Boris Johnson’s plan for tackling coronavirus will be voted on by MPs after documents revealed he rejected recommendations from his scientific advisers for a “circuit-breaker” lockdown.
Official papers showed the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) suggested introducing a national lockdown in September lasting between two and three weeks to halt the rapid spread of the virus, with the Government’s failure to act on the advice branded “alarming” by Labour.
Downing Street insisted that “robust but targeted and proportionate” action had been taken in September, including the rule of six and the 10pm hospitality curfew.
The Sage document, dated September 21, said a package of interventions was needed to reverse the “exponential” rise in cases.
The paper 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.
Third on the list was “banning all contact within the home with members of other households (except members of a support bubble)”, and fourth was the closure of all bars, restaurants, cafes, indoor gyms, and personal services such as hairdressers.
The final measure was that all university and college teaching has “to be online unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential”.
Attendees of the September 21 meeting, held on Zoom, included the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty.
The document says both local and national measures are needed, adding: “Measures should not be applied in too specific a geographical area.”
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “The Government now needs to urgently explain why it ignored its own scientists and what it will be doing to get control of the virus.”
A Government spokesman said: “We took robust but targeted and proportionate action in September, including introducing the rule of six, restrictions to hospitality opening hours, and advice for people to work from home where they can, alongside tougher enforcement.
“This was carefully judged to protect lives and reduce the transmission of the virus whilst minimising the impact to livelihoods, and followed extensive engagement including with scientific advisers.”
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick insisted the Government could “certainly” still say it was being guided by the science despite not following the Sage recommendations.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “We have to take a balanced judgment – these are not easy decisions.”
Mr Jenrick said ministers have taken the “right approach”, adding: “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.”
The Sage details emerged after Mr Johnson warned that rising coronavirus cases and hospital admissions were flashing like “dashboard warnings in a passenger jet” as he set out the three-tier system.
The new system in England will see areas put into different categories labelled as medium, high or very high risk.
The medium level maintains current national restrictions, high-risk areas will see households banned from mixing indoors, while the third tier will see harsher restrictions including the closure of pubs – unless they can operate as a restaurant.
Pubs and bars across Merseyside are set to close from Wednesday as the Liverpool City Region becomes the first area to move into the “very high” alert level.
Areas in the top tier will be able to impose extra restrictions, and on Merseyside this will mean the closure of leisure centres, gyms, betting shops and casinos.
MPs will debate and vote on the system on Tuesday and, should it be approved, the tiers will come into effect on Wednesday.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said England’s tiered system would “give an idea” of a similar scheme she is developing, which could come into effect when stricter measures are due to be eased on October 25.
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said he was “deeply disappointed” that Mr Johnson had not imposed an outright ban on travel from “very high” alert areas and is considering whether to take further action – which could include effectively closing the border.
In Northern Ireland, regulations currently prevent mixing of households, with exceptions for those “bubbling” with another household, and up to six people from up to two households can meet outdoors in a private garden.