedicated group of scientific advisers.

Of all the measures proposed by Sage, just one – advising those who can work from home to do so – was implemented by the government at the time.

Here, we look over what the group advised and said - and what the government did instead:

10pm curfew

The Sage documents show that experts dismissed the idea of a 10pm curfew for pubs, bars and restaurants before it was implemented across England.

“Curfews likely to have a marginal impact. Low confidence,” Sage wrote.

Last month, Professor Graham Medley, a leading member of Sage, said the group had “never discussed” the 10pm curfew, fuelling the belief that the government adopted the measure alone.

“I never discussed it or heard it discussed,” he said of the 10pm shutdown – which was adopted instead of a tougher crackdown on household mingling.

Circuit breaker

Sage recommended a two-week “circuit break” lockdown three weeks ago in a bid to curtail the spread of Covid-19, according to the newly-released minutes.

Assessing the impact such a measure would have on the transmission of the virus, the scientists wrote: “Likely to have similar levels of effectiveness as national lockdown in spring.

“However, would only apply for a short period and so have limited effect. Modelling suggests that 14 days of significant reduction in transmission in October could put the epidemic back 28 days.

“As with all interventions the earlier it is implemented (in the face of growing incidence) the higher the impact.”

The measure was not included in the new list of restrictions unveiled by the PM on Monday.

Banning household mixing, bar closures and more

The papers also showed the scientists suggested:

  • Banning all contact inside homes with members of other households
  • Closing all bars, restaurants, cafes, indoor gyms and hairdressers
  • Requiring all university and college teaching to take place online
  • Advice to work from home for all those that can

In the documents, Sage warned that “not acting now to reduce cases will result in a very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences”.

Test and trace

Sage said that the government’s test and trace system is only having a “marginal impact” on the spread of coronavirus.

Despite previously being described as “world-beating” by Mr Johnson, the top experts also warned the impact of test and trace will “further decline” unless it grows at the same rate as the epidemic.

Of the current system, the scientists said: “Estimates of the effectiveness of this system on R [transmission rate] are difficult to ascertain.

“The relatively low levels of engagement with the system (comparing ONS incidence estimates with NHS test and trace numbers) coupled with testing delays and likely poor rates of adherence with self-isolation suggests that this system is having a marginal impact on transmission at the moment.

“Unless the system grows at the same rate as the epidemic, and support is given to people to enable them to adhere to self-isolation, it is likely the impact of test, trace and isolate will decline further in the future.”

Reaction to Sage findings

Labour described the documents as “alarming”.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for ministers to explain why Sage’s advice had been rejected, and insisted that the government was going to have to go further with its measures as winter approaches.

Of Sage’s analysis of test and trace, Mr Ashworth said: “This is yet further evidence that the government’s incompetence is hampering our response to a second wave.”

Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, said: “We are not stuck in a loop but the winter will be difficult.

“Scientists advise and in a democracy it is politicians, as our elected representatives, who decide.

“What is being decided now is how best to reduce harm between now and spring of 2021.

“Sage’s advice was that a nationwide lockdown was more likely to work in terms of reducing viral spread.

“The government has opted to wait and see if less stringent measures can avoid a severe second wave.

“Of course, we all hope that the current measures will be enough. As Sage clearly states, lockdowns and social restrictions cause serious harm.”

What did the government say?

Communities secretary Robert Jenrick defended the government’s decision to ignore warnings from its scientific advisers, saying ministers had tried to strike a “balanced” view on restrictions. Mr Jenrick insisted No 10 was still being led by science.

“We have to take a balanced judgment,” he told BBC’s Today programme. “These are not easy decisions. But the prime minister has to balance protecting people’s lives, and the NHS from the virus, while also prioritising things that matter to us as a society, like education, and keeping as many people in employment as possible.”

He added: “We want to try, wherever we can, to avoid a blanket national lockdown. That is incredibly damaging to people’s lives, and remember, the rate of infection does vary very widely across the country.”

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