Decision not to adopt Sage advice put UK 'three weeks behind' in Covid fight, member says

Video report by ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston

The UK is "three weeks behind" where it would have been in its battle with coronavirus because the government did not take on advice to enforce a "circuit break lockdown", a member of the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has told ITV News.

Lucy Yardley, a Professor of Health Psychology at Southampton University, suggested deaths and infection rates would have remained at a lower level, had the government chosen to implement advice it received in a September 21 meeting.

In that meeting - which Professor Yardley attended - government representatives were told a "circuit breaker" lockdown in England would help slow the spread of coronavirus.

  • 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:

Instead of implementing the circuit breaker - which would have seen all but essential businesses closed for two or three weeks - the prime minister chose to announce the less strict, three tier alert system.

Professor Yardley said Sage memebers accept the economic reasons Boris Johnson chose not to go into full lockdown but added: "If the virus is to be controlled it is very likely that there will have to be more measures."

"The reason we said it was urgent to do [a circuit breaker] several weeks ago," Prof Yardley said, "is because if you act quickly while the infection rates are still fairly low then not only do you have less deaths but hopefully you should have less impact on the economy."

Professor Yardley: 'We're three weeks behind where we would have been...'

She said Sage members were "very aware" of the economic impact a fresh lockdown would cause, but "the idea was to let the government know what was definitely going to work in terms of getting in control of the infection".

But she wasn't surprised by the government's decision not to implement a new full lockdown because "it is very difficult before the hospitals start filling up for people to realise how important and urgent it is".

"It obviously has damaging effects to have to introduce restrictions, its more damaging to have to do that late and for longer and harder," she added.

Asked if anything had changed since the advice was given, Professor Yardley said: "It's been three weeks during which infection rates have risen substantially, particularly in some areas and really quite dramatically there to the point where we're already seeing the hospitals filling up."

She added: "We are three weeks behind where we would have been if we had introduced measures then, and of course once when you introduce them later not only does it mean you have four weeks lag where hospital admissions and mortality rates and pressure on NHS increases.

"But it also means it is harder to get on top of the infection, it’s seeded into more households and it takes more restrictions, for longer, to get it back under control."

Following the revelation that Sage had called for a new lockdown, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer held a press conference calling for the same.

Sir Keir said: "There's no longer time to give this prime minister the benefit of the doubt.

"The government's plan simply isn't working. Another course is needed.

"That's why I am calling for a two to three-week circuit break in England in line with Sage's recommendation."

The restrictions would not mean closing schools - but the Labour leader suggested it could be timed to coincide with the October half-term to minimise disruption.

Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he would back a circuit break lockdown if the government chose to implement one.

Jeremy Hunt says Boris Johnson should give latest restrictions two weeks...

"I will always support tougher measures, more decisive measures earlier," he said, "because I just think, you look anywhere in the world and the places that acted fasted are the ones with the least long term economic impact and indeed the places that save the most lives".

He said the prime minister should give himself two weeks to see if the three tier alert system works, and if it does not, Mr Johnson should take a "rain check".

"With coronavirus basically you only seem to really have two weeks because the all the figures are basically two weeks out of date.

"You have the two week incubation period, so the hospitals start to fill up two weeks after people get the infections, the intensive care units start to fill up a couple of weeks after that.

"What we heard a month ago was the infections are doubling every week, now it appears that overall that's slightly slowed but I think we've got a couple of weeks of these new measures before we have to take a rain check and decide what we do next."