Number 10 was today blasted for not ‘following the science’ after bombshell documents showed ministers shunned a number of recommendations by their expert advisers before unveiling the latest suite of lockdown measures.
The Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) put forward two dozen suggestions about how to navigate the country through a second wave of the pandemic in September – many of which fell on deaf ears.
Top of the list was a national ‘circuit-breaker’, which would’ve seen the country revert to a spring-level lockdown for about a month to bring the outbreak under control. But it was overruled by Boris Johnson amid fears it would ‘shatter’ the already wounded economy.
Ministers also ignored warnings that the much-hated 10pm curfew would have ‘marginal impact’ and went ahead with the scheme anyway, angering hospitality bosses, local councillors and even their own backbenchers.
SAGE warned that the Government’s beleaguered Test and Trace system was having ‘marginal impact on transmission at the moment’. They said the scheme will ‘further decline’ unless it grows at the same rate as the epidemic. Number 10 has repeatedly rolled out ministers to defend the lagging £12billion programme, which is still failing to find four in 10 people who are suspected of having the disease.
The three files — released late last night — also revealed closing gyms and leisure centres would likely have ‘low to moderate’ impact on the spread of Covid-19 and risked harming people’s mental and physical health. Yet the Prime Minister announced yesterday that they would be shut in ‘Tier Three’ lockdown areas with highest infection rates, putting thousands of jobs in jeopardy.
The group warned in the September papers that hospital admissions for Covid-19 could reach levels seen in darkest days of the crisis in spring, when 3,000 a day were admitted, by the end of October if lockdown-tightening measures were not introduced. At the time the files were published, the spread of the virus was doubling every fortnight.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the revelations in the paper were ‘alarming’. He added: ‘The fact that the Prime Minister chose to publish it an hour after his press conference is yet more evidence that he is treating the British people with contempt.
‘Labour warned earlier the restrictions announced by the Prime Minister may not be sufficient. 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 told the Government on September 21 that a complete three-week shut down could reset the virus’s trajectory, bring the reproduction ‘R’ rate below the dreaded level of one and give the country breathing room heading into winter.
The experts on the same day said alcohol’s effect on behaviour and the tendency for pub-goers to shout meant bars were likely breeding grounds for the virus. They endorsed the idea of shutting them entirely, which they say would bring the R down by 0.1 and 0.2. But they warned a curfew would only have a ‘marginal impact’.
Yet, in a sign of the growing rift between the Government and its scientists, just a day later Mr Johnson used a Downing Street press conference to introduce the controversial curfew. It is just one example of ministers ignoring ‘the science’.
Files released today revealed scientists also told the Government:
- Test and Trace is only having ‘marginal impact’ on curtailing the epidemic and if it doesn’t get up to speed quickly it’ll ‘decline further in future’;
- Ordering everyone who is ale to work from home to do so could reduce the R by between 0.2 and 0.4;
- Closing gyms only has ‘low to moderate’ impact on Covid-19’s spread and may ‘limit access to exercise for physical and mental health’;
- Mandatory masks in offices and schools would help curb the virus’ spread, particularly when social distancing is harder. Evidence suggests face coverings reduce viral exposure, leading to less severe symptoms;
- Shutting universities and switching all students to online-only courses would drag down the R rate by up to 0.5 and have very little downsides;
- Encouraging high-risk people to stay in their homes would have ‘low impact’ on the virus’ spread but ‘moderate impact’ on the number of deaths and hospitalisations;
- Limiting people from travelling more than 5miles from their homes could have ‘moderate’ benefit, although communicating and enforcing the policy is ‘likely to be very complicated’.
Bombshell minutes from a SAGE meeting presented a shortlist of options including a national ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown, banning all indoor contact between households, and closing bars, restaurants, cafes, gyms, and hairdressers
The experts on the same day said alcohol’s effect on behaviour and the tendency for pub-goers to shout meant bars were likely breeding grounds for the virus. They endorsed the idea of shutting them entirely, which they say would bring the R down by 0.1 and 0.2. But they warned a curfew would only have a ‘marginal impact’
SAGE warned that the Government’s beleaguered Test and Trace system was having ‘marginal impact on transmission at the moment’. They warned the scheme will ‘further decline’ unless it grows at the same rate as the epidemic. Number 10 has repeatedly rolled out ministers to defend the lagging £12billion programme, which is still failing to find four in 10 people who are suspected of having the disease
Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty (left) and the Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance have been steering the Government through the pandemic
Millions of people are covered by the two higher risk tiers in the government’s new system, with the rest of England under the Rule of Six and 10pm curfew on bars and restaurants
Sage experts say Test and Trace is having a ‘marginal’ impact on tackling the virus. The criticism, voiced in a summary of a review of measures on September 21, will increase the pressure on Baroness Harding (pictured outside the Health Department last month), the Conservative peer in charge of Test and Trace
10pm pub curfews don’t work
Slapping curfews on pubs has barely any effect on Covid-19, the Government’s advisers warned last month.
