UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson

  • Boris Johnson ignored advice from the team of scientists who advise the government on its coronavirus response, according to newly published papers.
  • The group of scientists, who comprise the SAGE committee, told Boris Johnson to introduce a 14-day 'circuit-breaker' lockdown as long as three weeks ago.
  • They also told the PM to introduce further national measures, including a ban on household mixing and the closure of pubs and restaurants.
  • Johnson ignored the advice, and yesterday introduced an alternative three-tier local system where different areas face different restrictions.
  • The Prime Minister's chief medical adviser said on Monday that the government's new measures will not be enough to stop the second wave of the coronavirus currently gripping the UK.
  • Other papers published this week reveal that the UK's much-hyped track-and-trace system is failing to contain coronavirus transmissions.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Boris Johnson ignored advice to introduce a second national lockdown three weeks ago, according to newly published documents which illustrate an extraordinary spat between ministers and the scientists who advise them.

The scientific advisory group for emergencies (SAGE) advised the prime minister to introduce a raft of measures to try and contain the rate of Covid-19 transmissions in a Zoom meeting three weeks ago.

Boris Johnson reportedly sided with "hawks" in his Cabinet, including Chancellor Rishi Sunak, and refused to consider the measures because he feared the damage they would do to the economy.

The measures suggested included a two-week "circuit breaker" lockdown similar to the one imposed in March, a national ban on household mixing, and the closure of all restaurants, pubs, cafes, gyms, and hairdressers.

The papers also reveal that Johnson was warned that plans he did later enact to introduce a curfew on pubs and restaurants would only have a "marginal impact" on the spread of the virus.

The prime minister instead on Monday announced a "three-tier" system of local lockdowns, where areas which faced the highest incidence rate of Covid-19 would face the harshest measures.

He told parliament on Monday: "The number of cases has quadrupled in the last three weeks, there are now more people in hospital with Covid than when we went into lockdown on March 23 and deaths are already rising."

Currently the city of Liverpool is in the highest category, "very high risk," due to a soaring infection rate and rapidly filling intensive care units which threaten to overwhelm local NHS trusts.

The extraordinary rift between Johnson and his team of scientific advisers was illustrated at Monday's Downing Street press conference, where Johnson and Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, were explaining the new three-tier lockdown system.

Whitty pointedly said that even the harshest local measures in the new system would not be "sufficient" to limit the spread of Covid-19.

He said that he was "very confident that the measures that are currently in place are helping to slow the virus, and these measures will help to slow it further" but added: "I am not confident - and nor is anybody confident - that the Tier 3 proposals for the highest rates if we did the absolute base case and nothing more, would be enough to get on top of it."

A senior minister on Tuesday admitted that lockdown measures would "probably" have to get tougher to contain the virus. Robert Jenrick, the housing minister, dismissed claims the measures were not "robust" enough but said councils should show "leadership" by introducing stricter measures.

"We probably will need to go further," he said. "But we want to design these steps jointly between ourselves and local government."

In another document which could prove highly damaging to the government, the SAGE group of scientists said that the £12 billion "test-and-trace" programme, which Johnson has described as "world-beating" is having only a "marginal" impact on reducing the spread of the virus because it is not tracing enough people, and many of those contacted are simply ignoring advice to self-isolate.

SAGE suggested that the programme's effectiveness would likely "further decline" as the virus continued to spread.

"The relatively low levels of engagement with the system... coupled with testing delays and likely poor rates of adherence with self-isolation suggests that this system is having a marginal impact on transmission at the moment," the scientists wrote.

"'Unless the system grows at the same rate as the epidemic, and support is given to people to enable them to adhere to self-isolation, it is likely that the impact of Test, Trace and Isolate will further decline in the future."

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