The government’s Sage committee of scientific experts urged ministers to impose a circuit breaker lockdown on 21 September, documents have shown.
What is unusual about these Sage documents?
The timing of their release, for a start. In the interests of transparency (in response to pressure) the government has been releasing Sage minutes around lunchtime on a Friday for many months. These documents were published at 8.20pm on a Monday, within an hour of the prime minister’s press conference in which he described the new three-tier system of restrictions on areas with high numbers of Covid infections. That makes them look very like a dissenting opinion.
What do they say?
The minutes of the Sage meeting on 21 September show the experts wanted a dramatic increase in restrictions across the country to check the alarming rise in infections, warning at that point that the number of cases was doubling every seven days and hospitalisations had begun to increase. A package of measures was needed, they said, to include:
• a “circuit-breaker” lockdown of a couple of weeks.
• advice to work from home for all who could.
• a ban on household mixing in homes.
• closure of all bars, cafes, restaurants, indoor gyms and personal services such as hairdressers.
• all university and college teaching to be online.
Were they concerned about the impact on people’s lives of more draconian measures?
Yes. They said they would all have costs in terms of health and wellbeing and many would have most impact on the poorest. Measures would be needed to mitigate this, and some could be brought in fairly swiftly (they didn’t specify what). Both local and national measures would be needed, they said. Clear communication of what the measures entailed and the reason for imposing them was vital, and people must be encouraged to continue with social distancing, wearing masks and hand hygiene. But they were aware that there might be resistance – “it should not be assumed that people will respond in the same way that they have done previously”, they said.
What did the UK actually do?
None of the above – except for the advice on working at home. On the day after the Sage meeting, Boris Johnson addressed the nation and said that those who could carry on working from home should do so. This was a U-turn from the government’s previous position, in the summer people had been urged to go back to their workplaces to help the economy.
The circuit-breaker idea was leaked and discussed, but nothing came of it. Sage describes it as “a short period of lockdown to return incidence to low levels”, which would require everyone to stay home for two to three weeks, possibly in the school holidays. It would bring the R number down below 1, but only temporarily. Modelling suggests 14 days of lockdown in October would put the epidemic back by 28 days and significantly reduce infections in December.
Instead, on Monday, the prime minister announced three tiers of restrictions depending on transmission locally. Even in tier 3, the most severely restricted, pubs and restaurants are open for food, although not for drinking. Household mixing is not allowed in tier 3 but allowed outdoors in tier 2, subject to the “rule of six”.
What has happened to transmission since the Sage meeting on 21 September?
Infections have continued to rise, fuelled in part by students returning to universities and colleges, as the Sage scientists predicted in their meeting. The surge in cases from the end of August and beginning of September, means new infections are now around 14,000 a day and there are increasing numbers of hospitalisations and deaths. Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said on Monday that a rise in deaths was inevitable. “Already with the cases that we know about, we have baked in additional hospital admissions, and sadly, we also have baked in additional deaths that are now consequent upon infections that have already happened,” he said.
Does this mean the UK is categorically no longer following the science?
These documents appear to mark the point at which the science of handling an infectious disease epidemic lost out to economic considerations. Sage scientists have always said they were advisers on health and science to the government, and that they recognised politicians had to take other factors into consideration. But the publication of their radically different advice from the course that Johnson set out an hour earlier suggests they strongly believe this is the wrong road. It was clear that the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, who jointly chaired the Sage meeting, was grim faced in the prime minister’s press conference and expressed some doubt. He said that he was not confident the measures imposed in tier 3 areas on their own would be enough to bring the infection rates down.