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The UK communities secretary has defended the government’s decision to ignore warnings from its scientific advisers that the country needed a two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown to reduce the spread of coronavirus, saying ministers had tried to strike a “balanced view” on restrictions.
Robert Jenrick insisted the government was still being led by science, despite having rejected the advice last month from the Sage committee of experts, saying scientific views differed.
Official Sage documents dated 21 September, released on Monday evening after Boris Johnson announced a new three-tier Covid alert system, showed that the committee warned that the country faced a “very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences” unless ministers took immediate action.
The group proposed five measures including the circuit breaker – a short period of lockdown to drive new infections down – that it urged ministers to consider to head off a second wave of the virus that “would fall disproportionately on the frailest in our society, but also those on lower incomes and BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] communities”.
Only one of the five proposals was adopted by the government – advising people to work from home where possible.
The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said he was “alarmed” that the Sage documents were only released after Johnson had spoken to the Commons and given a press conference about his new plans.
Speaking to BBC1’s Breakfast programme, Ashworth said: “I was quite alarmed when I saw the Sage minutes come out last night. They came out after the prime minister’s press conference, after the prime minister’s statement. He didn’t allude to them in any of his statements. And he always tells us that we’re following the science.
“Quite self-evidently they have rejected significant recommendations here from the scientists. So we need to understand why.”
Greater Manchester’s Labour mayor, Andy Burnham, went further telling Sky News that he would have prefer a national circuit breaker lockdown, as proposed by Sage, to putting people in tier 3 restrictions “and letting them suffer”.
But Jenrick said it could still be said that ministers followed scientific advice. “It certainly can,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “But we have to take a balanced judgment. These are not easy decisions. But the prime minister has to balance protecting people’s lives, and the NHS from the virus, while also prioritising things that matter to us as a society, like education, and keeping as many people in employment as possible.”
Jenrick said: “We want to try, wherever we can, to avoid a blanket national lockdown. That is incredibly damaging to people’s lives and remember the rate of infection does vary very widely across the country.”
At the Downing Street press conference on Monday, Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, warned that he was “not confident” that even the basic restrictions laid out in the top tier, tier 3, of new rules would be enough to restrict fast-growing Covid cases.
Jenrick said more could be done: “The base lines measures will have an impact. Objectively, they are measures which will reduce the rate of transmission because they will limit the amount of social interaction that people have in those areas. But they are, as the prime minister said, a base line.”
Jenrick also said the government had to seek a middle ground between differing views: “You can’t have it both ways. People have said they we’re going too far in those communities. Other people have said that we’re not going far enough. Similarly, some scientific opinion says we should be going much further. Others say that we should not be going as far as we are.”
In the Sage documents released on Monday, the committee said that despite the national lockdown and the establishment of a test, trace and isolate system, the epidemiological situation was such that “a package of measures is required urgently” to prevent an exponential rise in cases.
The experts said: “As over 90% of the population remain susceptible, not acting now to reduce cases will result in a very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences in terms of direct Covid-related deaths and the ability of the health service to meet needs.”
As well as the circuit breaker, the group’s five recommendations included advising all who can to work from home; a ban on household mixing in homes, except for those in support bubbles; the closure of all bars, restaurants, cafes, indoor gyms and services such as hairdressers; and all university and college teaching to be online “unless absolutely essential”.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Covid: Jenrick defends decision to ignore Sage’s lockdown advice | World news