Government adviser: 'New COVID tier system has been bungled and is worse than useless'

Ellen Manning
·4-min read
A Covid alert level sign in Liverpool after Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out a new three-tier system of alert levels for England following rising coronavirus cases and hospital admissions.
Stephen Reicher said the government's three-tier system has been mishandled. (PA)

The government's new tier system for coronavirus lockdowns has been branded “worse than useless” by one of its scientific advisers.

Social psychologist Professor Stephen Reicher, who sits on a subcommittee of the government’s Sage scientific advisory group, said the tier system was a good idea that had been “badly mishandled” and “bungled in practice”.

Introduced last week, the system places local areas into different tiers — very high, high and medium — which each bring varying restrictions.

Liverpool City Region was the first area to be included in Tier 3 (very high), a move that saw all social mixing indoors and in private gardens prohibited, and the closure of pubs and bars, gyms and leisure centres, betting centres, adult game centres and casinos.

Similar measures were put in place in Lancashire, which was later added to Tier 3, though gyms have been allowed to remain open, unlike in Liverpool – sparking confusion.

Local leaders in Manchester are also embroiled in a row with the government after “unanimously rejecting” the area going into a Tier 3 lockdown without increased financial support.

Greater Manchester is currently under Tier 2 restrictions, and last week foreign secretary Dominic Raab accused Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham of trying to “hold the government over a barrel” by resisting tougher restrictions.

Prof Reicher, who is also a member of shadow group Independent Sage, said that while the tier system had been designed to bring “clarity”, “equity” and “local buy-in”, the opposite had been achieved.

Writing in a Twitter thread, he said: “The COVID 'tier system' is a good idea so badly mishandled that it is now worse than useless.

“The idea was to have different levels of restrictions with objective criteria for applying them. This would bring clarity, equity and hence local buy-in.”

When Boris Johnson originally set out the plan in the Commons, the PM said the system would “simplify and standardise our local rules”.

But Prof Reicher said that what had actually happened was that criteria for moving into different tiers had become a matter of “political bargaining”, leading to confusion and contributing to a sense of unfairness among many people in higher-tier areas.

Watch: How will England's three-tier local lockdown system work?

He also said decisions had been “imposed as diktats” on local areas and that moving areas to higher tiers was seen as a “punishment”.

Prof Reicher also said delays by the government meant a local response was no longer adequate.

The government has been under pressure from both Sage and the Labour Party to abandon the three-tier approach in favour of a two or three-week national ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown.

Sage member Sir Jeremy Farrar told Sky News that now is the “second best time” for such a lockdown and that September would have been better.

Labour leader Keir Starmer last week called for a two- to three-week circuit-breaker lockdown, saying: “The government's plan simply isn't working. Another course is needed. That's why I'm calling for a two- to three-week circuit break in England.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer responds after Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a statement in the House of Commons in London, setting out a new three-tier system of controls for coronavirus in England.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer responds after Boris Johnson set out the new three-tier system of controls for coronavirus in England.

Read more: Wales announces 'sharp and deep' two-week national lockdown

Starmer said his proposal, which he urged the government to adopt, would not mean schools closing and that the lockdown could take place at the same time as school holidays.

Addressing the subject of a national circuit-breaker, Prof Reicher said: “It is almost a month since SAGE called for a national circuit-breaker. At that time infections were under 5,000 a day, they are now pushing 20,000 – a fourfold increase.

“Infection rates are up in every area and every age group. Hospitalisations and ICU usage is sharply up. We are about to lose control of the pandemic and half-hearted actions won't get it back. The tier system was a good idea in theory, bungled in practice, now out of time.”

Watch: Can you catch the coronavirus twice?

Coronavirus: what happened today

Click here to sign up to the latest news and information with our daily Catch-up newsletter