Sage papers: the guidance scientists offered to Government ministers

Sarah Knapton
Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty during a media briefing in Downing Street - PA
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A new tranche of papers released by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) reveal the advice given to ministers by scientists and how the Government might have dealt with a range of complex issues. Here's what the Sage papers say:

Regional lockdown unworkable

Regional lockdown would never work in Britain because it would be impossible to police and would make people feel angry when they realised they were no longer ‘in it together’ with the rest of the country, psychologists warned the government.

An undated paper authored by Clifford Stott, Professor of Social Psychology at Keele University, said that imposing local restrictions would be unenforceable with current technology.

Prof Stott said ‘neighbourhood-level release’ had merit in theory, and could work in less democractic countries, but argued it would not be suitable for implementation in the UK.

“Large towns and cities in the UK have evolved piecemeal, and in most cases, cannot be subdivided, or easily policed, into containable geographical units,” he said.

“Selective locking off or release from areas within urban centres may not only fragment public support for government measures but could lead to significant public disorder.

“Anger arising from communities who perceived they have been locked down unfairly would be directed at police in the majority of cases.”

The paper warned that support for measures was contingent on a ‘sense of equality of sacrifice, we’re all in together, and said regional lockdown ‘undermines this core proposition.

There were also fears that deprived areas would be more at risk of regional lockdown because they were more susceptible to the virus, leading to inequality and social unrest.

Self isolation unenforceable

Only around half of people with coronavirus symptoms self-isolate for a week, scientists advising the Government suggested, raising concerns over the ability to prevent future outbreaks.

The revelation comes in a paper from the independent scientific pandemic influenza group on behaviours (SPI-B), which advises Sage, as the key test and trace programme gets under way.

The document reads: “We strongly recommend monitoring and rapid research into adherence rates to all key behaviours and how to improve them, noting that based on DHSC tracker only around 50 per cent of people are currently reporting self-isolating for at least 7 days when symptomatic with cough or fever."

Sage minutes from May 7 say: “Preliminary findings from a study indicate that the Covid-19 virus decays rapidly when exposed to artificial sunlight.”

Crime reduced but domestic violence surges  

Crime has fallen sharply under lockdown, papers from the Security & Policing Sub-Group show but there are fears that new offences may emerge when restrictions are lifted.

The report from April 21st said there had been an almost immediate and enduring decline in overall calls for service, of up to 75 per cent in some areas. 

“This suggests the ‘lockdown’ led directly to major reductions in crime and criminality across society, presumably in part driven by lack of opportunity,” said the authors.

However they warned that domestic violence had risen and there had been a surge in the number of people contacting the police to report people for violating control measures.

The group also advised the Organised Crime Groups were still operating and may move into stealing high demand items, such as face masks, or forging immunity certificates. 

They said that looting was unlikely unless people began to struggle to get food, or suffered severe hardship because of job losses. 

But there were concerns about growing unrest between people living in the countryside and those in the cities. 

“There are likely to be tensions between rural and urban areas, especially as the former will be seen as a refuge by the latter,” said the authors.

“Populations in rural areas may be more likely to resist easing of mobility restrictions than urban areas to prevent incursions from urban

Acts of violence against ‘tourists’ are likely to occur because for the above reasons and a growing culture of local mobilisation (sometimes verging on vigilantism) to enforce social distancing.”

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Potential for public disorder

The government was concerned that coronavirus and lockdown could lead to widespread social tension and conflict, the papers show.

An undated report from psychologists warned that there was the potential for social division between the ‘haves and have-nots’ who did not have the financial resources to weather the storm.

The paper also raised concerns about vigilantism against those flouting restrictions and argued that the crisis could be hijacked by hate groups to further racist agendas. 

“The notion, for instance, that ethnic minority members have behaved in ways that endanger the health of the majority has been at the root of pogroms throughout history,” said the report authors. 

“Hence it is particularly important to monitor the activities of ‘hate groups’ and the incidence of hate crime and to make a challenge to racist rumours and reacting to incidents a key priority of neighbourhood and response policing efforts.”

The researchers concluded that it was important to foster a sense of community endeavour and shared identity.  

Elsewhere in the documents the Security & Policing Sub-Group warned that public disorder may emerge if more relaxed measures were seen to work, such as in Sweden.

Specific public transport advice

Buses and trains should be blasted with ultraviolet (UV) light and fumigated to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG) advised.

An analysis of the risk of transmission on public transport from May 14th found that passengers and transport workers are at ‘enhanced’ danger when travelling and measures should be taken to minimise infections.

The EMG said that surfaces are likely to be contaminated and cleaning should be carried out frequently and people warned to wash their hands.

They also advised beaming UV light through carriages and buses at the end of the day to kill any remains of the virus.

And they suggest minimising short-range person-to-person transmission using strategies including physical distancing and encouraging public wearing of face coverings.

Ventilation in buses and trains should also be increased to disperse the virus.

“The overall weight of evidence is towards an increased risk of infection among public transport users,” the paper concludes.

“There is emerging evidence from analysis of Covid-19 outbreaks that public transport is one of the environments where Sars-CoV-2 transmission is more frequently reported.”