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Independent Sage calls for immediate lockdown

Image: Kam Hus, via Shutterstock

Warning comes after government disregarded advice from official Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies

An influential group of scientists has called for an immediate national “circuit-breaker” lockdown to halt the spread of Covid-19 as they warn the government’s new three-tier system of restrictions is not enough to reverse the spread of the virus.

In a six-week emergency plan for England, the self-appointed Independent Sage group proposes a two-to-three-week lockdown, including the immediate closure of schools, non-essential retail and businesses, the leisure and hospitality sectors, and places of worship.

The group, which was launched in response to the initial secrecy of the government’s official Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, also urges a return to two-metre physical distancing, a ban on household mixing outside of support bubbles and a switch to online teaching in universities.

The recommendations are broadly in line with recently released documents from the government’s official Sage group, which called for the immediate introduction of a short “circuit-breaker” lockdown three weeks ago as part of a package of interventions to prevent an “exponential rise in cases”.

“Over a fortnight’s ‘break’,” Sage documents dated 21 September said, “two weeks of growth could be exchanged for two weeks of decay in transmission, assuming good adherence to measures and no additional increase in contacts before or after the break.”

However, the government failed to act on most of the advice, with the exception of advising those who can work from home to do so. Instead, prime minister Boris Johnson announced on 12 October a new three-tier alert system, under which every area of the UK will be classified as being on medium, high or very high alert.

“Cases, hospitalisations and deaths are rising across England. The tiered system will not be enough to reverse growth,” said Independent Sage member Christina Pagel, a professor of operational research at University College London.

“Despite four weeks of living under ‘tier 2’ type restrictions in many areas and three weeks of “tier 1” restrictions elsewhere, cases continued to increase rapidly everywhere.”

She added: “Agreeing with Sage, we believe a sharp national circuit breaker for two to three weeks followed by three to four weeks of continuing restrictions is needed to stop the current wave in its tracks, preventing tens of thousands of new cases and thousands of hospital stays. This will buy us precious time to build a public health and social scaffolding to support easing restrictions and restarting our lives. We must not waste this time.”

Meanwhile, in a separate document, Independent Sage also called for the government’s “failing” test and trace system to be “dismantled” and brought under the management of the NHS with immediate effect.

“National and regional lockdowns and other large-scale restrictions are blunt tools; testing and tracing should be a targeted, precise system,” the document said.

“Without an effective Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support system, the government has little choice but to rely on imprecise and damaging local and national lockdowns to prevent surges in infection. The urgent reform of FTTIS is the most important economic and health priority for the government and the country right now.”