In the documents dated September 21, experts endorsed the idea of shutting pubs and restaurants entirely, which they say would bring the R down by 0.1 and 0.2.
The R – the average number of people each Covid-19 patient infects – is thought to be 1.1 and 1.4 nationally. Keeping it below 1 is critical to making sure the epidemic is shrinking.
They said alcohol’s effect on behaviour and the tendency for pub-goers to shout meant bars were likely breeding grounds for the virus.
But SAGE warned a curfew didn’t go far enough and would only have a ‘marginal impact’.
Ministers ignored the advice and went full steam ahead with the 10pm curfew the following day.
Writing in the document, SAGE said the ‘environmental risk in bars, pubs etc is likely to be higher than many other indoor settings due to close proximity of people, long duration of exposure, no wearing of face coverings by customers, loud talking that can generate more aerosols.’
They added: ‘Some venues are poorly ventilated, especially in winter. Consumption of alcohol impacts on behaviour.’
Test and Trace is having a ‘marginal’ impact on tackling the virus
Sage experts say Test and Trace is having a ‘marginal’ impact on tackling the virus because the system neither tests nor traces enough people.
The £12billion programme will ‘further decline’ unless it grows at the same rate as the epidemic, the scientific advisory group warned in documents released on Monday.
Boris Johnson has promised the scheme would be ‘world beating’, while experts and politicians alike see it as a major way of reducing the severity of restrictions imposed during the crisis.
‘The relatively low levels of engagement with the system… 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,’ they wrote.
‘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 that the impact of Test, Trace and Isolate will further decline in the future.’
The criticism, voiced in a summary of a review of measures on September 21, will increase the pressure on Baroness Harding, the Conservative peer in charge of Test and Trace.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: ‘This is yet further evidence that the Government’s incompetence is hampering our response to a second wave.
‘Sage have essentially confirmed test and trace is not functioning adequately as we have been warning for months. Ministers need to get a grip of testing so we can get control of the virus.’
The scheme’s success only seems to have worsened since the Sage document was written. Figures from last week showed NHS Test And Trace in England had suffered its worst week for the proportion of contacts it successfully manages to track down.
Only 68.6 per cent of close contacts of individuals who have tested positive for Covid-19 were reached in the week ending September 30, the lowest weekly percentage since the scheme began.
Working from home could slash the R rate by 0.4
Ordering everyone who is able to work from home to do so could slash the reproduction rate by up to 0.4, according to SAGE.
Experts said their modelling finds home working ‘would have a significant effect on transmission’, bringing the R down by between 0.2 and 0.4.
But they warned that social isolation could harm the mental wellbeing of many Brits and victims of domestic violence could face even more abuse.
Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam laid out the government’s latest assessment of the COVID situation with charts at a briefing today
How England breaks down in new COVID tiers
TIER THREE – VERY HIGH RISK
Liverpool City Region
Liverpool, Knowsley, Wirral, St Helens, Sefton, Halton
TIER TWO – HIGH RISK
Cheshire West and Chester, Cheshire East
Manchester, Bolton, Bury, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford, Wigan, Salford, Rochdale, Oldham,
High Peak – the wards of Tintwistle, Padfield, Dinting, St John’s – Old Glossop, Whitfield, Simmondley, Gamesley, Howard Town, Hadfield South, Hadfield North
Lancashire, Blackpool, Preston, Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley
Leeds, Bradford, Kirklees, Calderdale, Wakefield South
Barnsley, Rotherham, Doncaster, Sheffield
Newcastle, South Tyneside, North Tyneside, Gateshead, Sunderland, Durham, Northumberland
Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland, Stockton-on-Tees, Darlington, Hartlepool
Birmingham, Sandwell, Solihull, Wolverhampton, Walsall
Leicester, Oadby and Wigston
Nottinghamshire, Nottingham City
TIER ONE – MEDIUM RISK
Rest of England
However, Boris has been staunchly opposed to the measure because of the negative knock-on effect it has on the economy, which thrives on workers buying coffees, sandwiches and public transport fares five days a week.
The advice was issued by SAGE on September 21, at which point Mr Johnson was still encouraging employees to return to their offices.
He finally U-turned the following day and told people to work from home ‘if they can’, which sparked widespread confusion.
SAGE wrote in the paper: ‘Typically, over a third of contacts are made at work, often long duration and highly clustered. Modelling suggests that homeworking would have a significant effect on transmission.
‘Reduction in R of 0.2 – 0.4 if all who can work from home do so. There is evidence from PHE reports on role of workplaces in transmission. Transmission risk in workplace settings will vary significantly with the particular environment, activities and worker behaviours.’
Closing gyms barely has any impact on Covid-19’s spread
Ministers were told that closing gyms and leisure centres would barely bring down coronavirus infections – despite the Government announcing the measure last night.
Number 10’s scientists warned shutting gyms could be a huge detriment to the nation’s mental and physical health.
Writing in the document last month, SAGE said the rule has the ‘potential reduction in R of up to 0.1, though precise estimation very difficult.’
