'No one knows exactly what to do': Top scientist's warning as COVID-19 takes hold

Andy Wells
·Freelance Writer
·3-min read
FARSLEY, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 13: A general view of a sign encouraging social distancing inside the stadium during the FA Cup Third Qualifying Round match between Farsley Celtic and AFC Fylde at The Citadel stadium on October 13, 2020 in Farsley, England. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)
A sign encouraging social distancing inside the Citadel stadium in Farsley. (Getty)

As Boris Johnson faces increased pressure to introduce a short “circuit breaker” national lockdown, scientists have warned that “no plan is guaranteed to work”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer ramped up the pressure on the prime minister on Tuesday by calling for a two- to three-week lockdown for the whole country to curb rising cases of coronavirus.

However, Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said that there is no specific evidence of circuit breakers working in bringing numbers down.

He said: “I don’t think any plan is guaranteed to work. We’re seeing substantial rapid increases in case numbers, and we heard yesterday from the chief medical officer that the new restrictions on their own are unlikely to turn the tide completely.

Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer leaves the Garden Museum, south London on October 13, 2020, after holding a press conference in response to Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson statement on the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, and the increase in the number of coronavirus cases. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for a circuit breaker lockdown. (Getty)

“When it comes to the suggestion of a two-week circuit breaker, we haven’t really seen what the specific evidence is for the value of that as a measure.”

Hunter said that at the end of the two-week period “we might just be a bit behind the curve than where we would have been otherwise” and that the new tier system is “unlikely to substantially change the tide”.

He added: “Each individual intervention will have some value, but we need a package of interventions.

“Each by itself won’t achieve anything major but taken together a package can slow the epidemic, but won’t reverse it.

“None of us really has a good grasp of exactly what to do. There are no easy options.”

The government has so far resisted implementing a circuit breaker lockdown, while work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey said this morning she did not think it was the right move.

Watch: Keir Starmer calls for circuit breaker lockdown

Asked on LBC radio whether there was appetite in the Conservative Party for a two- to three-week lockdown, she said: “No, I don’t.

“The reason being, Parliament has only just voted last night for this national approach of the three tiers with much stronger local measures where they are needed.”

Coffey highlighted how Labour said local lockdowns had made no difference in 19 out of 20 areas shortly before it called for national restrictions.

She added: “I don’t think it is the right approach. Right now we need to allow this chance for the localised interventions to really have an effect so that together we can be focused on saving lives and livelihoods.”

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street to attend parliament in London, Monday, Oct. 12, 2020. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce in Parliament on Monday a three-tier local lockdown system, formally known as "Local COVID Alert Levels," for England, his office said. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Boris Johnson has so far avoided implementing another national lockdown. (AP)

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Labour’s leader cited advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) that a circuit breaker could set back the virus by 28 days.

Starmer said of Johnson amid a second surge of COVID-19 infections and hospital admissions: “There’s no longer time to give this prime minister the benefit of the doubt.”

Calling for a circuit breaker, which Sage recommended to the government last month, Starmer said: “This would not mean closing schools. But if this happens imminently, it can be timed to run across half-term to minimise disruption.”

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 13: Restaurant staff clear away their street furniture in the city centre on the eve of lockdown restrictions on October 13, 2020 in Liverpool, England. As the British government announced a new three-tier system for ranking the severity of local COVID-19 spread, the Liverpool City Region was immediately ranked "very high" risk, forcing its pubs, bars, gyms and leisure centres to close from Wednesday. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Restaurant staff clear away their street furniture in Liverpool city centre on the eve of lockdown restrictions. (Getty)

He said only essential work and travel should be allowed during this period, with households banned from mixing and all pubs and restaurants shut.

Professor Keith Neal, from the University of Nottingham, said closing schools for three weeks would mean children missing education “when the reality is very little spread between children is occurring in schools”.

He added: “Keir Starmer’s plan of only two weeks will not be long enough. Too many people are flouting current mixing guidelines/rules.”

Watch: Government ‘ignored advice on lockdown’

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