A national circuit-breaker lockdown was at the top of a shortlist of coronavirus interventions to avoid an exponential growth in cases, recommended to the government by expert advisors last month.
Documents reveal that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) also agreed that all university teaching should be online unless face-to-face teaching is “absolutely essential”, and all bars, restaurants, pubs and indoor gyms should close.
The paper was published soon after the prime minister, chancellor and England's chief medical officer held a Downing Street briefing in which they outlined three new Covid alert levels and the restrictions they entail.
Even the toughest new measures do not go anywhere near as far as those recommended by Sage.
ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston says that had the recommendation for universities to move as much teaching online as possible "we might not have seen the surges in infection rates in student towns that are causing tremendous concerns now".
He adds that at Monday's briefing, the prime minister departed from the stance he took earlier in the year when he frequently said the government was "following the science", but at the most recent briefing made no mention of this.
Under the highest level - "very high" - which the Liverpool City Region will be placed under from Wednesday, all hospitality venues except restaurants will be ordered to close, as well as gyms, leisure centres, bookies and casinos.
Non-essential retail, schools and universities will remain open in all alert levels.
Despite the announcement of the new measures, England's Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said more still needs to be done to get on top of the virus.
While Prof Whitty - who is a member of Sage - said he was “very confident” the new Covid tier rules being put in place would slow the spread of coronavirus, he said even the toughest measures under the new rules "may not be enough to get on top of it".
The Sage document, dated September 21, said a package of interventions will be needed to reverse the exponential rise in cases.
“Single interventions by themselves are unlikely to be able to bring R below one (high confidence),” the document said, before setting out a shortlist of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) that should be considered for “immediate” introduction.
Top of the list is a circuit-breaker, a short period of lockdown, “to return incidence to low levels”, followed by advice to work from home for all those that can.
Third on the list was “banning all contact within the home with members of other households (except members of a support bubble)”, and fourth was 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 “to be online unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential”.
Attendees of the September 21 meeting, held via Zoom, included the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and Prof Whitty.
The document says that both local and national measures are needed, adding: “Measures should not be applied in too specific a geographical area.”
The report also said that the Test and Trace system only had a "marginal impact" on lessoning the spread of the virus.
A separate Sage document, also dated September 21, looking at the effectiveness and harms of non-pharmaceutical interventions, said a circuit-breaker reintroduced for two to three weeks should act to reduce R below one.
“Over a fortnight’s ‘break’, two weeks of growth could be exchanged for two weeks of decay in transmission, assuming good adherence to measures, and no additional increase in contacts before of after the break.
“If this were as strict and well-adhered to as the restrictions in late May, this could put the epidemic back by approximately 28 days or more.
“The amount of ‘time gained’ is highly dependent on how quickly the epidemic is growing – the faster the growth or stricter the measures introduced, the more time gained.
“If regulations and behaviour then returned to pre-circuit break levels, there would be a return to exponential growth, but from a significantly lower level than would have been the case without the break.
“The deleterious impact would be maximised if they coincided with school holidays.
“Multiple circuit-breaks might be necessary to maintain low levels of incidence,” the document said.
On Monday evening, Sage scientist Professor Calum Semple warned the new restrictions announced by the PM on Monday had come too late and a “circuit-breaker” could be needed within weeks.
Asked if the level of response announced for London is sufficient for the threat, the University of Liverpool academic told BBC Radio 4’s PM: “I’m going to be difficult and say no, I think we’re a little late to react.”
He said there is a three-to-four-week delay before interventions see benefits in hospitals.
“I and other people who were advocating for quite stringent severe local interventions where necessary three to four weeks ago, our fear is now that we’re in another place now,” he said.
“And that we’re going to need a much firmer intervention perhaps, the so-called circuit-breaker, in the matter of weeks.
“The outbreak is a bit like a super-tanker, you put the brakes on but it takes a long time before you see the effect.”
Responding to the Sage documents, 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.”