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The U.K. government’s scientific advisers told it weeks ago to introduce a national lockdown. It ignored them.

October 13, 2020, 9:37 AM UTC

Three weeks ago, the British government’s panel of expert scientists concluded that the country needed a short “circuit-breaker” period of lockdown, to bring its rapidly increasing COVID-19 case count out of control. The government ignored it, and now the second wave is in full swing across much of the U.K.

The news of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ (SAGE) shunned recommendations came late Monday, when the group published the minutes of a September 21 Zoom meeting. The disclosure came shortly after Boris Johnson’s administration announced a new three-tier alert system for England, which will be used to impose localized lockdown measures on cities and regions.

That tiering system in itself runs against the SAGE recommendations—the group said “both local and national measures are needed; measures should not be applied in too specific a geographical area.”

The government also rejected SAGE’s recommendations to close “all bars, restaurants, cafes, indoor gyms, and personal services (e.g. hairdressers)” and to put all university and college teaching online “unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential.” It did however quickly take up the advice to tell people to work from home.

“A consistent package”

According to the SAGE minutes, the panel said measures would be “urgently needed” to mitigate the effects of its proposed interventions on the poorest members of society. However, it also said—with high confidence—that putting its recommendations in place quickly would speed up the reduction in COVID-19 case counts and deaths.

“A consistent package of measures should be adopted which do not promote, or appear to promote, contradictory goals,” it said. “This will enable clear, consistent communications that can explain the rationale for measures, which in turn will support adherence.”

That is not what happened over the subsequent few weeks.

Instead, Johnson’s cabinet has been split over what to do next, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak—the U.K.’s economic chief—prioritizing the economy, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock prioritizing health. The prime minister himself took weeks to decide which side to take; ultimately, he seems to have joined the Hancock camp, resulting in the three-tier alert system announced Monday.

The government’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty—a key member of SAGE—said after Johnson’s announcement that he was “not confident” the localized restrictions would be enough to stop the disease’s spread. But Johnson said a national lockdown “would do a great deal of harm to our economy.”

The day before, there were 3,451 patients in English hospitals with confirmed cases of COVID-19. That’s 354 more than there were on March 23, the day the U.K.’s national lockdown began—though it should be noted that the rate of new hospitalizations was steeper at that point.

Second waves

Last week, Sunak defended his decision to subsidize pub and restaurant meals during the month of August, under his “Eat Out to Help Out” program. The move was designed to protect jobs and keep businesses afloat, but some have linked it to the rise of infections that led to the newly announced localized-lockdown scheme.

“What’s happening here is pretty much in sync with what’s happening around the world in second waves,” Sunak insisted.

Indeed, second waves have taken hold across much of Europe, with new restrictions imminent or already in place in countries including France, Italy, Spain and Germany.

But SAGE’s revelations come as the government is already facing heavy criticism over failures in its Test and Trace program, with program chief Dido Harding—the former CEO of telco TalkTalk—being urged by unions to step down after nearly 16,000 cases went unreported for over a week due to an Excel spreadsheet error.

There is never a good time for a government to be seen ignoring the recommendations of its scientific advisers, but the timing here is particularly inauspicious.