Coronavirus restrictions are likely to “go further”, a minister has admitted, as a bombshell publication of minutes from a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) shows that the government ignored its own scientists.
Shortly after Boris Johnson’s announcement of new COVID restrictions on Monday, the minutes of a SAGE meeting on the 21st of September were published, showing that scientists called for harsher restrictions on a national scale, advising that quick and effective action could have meant that some restrictions would be needed for less time overall.
The government scientists made five key recommendations:
· A short “circuit-breaker” lockdown – which didn’t happen.
· Advice to work from home – which happened the following day.
· Banning all contact in homes between households, except between members of a support bubble – which only happened in the worst hit areas.
· Closure of all bars, restaurants, cafes, gyms and personal services such as hairdressers – which didn’t happen.
· All university teaching to be done online, unless face-to-face teaching is essential – which didn’t happen.
Four of the five recommendations were rejected or mostly rejected, with only the work-from-home advice being followed.
The scientists called for rapid action, noting: “The more rapidly restrictions are put in place, the more stringent they are, the faster the reduction in incidence and prevalence, the greater the reduction in COVID-related deaths.”
The minutes also state that: “A more effective response now may reduce the length of time for which some measures are required,” suggesting that failure to act could mean we have to put up with restrictions for longer.
“The burden of a large second wave would fall disproportionately on the frailest in our society, but also those on lower incomes and BAME communities,” the scientists warned.
The scientists also called for national measures, which the government did not implement: “Both local and national measures are needed; measures should not be applied in too local an area.”
One measure the government did implement shortly after the meeting was a 10PM kicking-out time for pubs and restaurants. The SAGE documents show that scientists were sceptical that this would make a difference, stating, “Curfews likely to have a marginal impact.” This move will stoke criticism of it being a “worst of both worlds” measure, scientists warned, having a devastating economic impact on pubs without actually doing much to stop the spread of disease.
On Tuesday morning, housing minister Robert Jenrick conceded that the restrictions would likely have to go further.
In Parliament on Monday, the Prime Minister tried to cast the new measures as a sensible third way between two extremes: that of a full lockdown on the one hand, and those who want to “let nature take her course” on the other.
However, the minutes have raised questions over whether the government can really claim to be “following the science”. A snap YouGov poll found that 40 percent of people think the government’s measures do not go far enough.
The government’s case wasn’t helped in a press conference following the announcement of new measures, as Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said that the restrictions under the harshest tier would not be enough.
"I am not confident – and nor is anybody confident – that the Tier 3 proposals for the highest rates, if we did the absolute base case and nothing more, would be enough to get on top of it," he said.
But he added, "And that is why there's a lot of flexibility in the Tier 3 level for local authorities… to actually go up that range, so that they can do significantly more than the absolute base.”