Ministers accused of 'ignoring own advisers' after rejecting SAGE call for 'circuit breaker' lockdown

Scientific advisers called for "immediate action" on 21 September, minutes show
Photo: Utrecht Robin/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

The government has been accused of ignoring scientific advice after it emerged its own expert advisers called for a short-term, national “circuit breaker” lockdown three weeks ago.

On 21 September, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies said the government should consider an “immediate” short lockdown as part of a package of measures to prevent an “exponential rise in cases” that was emerging.

Minutes from the meeting, published yesterday, show SAGE warned that "not acting now" would lead to a "very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences".

SAGE also advised that the government reinstate guidance telling people to work from home if they can. A day after the meeting, the prime minister, Boris Johnson made an announcement, saying: "We are once again asking office workers who can work from home to do so."

However, there was some confusion over the new guidance as the same day, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said: “We are stressing that if it is safe to work in your workplace, if you are in a Covid-secure workplace, then you should be there if your job requires it. But if you can work from home you should."

The advisers also said the government should consider banning people mixing with other households, closing all bars, restaurants, cafes, indoor gyms and hairdressers, and for university and colleges to move to online teaching – none of which were introduced nationally.

SAGE said multiple measures were needed as "single interventions are unlikely to be able to reduce incidence" of Covid-19.

The circuit-breaker lockdown would be needed to head off a second wave of coronavirus that SAGE said would “would fall disproportionately on the frailest in our society, but also those on lower incomes and BAME communities”.

“As over 90% of the population remain susceptible, not acting now to reduce cases will result in a very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences in terms of direct Covid-related deaths and the ability of the health service to meet needs,” the document says.

Shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth said this morning he was “alarmed” by the minutes, and that Johnson did not refer to them in his announcement yesterday of a three-tier system for lock lockdowns.

“He didn’t allude to them in any of his statements. And he always tells us that we’re following the science,” Ashworth told BBC1’s Breakfast programme.

“Quite self-evidently [the government] have rejected significant recommendations here from the scientists. So we need to understand why.”

He said the government must “urgently explain why it ignored its own scientists and what it will be doing to get control of the virus”.

His comments came after chief medical officer Chris Whitty, who said at a press conference yesterday that was “not confident” the most stringent restrictions under the three-tier system would prevent the spread of coronavirus in the worst-hit areas.

The new three-tiered lockdown system was unveiled by prime minister Boris Johnson yesterday, with Liverpool put under the harshest coronavirus restrictions.

Communities secretary Robert Jenrick ministers are “certainly” continuing to follow scientific advice.

But he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme ministers “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,” he said.

“We want to try, wherever we can, to avoid a blanket national lockdown. That is incredibly damaging to people’s lives, and remember, the rate of infection does vary very widely across the country.”

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