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New Sage document shows government told in September that “circuit breaker” national lockdown could “significantly reduce COVID winter impact”
Boris Johnson instead implemented three-tier local lockdown system
PM continues to face calls for more severe measures as infections increase
Boris Johnson was told by the government’s top coronavirus advisers that a “circuit breaker” national lockdown covering the October half-term could have “significantly” restricted the winter wave of infections.
A Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) document from 20 September – in which the impact of a two-week lockdown between 25 October and 8 November was analysed – was released on Friday.
It revealed data suggesting the temporary national lockdown could have seen the number of COVID-19 infections, hospitalisations and deaths fall by mid-November.
The document, which was considered at a Sage meeting on 24 September, concluded: “A two-week circuit breaker, in which strong social distancing measures are in place, could significantly help to reduce the impact of the winter wave of COVID-19.”
However, the modelling by University of Warwick scientists also suggested it would only be effective if the reproduction (R) rate was kept at or below 1.2 during the lockdown.
Johnson has resisted a circuit breaker lockdown, despite having received further Sage advice recommending one on 21 September.
Instead, Johnson introduced the three-tier local lockdown system for England, which came into force on 14 October.
The same day he announced it, however, England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty cast doubt over the effectiveness of the tiered plan while stood next to Johnson at a Downing Street press conference.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer subsequently added to the calls for a circuit breaker covering the half-term.
As cases grow in the second wave – there have been more than 500,000 in October alone – leading scientists have increasingly been calling for stricter measures to be imposed.
Johnson, however, also faces pressure from his own Conservative MPs: some angry about the restrictions on people’s freedom and others worried about the impact of lockdowns on the economy.
The localised approach means that by Monday, more than half of England will be under severe restrictions anyway. Some 58% of the population will be in Tier 2 or Tier 3 areas.
On Friday, foreign secretary Dominic Raab insisted the three-tier system is slowing down the virus.
He said: “We have seen, since we adopted that approach, a decrease in the rate of growth.” But he added “clearly there is still an uptick in the virus”.
And further Sage documents released on Friday also show Johnson was warned two weeks ago that the second wave was exceeding worst-case scenario planning. At that point, Sage said infections and hospital admissions in England have been breaching a "reasonable worst case scenario" that predicted up to 85,000 deaths from COVID.
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