In Depth

Revealed: the expert advice Boris Johnson ignored as UK coronavirus cases spiralled

Documents released by Sage show prime minister dismissed calls for September lockdown

Downing Street ignored advice from the government’s own experts to implement an immediate “circuit breaker” lockdown in September in order to curb the spread of Covid-19, newly published documents show.

Following Boris Johnson’s announcement yesterday of a new three-tier lockdown system, the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) published a series of minutes that show the prime minister overruled scientists who called warned three weeks ago that the country faced a “very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences” unless urgent action was taken.

The revelation comes amid growing criticism of No. 10’s response to the pandemic - and throws into doubt claims that ministers are simply “following the science”.

‘Bombshell after bombshell’

The Sage documents show that government scientists “pressed for national lockdown measures such as stopping all household mixing and closing all pubs”, The Telegraph reports.

Ministers were also advised to “consider for immediate introduction” the closure of restaurants, cafes and gyms, and a return to official guidance that all staff should work from home if possible. And all university and college teaching should be online “unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential”, Sage said.

“The more rapidly interventions are put in place, and the more stringent they are, the faster the reduction in incidence and prevalence and the greater the reduction in Covid-related deaths,” the experts advised. “Both local and national measures are needed; measures should not be applied in too specific a geographical area.” 

But rather than acting on the recommendation for a nationwide “circuit-breaker” lockdown, Johnson opted instead for more localised restrictions that failed to curb the spike in coronavirus infections

Minutes from a Zoom meeting on 21 September “show in stark terms that Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance and the government’s other scientific advisers are now publicly at odds with the policy being pursued by Boris Johnson and his ministers”, says Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham.

Only one of the measures recommended by the experts was implemented, with the PM issuing a statement the following day urging employees to work from home. Others restrictions advocated by Sage, such as closing down parts of the hospitality sector, were implemented only in the worst-hit areas of the country.

Ministers were also warned that failure to act would see a second wave of the virus “fall disproportionately on the frailest in our society, but also those on lower incomes and BAME communities”.

The scientists said that 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”.

‘Following the science’

Since the global outbreak reached the UK back in early spring, Johnson and his cabinet have repeatedly insisted that they have consulted scientists on how to tackle the health crisis effectively. 

But as Politico’s Wickham says, “you can expect the prime minister’s critics to spend today asking whether the government is doing enough to prevent a disastrous death toll during the second wave [and] why it rejected the advice of its experts”.

Sage “conceded its advice would have a negative economic impact”, notes the political pundit, who suggests that “the economic argument ultimately quite simply won out over the public health concerns”.

On 22 September - a day after the Zoom meeting with Whitty and Vallance - Johnson was reported to have sided with Chancellor Rishi Sunak against lockdown hawks in his cabinet who were also calling for nationwide measures.

Despite scientists’ verdict that “single interventions by themselves” would not bring the reproduction rate of the virus below one, Downing Street continued with the strategy of imposing only localised restrictions.

The publication of the Sage documents is now raising fresh “questions over the prime minister’s decision to introduce the tightest restrictions only on Merseyside”, reports The Times, which notes that the PM is “pressing other northern cities to agree to similar restrictions”.

 “This all helps to explain why Whitty not very subtly dumped on Johnson’s three-tier strategy while standing next to him at yesterday’s [daily government] press conference,” adds Politico’s Wickham.

“While he was careful to insist the government’s policy would ‘help’ slow the spread of the virus, the chief medical officer said he was ‘not confident’ the base level of restrictions in ‘very high’ alert areas would be enough to get on top of it.” 

Testing times 

The Sage files also offer a “damning assessment” of the NHS Test and Trace scheme, which the panel of government advisers had previously said “needed to be working effectively before the national lockdown was lifted, and when schools reopened”, says The Guardian.

The experts warned the government last month that “low levels of engagement” and testing delays meant the system was “having a marginal impact on transmission”.

“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,” the scientists added.

Despite the guidance, Johnson said on 22 September that testing and tracing has “very little or nothing to do with the spread and transmission” of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

During a debate in Commons, he insisted that the spread “is caused by contact between human beings and all the things that we’re trying to minimise” - a statement that shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth dismissed as “nonsense” in a subsequent tweet.

The system has so far cost £12bn, and 2,000 contact tracing staff have been laid off in recent weeks despite rising infection rates.

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