Sage warned government that 10pm pubs curfew would only have 'marginal impact' on coronavirus spread

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (COVID-19).
Prime minister Boris Johnson has been accused of ignoring the advice of his own government scientists. (PA)

The government’s own scientific advisers warned that its 10pm curfew on pubs, bars and restaurants would only have a “marginal impact” on the spread of coronavirus.

Documents published on Monday from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) show that experts dismissed the idea of a curfew exactly a week before one was implemented across England.

In a document from 17 September, seven days before the 10pm curfew came into force, Sage wrote: “Curfews likely to have a marginal impact. Low confidence.”

The document was published on Monday just hours after prime minister Boris Johnson announced details of a new three-tier lockdown system in England.

Watch: Boris Johnson announces three-tier lockdown

The 10pm curfew has been criticised by scientists, as well as politicians in the north of England, who have doubted its impact on coronavirus rates.

The Sage revelation follows criticism last month that Johnson “never discussed” the curfew with science advisers, one of whom described the plan as “fairly trivial” which would have a “very small impact on the epidemic”.

In a separate Sage document, scientists said NHS Test and Trace was only having a “marginal impact” and would “likely decline further” unless the system was expanded and people were given support to self-isolate.

It also emerged, through a Sage document dated 21 September, that scientists advised the government to introduce a small “circuit breaker” lockdown in England to halt the spread of COVID-19.

The Labour Party accused the government of dismissing the advice of its own scientists.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “The government now needs to urgently explain why it ignored its own scientists and what it will be doing to get control of the virus.”

Johnson had promised the test and trace scheme would be “world beating”, but Sage experts wrote on 21 September: “The relatively low levels of engagement with the system… coupled with testing delays and likely poor rates of adherence with self-isolation suggests that this system is having a marginal impact on transmission at the moment.”

Sage added: “Unless the system grows at the same rate as the epidemic, and support is given to people to enable them to adhere to self-isolation, it is likely that the impact of test, trace and isolate will further decline in the future.”

But communities secretary Robert Jenrick said the government “certainly can” say it is still being led by the science, despite ignoring the majority of the recommendations made by Sage last month.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “We have to take a balanced judgment – these are not easy decisions.

“But the prime minister has to balance protecting people’s lives and the NHS from the virus while also prioritising things that matter to us as a society, like education and keeping as many people in employment as possible, and also ensuring that other health risks, like mental health and illnesses, don’t get neglected as a result.

“That’s the difficult but balanced judgment we are taking.”

The latest criticism increases the pressure on Baroness Harding, the Conservative peer who chairs the £12bn scheme.

The shadow health secretary said: “This is yet further evidence that the government’s incompetence is hampering our response to a second wave.

“Sage have essentially confirmed test and trace is not functioning adequately as we have been warning for months.

“Ministers need to get a grip of testing so we can get control of the virus.”

The latest figures show NHS Test And Trace in England had suffered its worst week for the proportion of contacts it successfully manages to track down.

(left to right) Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (COVID-19).
England's chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, left, and prime minister Boris Johnson announced a three-tier lockdown on Monday. (PA)

Only 68.6% of close contacts of individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 were reached in the week ending September 30, the lowest weekly percentage since the scheme began.

As well as recommending a national circuit breaker on 21 September, Sage also proposed advising people to work from home if they could - a measure that was followed up with government advice.

Scientists also recommended “banning all contact within the home with members of other households” and the closure of all bars, restaurants, cafes, indoor gyms, and personal services such as hairdressers.

The fifth and final measure on its list was transferring all university and college teaching online.

The new three-tier lockdown will see areas of England labelled as medium, high or very high risk.

Pubs and bars across Merseyside will close unless they serve food and alcohol as part of a sit-down meal as the Liverpool city region moves into a “very high” COVID alert level.

MPs will debate and vote on the measures on Tuesday and, should it be approved, the new tiered system will come into effect on Wednesday.

However, chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, warned that tier three restrictions on their own will not be enough to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Watch: What is long COVID?

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