Behind the scenes

Is Boris Johnson’s divergence from Sage hampering the Covid response?

Experts say stricter border controls will be needed to keep out new Covid variants

Reports that Boris Johnson was told that only a blanket border lockdown would keep new Covid strains out of the UK have raised fresh doubts about whether the prime minister is “following the science”.   

Johnson last week announced the introduction of mandatory hotel quarantine for all travellers from 30 high-risk countries. But according to The Times, No. 10 was told a week earlier by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) that “geographically targeted travel bans” could not be relied on to stop foreign variants reaching the UK.

Critics claim the decision not to act on that advice is the latest in a string of instances when Johnson’s government sidelined its most senior scientific advisers. 

Trace race

The government is today rolling out door-to-door testing of residents in eight areas of England identified as hotspots for the South African strain of the coronavirus. But The Times reports that Sage had told the PM that urgent action was needed before the new variant was found to be spreading across Britain.

The scientists warned the government that the only way to “get close” to stopping variants discovered overseas “was either by closing the borders completely or introducing mandatory quarantine”, says the paper. 

According to Politico, however, the committee did not explicitly advise any course of action. “Instead, Sage stated the obvious - closing borders guarantees new variants are kept out, not much else does - rather than making any policy recommendations,” it says.

The total number of confirmed cases of the South African strain now stands at 105, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said yesterday.

At least 11 of those cases are not linked to international travel, and public health officials reportedly “believe that there are hundreds more cases around the country”.

Had enough of experts?

Johnson has repeatedly been accused of ignoring or being slow to act on expert advice on the UK’s Covid response.

In October, Keir Starmer led criticisms of the PM following reports that Johnson had rebuffed Sage’s advice weeks earlier to implement a two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown.

The Guardian said the scientists had “urged ministers to move urgently” to impose a short lockdown as “new infections rose in all age groups across the country, even as the full impact of opening schools and universities had yet to be felt”.

In a document dated 21 September, Sage called for a total of five measures aimed at preventing a second wave of the virus that “would fall disproportionately on the frailest in our society, but also those on lower incomes and BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] communities”. 

However, only one of the five measures was implemented nationally, with Johnson announcing that anyone who could work from home should do so. 

Asked whether the PM was still being “guided by the science” after the row about the decision bubbled over the following month, a No. 10 spokesperson said: “The government receives advice from a wide range of scientific experts, and also from economists. But it’s ultimately for ministers to make decisions.”

Government data shows that cases continued to rise until 31 October, when Johnson announced a month-long national lockdown in England amid warnings that the NHS was weeks from being “overwhelmed”.  

And the PM would face yet more criticisms over “claims that he ignored scientific advice in the run-up to imposing a third national lockdown in England”, Sky News says.

Sage member Professor Calum Semple told the broadcaster that the third lockdown became “inevitable” after households were allowed to mix on Christmas Day.

Even before the discovery of the new, more transmissible variant of the virus in Kent, Sage had warned in documents dated 15-18 November that “any relaxation” of coronavirus restrictions over Christmas would increase infections “potentially by a large amount”. 

Just before the Christmas break, the experts issued another warning that senior schools should be closed.

Yet as pupils got ready to return to class at the start of January, Johnson told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show that “there is no doubt in my mind that schools are safe, and that education is a priority” - before announcing that secondary schools would not reopen and then closing primary schools after one day of teaching.

Meanwhile, Covid cases continued to rise across the UK, peaking at more than 76,000 on 4 January. On the same day, Johnson announced the third national lockdown.

Sage advice

CNN senior producer Luke McGee wrote in mid-October that Johnson increasingly appeared to be “at odds with those same advisers he once placed front and centre of the pandemic response”.

Johnson was caught between “his bitterly divided Conservative party” and the Sage experts, McGee continued, but “creating a perception that you are ignoring scientific advice could be dangerous, should the virus run riot and the UK’s already massive death toll rise still further”.

A total of 50,063 Covid-related deaths were recorded in the UK in the 251 days between 2 March and 7 November, government figures show. But a further 50,099 deaths were recorded in just 79 days up until 25 January. 

Amid growing fear and anger over the rapid acceleration in coronavirus fatalities, ministers have come under fire from The Institute for Government think-tank for the “misleading” and “damaging” mantra that they have “followed the science”.

And that should give Johnson pause for concern, says CNN’s McGee.

After all, “these arguments between politics and science will - eventually - become known to the public”, McGee writes, when they are “scrutinised at the inevitable public inquiry, at some point in the future”.

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