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Sage member says tier system will lead to high Covid everywhere

Image: Willy Barton, via Shutterstock

John Edmunds says government’s system of local lockdowns will result in ‘significant numbers of deaths’

A member of Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has criticised the government’s latest Covid-19 strategy, warning that it could lead to “significant numbers of deaths”.

Commenting on the controversial three-tier system of local lockdowns, John Edmunds, dean of the Faculty of Epidemiology and Population Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said it would lead to “a high level of incidence everywhere”.

“Let’s say Tier 3 works and keeps the reproduction number at about one—and I don’t think anybody really thinks it’s going to reduce it to less than one—that means that in Liverpool and Manchester and the north west, we’ll keep the incidence at this high level which is putting hospitals under strain and causing significant numbers of deaths,” he told MPs on 21 October.

The number of cases in lower tiers such as the Midlands and London would then keep growing until they, too, had to be put under Tier 3 restrictions, said Edmunds during a joint inquiry session of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee and Health and Social Care Committee.

“What that means by logical extension is that we all end up at a higher level of incidence where hospitals are really overstretched and we have large numbers of deaths. For me that is the logical conclusion of this strategy that we are following and I think I would not follow that strategy.”

Elsewhere in the session, Edmunds admitted he was “uncomfortable” with the government’s oft-used phrase “following the science”.

“It’s pretty apparent there is not one scientific view anyway and it never has been the case that it’s just ‘following the science’. Of course, the government has to weigh these things up against other things, the impact of the economy being one of the other very important aspects.”

However, he added that the government “should perhaps be a little more honest” about this.

Edmunds’ comments come after it emerged that the government disregarded advice from Sage recommending an immediate national “circuit-breaker” lockdown on 21 September, instead implementing a less restrictive tiered system of local lockdowns on 12 October.

Asked if Sage had measured the impact of the measures it recommended, Edmunds said the group had not been asked to look at different policies.

“Nobody is asking us to say ‘what should we do here’ so these are things that we have taken on ourselves and decided to look at ourselves,” he told MPs.

Regarding the challenges of Covid-19 modelling, Edmunds said there are uncertainties about people’s behaviour as well as biological immunity.

But he said that “the most difficult thing to predict is government behaviour, because actually most of the time people’s behaviour is governed by the government, so saying you can or cannot do this or that is the biggest determinant of individuals’ behaviour”.

“At the moment it’s difficult to say what the government will do,” he said.