Downing Street rejects suggestions it ignored SAGE advice on 'circuit-breaker' national lockdown

The front door of number 10 Downing Street in London.

The front door of number 10 Downing Street in London. - Credit: PA

Downing Street has given a lengthy defence against allegations it ignored advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on a "circuit-breaker" national lockdown.

Boris Johnson's official spokesperson said the prime minister had taken a "considered analysis" of the economic impacts and the public health threat of the virus when he decided not to impose a second nationwide lockdown.

The official said: “I think you need to look at what the full detail of those Sage minutes say, they explicitly point out that policy makers will need to consider analysis of economic impacts and the associated harms of their epidemiological impacts and that’s exactly what the prime minister, the chancellor and colleagues did.”

On the range of other measures suggested by Sage, the spokesman said: “You can see that we took robust and targeted and proportionate action in September which was carefully judged to protect lives and to reduce the transmission of the virus whilst minimising the impact to livelihoods.

“In terms of the advice to work from home for all of those who can, that’s what we asked people to do in September.

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“In terms of banning contact within the home with members of other households, that is the case in the regions where the virus is spreading rapidly and where we’ve asked people not to mix with others outside their households or bubbles in any indoor settings and also some outdoor settings.

“Universities have taken extensive steps to make themselves Covid-secure but under their existing guidance some universities did move to teaching online.

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“In terms of the closure of all bars and some other hospitality and leisure sectors, yesterday we set out a baseline set of measures for Level 3 which does require the closure of bars and pubs.”

On Tuesday, official Sage papers showed the government had been urged to introduce a national lockdown back in September lasting between two and three weeks to halt the rapid spread of the virus.

The Sage documents, dated September 21, said a package of interventions was needed to reverse the “exponential” rise in cases.

The papers set out a shortlist of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) that should be considered for “immediate” introduction, also suggesting that all university teaching should be online unless face-to-face teaching was “absolutely essential” at a time when students were starting or returning to university.

Top of the list was a short period of lockdown known as a circuit-breaker “to return incidence to low levels”, followed by advice to work from home for all those who can.

The government’s failure to act on the advice has been branded as “alarming” by Labour.

Downing Street also declined to explicitly commit to keeping the coronavirus R value below one, saying instead the prime minister wishes to get the rate in which coronavirus spreads down further.

Asked if Johnson is committed to keeping the figure below the point in which the disease begins to spread exponentially, the prime minister’s official spokesman said: “The answer is he is determined to get the R down further.

“You can see the measures that we have put in place are having a significant effect on R it’s currently 1.1-1.5 compared to a natural rate of three but we need to go further and that’s why we set out the package of measures we announced out yesterday and that’s why we’re working with local authorities to talk about further level three interventions.”

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