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Sage projection suggests deadlier second wave of Covid-19

Pressure mounts on government to follow scientific advice more closely amid surge in coronavirus cases

The government is under increasing pressure to follow the advice of scientists more closely, as new modelling from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) suggests an even deadlier second wave of Covid-19 is looming.

An internal analysis provided by the advisory group, and reportedly seen by the Telegraph newspaper, suggests deaths will peak at a lower level than in the spring but will remain at that level for weeks or even months, causing more deaths overall.

According to the newspaper, the projection has led to “intense lobbying” from the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, and other advisers for prime minister Boris Johnson to take more drastic action.

Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme on 28 October, Mark Walport, a Sage member and former chief executive of UK Research and Innovation, said it was “certainly not unrealistic to think” there could be 25,000 people in hospital by the end of November.

“We are still relatively early in the second wave and, as we know, there’s a significant lag—two to three, two to four weeks—between actually getting an infection and people potentially dying, so the number of deaths is always lagging the number of cases that are reported at any one time. There’s little to feel reassured about,” he said.

The revelation comes after it emerged earlier this month that Sage recommended an immediate national lockdown on 21 September as part of a package of interventions to prevent an “exponential rise in cases”.

A Sage paper warned that “not acting now to reduce cases will result in a very large epidemic, with catastrophic consequences”.

But on 12 October, the government instead implemented a less restrictive tiered system of local lockdowns.

That initial departure from Sage advice is of “extreme concern”, Ben Fernando, chair of the campaign group Scientists for Labour, said at the time. The group also backs a ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown and wants “full and immediate release of Sage minutes from September and October, such that their content can be analysed”.

A government spokesperson told Research Professional News: “We have consistently taken advice from a wide range of scientific and medical experts to inform government decision-making throughout the pandemic.

“The latest figures are concerning which is why we have introduced stronger measures to curb the spread of the virus in the areas where it is most prevalent. It is vital that everyone continues to play their part by following these rules, so we can save lives and protect the NHS.”

The developments come against a backdrop of rifts among some in the scientific community. Several prominent infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists, including Sunetra Gupta, professor at the University of Oxford, signed a letter on 4 October calling for more targeted measures that would only protect the vulnerable and in theory lead to herd immunity.

But others, including some Independent Sage members, described those views as “the fringe that is currently being given far too much weight”.

And more than 30 other leading names, including Devi Sridhar, professor at the University of Edinburgh, wrote a letter to the Lancet on 15 October, in which they called the herd immunity idea “dangerous” and “unsupported by the scientific evidence”.