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Sage scientists urged Boris Johnson to impose short circuit-breaker lockdown weeks ago, documents show

12 October 2020

he Government’s scientific advisers called for a two-week “circuit-breaker” lockdown three weeks ago, it has emerged.

Minutes released by the Sage group on Monday show Boris Johnson was urged to shut pubs, bars, restaurants, gyms, hair salons and move university teaching online last month.

Experts warned him that single interventions were “unlikely” to stem surging Covid-19 cases.

Downing Street accepted just one of Sage’s proposals - to U-turn on the Prime Minister’s back-to-office push and advise Britons to work from home where they could.

It comes as Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, warned “significantly” deeper restrictions may soon be needed because even the baseline for the top “very high” tier under England’s new three-tier lockdown system is “not sufficient” alone to slow infections.

Boris Johnson was warned to implement a 'circuit-breaker' three weeks ago / POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The PM told a Downing Street briefing on Monday night that the latest coronavirus data was “flashing at us like dashboard warnings on a passenger jet”.

Almost 14,000 more cases were recorded in the past 24 hours and Nightingale field hospitals put on standby in northern England to cope with rising Covid-19 hospitalisations.

Minutes from Sage’s September 21 meeting state: “A package of interventions will need to be adopted to prevent this exponential rise in cases.

“Single interventions are unlikely to be able to reduce incidence. If schools are to remain open, then a wide range of other measures will be required.

“The shortlist of non-pharmaceutical interventions that should be considered for immediate introduction include:

“A circuit-breaker (short period of lockdown) to return incidence to low levels. Advice to work from home for all those that can.

“Banning all contact within the home with members of other households (except members of a support bubble).

England's Covid alert tier levels explained

“Closure of all bars, restaurants, cafes, indoor gyms, and personal services (e.g. hairdressers). All university and college teaching to be online unless absolutely essential.”

"Modelling suggests that 14 days of significant reduction in transmission in October could put the epidemic back 28 days and could significantly reduce the prevalence of infection in December," Sage added.

Prof Chris Whitty warned even tougher curbs may still be needed / POOL/AFP via Getty Images

"As with all interventions the earlier it is implemented (in the face of growing incidence) the higher the impact."

Prof Whitty and the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, attended the meeting via Zoom.

During Monday’s Downing Street briefing, Prof Whitty stressed he was “very confident” the current measures aren slowing the virus but added: “I am not confident — nor is anybody confident — that the Tier 3 proposals for the highest rate, if you did the absolute base case and nothing more, would be enough to get on top of it."

Meanwhile, Sage scientist Professor Calum Semple warned the new restrictions had come too late and a “circuit-breaker” could be needed at least for London within weeks.

“I and other people who were advocating for quite stringent severe local interventions where necessary three to four weeks ago, our fear is now that we’re in another place now,” he told BBC Radio 4’s PM.

“And that we’re going to need a much firmer intervention perhaps, the so-called circuit-breaker, in the matter of weeks.

“The outbreak is a bit like a super-tanker, you put the brakes on but it takes a long time before you see the effect.”

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