But they warned it ‘limits access to exercise for physical and mental health but high potential for substitution to outdoor physical activity though may be harder in winter months.’
‘Risk of increasing mental health problems with closure of gyms. Potentially increasing health inequalities for some BAME groups that do not engage in outdoor physical activity due to safety concerns, and areas with no garden or suitable outdoor space for physical activity,’ they added.
The revelation that SAGE warned against shutting gyms came in the document released an hour after Mr Johnson revealed ‘Tier Three’ towns and cities in England would see their leisure centres forced to shut.
Liverpool is the only area in the top bracket of lockdown measures so far, and the city is going further than the basic restrictions by closing leisure centres, gyms, betting shops and casinos.
Mandatory masks in offices and schools CAN reduce transmission
Forcing people to constantly wear masks in offices and schools will likely curb the spread of coronavirus, but to what extent is still a mystery.
Widening compulsory face mask-wearing to include more indoor settings has been fiercely debated since the virus started to resurge in late August.
The British Medical Association has made repeated pleas for ministers to consider the measure, which it says could add a vital additional layer of protection.
Chris Whitty warns that ‘basic’ Tier Three curbs won’t be enough
Chris Whitty risked undermining the PM’s delicately calibrated message on lockdown tonight by cautioning that ‘base’ Tier Three restrictions ‘will not be sufficient’ to control the virus.
The chief medical officer urged local leaders to use the ‘flexibility’ in the rules to beef up the restrictions.
Hinting at disquiet within the scientific community at the chances of the measures working, Prof Whitty told a No10 press conference: ‘I am very confident the measures currently in place are helping to slow the virus and these measures will help to slow it further.
‘I am not confident and nor is anyone confident that the Tier Three proposals for the highest rates, if we did the absolute base case and nothing more, would be enough to get on top of it.
‘And that is why there’s a lot of flexibility in the Tier Three level for local authorities, guided by their directors of public health, to go up that range so they can do significantly more than the absolute base.
‘The base will not be sufficient. I think that is clearly the professional view… but there are additional things that can be done within that guidance.’
Prof Whitty defended apocalyptic warnings by himself and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance last month suggesting daily cases could hit 50,000 by now.
‘If we had not been doing all the things that everybody is currently doing, if there had not been in every business a real attempt to be Covid-secure and limit the amount of transmission, if people were not seeing fewer numbers of people which is clearly happening across society, the rates we are seeing in these graphs would be substantially higher in my view,’ he said.
‘What we can see is that we need to go further or these rates will continue, inexorably, to rise.’
While SAGE admitted that the evidence is not conclusive, its members said it could be ‘beneficial where distancing is harder or where ventilation is poor’.
Some scientists have claimed that wearing a mask for prolonged periods of time leads to a build up of germs – including Covid-19 – on the face covering that increase the likelihood of the wearer falling ill.
But SAGE said the ‘reduction in risk due to source control likely to outweigh any risks of transmission from soiled face coverings when worn for long durations’.
It added: ‘Evidence from healthcare suggests universal masking helped to bring hospital outbreaks under control. Some suggestion that the face covering may reduce viral exposure, leading to less severe symptoms.’
Shutting universities and switching all students to online-only courses would drag down the R
Switching all university and college students to online-only courses would slash the rate of transmission, according to SAGE.
Data shows that Covid-19 infection rates at universities in hotspots like Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham are up to seven times higher than in the cities around them.
The Government’s experts said the reproduction rate could be dragged down by up to 0.5 if all universities and college campuses were closed-off.
Writing in the paper, they said: ‘Outbreaks are very likely in universities, given their size and the degree of close contact typical through shared living arrangements and while socialising and during lectures and practicals.’
They recommended sending students back home because leaving them to isolate in their term-time accommodation risked them hosting house parties or meeting up with friends.
Higher education will remain open through the winter, Boris has reassured the public, even in places with ‘Tier Three’ lockdowns.
Young people remain largely unaffected by Covid-19 and the prolonged shutdown of education in the spring was heavily criticised.
Making vulnerable to stay in their homes would have minimal impact on epidemic
Cocooning the elderly and vulnerable at home during winter will not shrink the UK’s Covid-19 outbreak, contrary to popular belief.
But it would have quite a substantial impact on the number of deaths and ICU admissions recorded, according to SAGE.
The scientists did not offer an explanation as to why shielding those at-risk would not help bring down the R rate.
But it’s thought that because the elderly and already-sick fall so severely unwell that they are quickly admitted to hospital and not able to spread the disease on to many others.
However, for the same reason, asking these people to shield would likely help protect hospitals by reducing the number of admissions.
The strategy would allow young and healthy Brits to continue enjoying freedoms like going to restaurants and pubs – which would also bolster the flailing economy.
But politicians have been reluctant to go with the strategy because it would be ethically questionable. Nicola Sturgeon, for example, has firmly rejected the strategy and described it as ‘impractical and unethical’.