PM goes against experts to reject 'circuit breaker' coronavirus lockdown

13 October 2020, 12:35

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has rejected a full lockdown
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has rejected a full lockdown. Picture: PA Images
Ewan Quayle

By Ewan Quayle

The Prime Minister rejected suggestions from his top scientists to have a "circuit breaker" national lockdown, despite them saying it would prevent the need for "intensive and long-term" restrictions later.

Last month, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) suggested immediately introducing a national lockdown lasting between two and three weeks to halt the rapid spread of the virus - dubbed a "circuit break" lockdown.

But as Boris Johnson laid out his plans for how to tackle the rapidly growing numbers of coronavirus cases whilst keeping as much of the economy open as possible, the PM only imposed stricter measures on Merseyside and appeared adamant to continue localised lockdowns.

He appeared to reject the idea of sweeping national measures when he laid out the new tiered system of restrictions on Monday, which includes the widespread closure of the hospitality sector and banning social interactions between households at its toughest level.

Read more: Boris rejects full lockdown but says cases are ‘flashing like warnings on a jet’

Read more: What is a tier 3 lockdown and what areas will be included in it?

Many scientists, however, have expressed doubt over whether these measures will stop the rapid spread of coronavirus in the community.

Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London and a member of Sage, said he did not think the restrictions included in tier 3 would result in the R rate being pushed below one, meaning the virus was likely to still spread at pace.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he said that the failure to "take decisive action several weeks ago" meant it was "not really surprising that we're continuing to see large increases in cases".

He added: "I think it is clear even at the so-called 'very high' levels of restrictions that they will not be sufficient to reduce R below one."

Prof Hayward, who did not attend the September 21 meeting, argued that a "circuit break" style lockdown would have been a "proportionate" way of getting a grip on the virus while avoiding "intensive and long-term lockdowns later".

He told Today: "What we've done through the pandemic is we've invested huge amounts of money in being able to track where the virus is and where it is increasing so we have much better information to pick up early warnings of increases in cases.

"That should allow us to act early in a decisive way to prevent having to act in a more damaging way later.

"And that was really one of the intentions of the recommendations for a 'circuit break', that this could be a controlled, manageable, proportionate system that would save the need for much more intensive and long-term lockdowns later."

Thinking inside the Tory party is changing, with senior MP Sir Bernard Jenkin, chairman of the Liaison Committee, telling reporters he thought it was better to go for a "short, sharp, shock" lockdown in order to reach "manageable levels before Christmas".

Read more: London bracing for Tier 2 local lockdown 'within days'

Read more: Essex asks to be put under tighter lockdown measures after Covid-19 spike

Labour shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, meanwhile, said he would have been inclined to have "followed the science" if he was in power, hinting that he would have opted for a national lockdown instead.

He added that ministers should have closed more pubs and bars than they did on Monday in a bid to stem transmission.

"If we need to impose further restrictions to get on top of this virus, then I'm afraid we have to do that," he told Today.

"It is why I support the decision that was taken yesterday to close pubs and bars in Merseyside.

"I think actually the Government should have gone further yesterday because we've got to reduce social mixing given where we are with the prevalence of the virus in parts of the country."

Asked what he would have liked to have seen from ministers, Mr Ashworth replied that he "would have looked at closing pubs and bars in other parts of the country" as well as devolving Test and Trace entirely to local authorities.

It follows a week of power struggles between Westminster, Whitehall and local leaders, who are demanding more financial support and greater control over Test and Trace in their areas before more measures are introduced.

It is understood the Government wants several areas in the North of England, including Greater Manchester and large parts of the North East, to enter Tier 3 restrictions, but the request has been met with hostility from mayors and council leaders alike.

The Prime Minister attempted to present the stricter measures in Merseyside as a joint agreement between ministers and local leaders, but was quickly met with criticism when council leaders and the Liverpool City Mayor Steve Rotheram pointed out that the measures were being accepted reluctantly.

Read more: Unemployment hits three-year high as coronavirus wreaks havoc on jobs

In fact, Liverpool City Mayor Joe Anderson expressed his anger at gyms being forced to close and demanded a scientific explanation for the move.

In Greater Manchester, Mayor Andy Burnham and his Night Time Economy Adviser Sacha Lord are threatening legal action against the Government if they choose to impose further restrictions without a generous local furlough scheme for affected workers.

The pair are also demanding greater control over local contact tracing and blamed thousands of contacts being missed on a centralised system.

Mr Burnham also highlighted key figures which suggest that national lockdown measures imposed in March were eased too quickly in the North of England, when transmission rates were much higher than in London and parts of the South.

"Too many rush to blame the public in the North without understanding this," he added.

Read more: Boris Johnson denies lockdown was eased too early in north of England

Meanwhile, leaders in the North East of England are pushing ministers to keep restrictions the same to avoid confusion among residents.

"I'm pleased that, for now, it's unlikely any further restrictions will apply in the North East," Newcastle City Council Leader Nick Forbes said following the announcement on Monday.

"We need a period of stability and consistent rules, so everyone is clear what we all need to do."

The Prime Minister faces tough weeks ahead in his mission to balance the economy with saving lives, with open revolt on both sides in his party, legal threats from angered leaders in the North, an ailing Test and Trace system and senior scientific advisers pushing for a second national lockdown.