Coronavirus: Sage asked for swathe of urgent lockdown measures three weeks ago, new documents show

Kate Devlin
Tuesday 13 October 2020 15:18
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Chris Whitty ‘not confident’ that top tier lockdown restrictions will work

The government’s scientific advisers recommended a two-week ‘circuit break’ lockdown three weeks ago in a bid to curtail the spread of Covid -19, official documents show.

Sage told ministers a swathe of interventions would be required to reverse the exponential rise in cases.

The minutes from the 21 September meeting of the group were quietly published just hours after Boris Johnson announced new restrictions, including a a new three tier system for local lockdowns, that appeared to fall short of what Sage suggested.

Even Mr Johnson’s own chief medical officer warned the new measures to be introduced in the most severe cases will not work on their own.

Just hours after they were unveiled by the prime minister, Professor Chris Whitty said he was “not confident” they would be enough to stop the  disease spreading.

Just one area in England has so far been classified as  “very high” risk, Merseyside, where all bars, pubs, and gyms will have to close from Wednesday.

The Sage minutes show the scientists recommended that a series of measures be considered for “immediate” introduction> 

These included a “circuit breaker”, which they defined as a short period of lockdown, to cut the number of cases.

Also on the list was the closure of all bars, restaurants, indoor gyms, and hairdressers, as well as a ban on all contact with members of another household inside a home.

The scientists also advised that ministers should consider closing universities and limiting teaching to online unless face-to-face contact was deemed “essential”.

The fifth recommendation, which was adopted by the government soon after, was that all those who could should be advised to work from home.

Sage admitted the extra restrictions would hurt the economy.

The minutes state: "All these interventions listed above have associated costs in terms of health and wellbeing and many interventions will affect the poorest members of society to a greater extent. Measures will be needed urgently to mitigate these effects and to achieve equity and social justice."

The prime minister’s official spokesman said that Mr Johnson continues to receive advice from Sage and “work closely” with Prof Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.

“The Government receives advice from a wide range of scientific experts and also from economists but it’s ultimately for ministers to make decisions," said the spokesman.

He pointed to a section of the Sage papers released on Monday which discussed the need to consider the economic harms alongside the health impacts.

“That is exactly what the Prime Minister and the Chancellor did by canvassing a wide variety of scientific opinion alongside extensive engagement with scientific and medical advisers and the chief economist ahead of announcing the package of measures that we put forward in September,” the spokesman said.

Discussing the range of measures suggested by Sage, he said: “You can see that we took robust and targeted and proportionate action in September which was carefully judged to protect lives and to reduce the transmission of the virus whilst minimising the impact to livelihoods.

“In terms of the advice to work from home for all of those who can, that’s what we asked people to do in September.

“In terms of banning contact within the home with members of other households, that is the case in the regions where the virus is spreading rapidly and where we’ve asked people not to mix with others outside their households or bubbles in any indoor settings and also some outdoor settings.

“Universities have taken extensive steps to make themselves Covid-secure but under their existing guidance some universities did move to teaching online.

“In terms of the closure of all bars and some other hospitality and leisure sectors, yesterday we set out a baseline set of measures for Level 3 which does require the closure of bars and pubs.”

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