Covid: Government 'ignored' scientists calls for 'circuit breaker' lockdown

Video report by ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston

The government has been accused of ignoring its own scientists' calls for an immediate two or three week national lockdown.

Newly released documents show the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) told the government that a "circuit breaker" lockdown in England would help slow the spread of coronavirus at a meeting on September 21.

The documents were released shortly after Boris Johnson announced a three-tier system of alert levels in England, which has put Liverpool into a near total lockdown.

The Sage paper set out a list of suggestions, including banning all household indoors mixing except for members of a support bubble.

It also called for the closure of all bars, restaurants, cafes, indoor gyms, and personal services such as hairdressers.

The final measure on the list was that all university and college teaching has “to be online unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential”.

  • Robert Peston believes that if the latest Covid tier measures are not ‘bearing down’ on coronavirus cases in the next two weeks, we could be in for ‘some kind of national lockdown’ which could be similar to that imposed on the UK in March and April, with the exception of schools remaining open:

Attendees of the September 21 meeting, held via Zoom, included the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty.

The document says that both local and national measures are needed, adding: “Measures should not be applied in too specific a geographical area.”

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

However, Downing St later denied the PM had "ignored" the science. His official spokesman said:  “I think you need to look at what the full detail of those Sage minutes say, they explicitly point out that policy makers will need to consider analysis of economic impacts and the associated harms of their epidemiological impacts and that’s exactly what the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and colleagues did.”

On the range of other measures suggested by Sage, the spokesman 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."

Labour has claimed the scientific advice was ignored. Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “The revelations in this paper are alarming.

“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 that 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.”

The Sage details emerged on the same day that Mr Johnson warned that rising coronavirus cases and hospital admissions are 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.

There were over 2,000 excess deaths from these conditions registered between March 14 and September 11 Credit: Danny Lawson/PA

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 a “very high” Covid alert level.

MPs will debate and vote on the measures on Tuesday and, should it be approved, the new 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.

Under the new arrangements:

  • The medium alert level will cover most of England and will consist of the current national measures, including the rule of six and the 10pm curfew.

  • The high alert level reflects interventions in many areas subject to local restrictions, preventing mixing between different households indoors.

  • The very high alert level will mean, at a minimum, the closure of pubs and bars and a ban on social mixing indoors and in private gardens.

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.

  • Robert Jenrick defends the government's decision to not follow 'circuit breaker' lockdown advice

He told the Downing Street press conference: “I am not confident, and nor is anybody 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 the directors of public health, to actually go up that range, so that they can do significantly more than the absolute base because the base will not be sufficient.”

Pubs and other areas of hospitality in Liverpool City Region will close from Wednesday. Credit: PA

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 being placed in the “very high” alert level would gain 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.

Mr Johnson also said that updated guidance would be published for those who are deemed to be “clinically extremely vulnerable” – or those at highest risk from developing complications from Covid-19.

Patients are not currently advised to shield in any local areas in England.

During the first wave of the pandemic people deemed to be clinically extremely vulnerable in England were advised to take extra precautions, also known as shielding.