Boris Johnson Charts his Own Course

The British Prime Minister is Ignoring the Science, Signalling an Important Turning Point in the Government’s Handling of the Pandemic

In the first six months of the coronavirus pandemic Boris Johnson claimed his government was “following the science” at every step of its plan.  But as the virus resurges and a second wave of coronavirus has engulfs the UK at a pace not seen in other large European countries, the British Prime Minister appears to be ignoring the same advisers he once placed at the centre of his coronavirus strategy, signalling an important turning point in the Government’s handling of the pandemic. 
 
The latest notes published from Sage this week reveal that the Government’s scientific advisers called on him to put in a “circuit breaker” – a two-week lockdown on September 21.  The series of minutes show the prime minister overruled scientists who called warned three weeks ago that the country faced a “very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences” unless urgent action was taken. Johnson not only declined to take Sage up on the suggestion, he also went against the strategy proposed by several of the alternative academics in the days before – of shielding the vulnerable and relaxing rules for the rest of society. That week, he opted instead for a toughening of localised lockdown restrictions along with a change in working from home guidance.
 
“On the day that advice was given, there were 4,696 infections across the UK. The government hummed and hawed, dillied and dallied, and by the time ministers finally made a decision on 12 October, three weeks later, infections had tripled to some 14,000 cases per day. If anything, this alarming growth meant they had to go further than the Sage advice to bring the virus under control.” Stephen Reicher wrote in The Guardian.
 
“So what did they do? Rather than following the science, the government plumped for an anaemic compromise between its scientific advisers and those arguing against any new restrictions. England’s new three tier system still falls far short of what Sage advised back in September,” he added.
 
Under Johnson’s new plan, a three-tier system of Covid alert levels is being introduced, set at medium, high, and very high, to simplify the imposition of lockdown measures. Even the top tier of these new restrictions is a far cry from the hard lockdown that Johnson introduced in March. Children will still attend schools, restaurants will be allowed to remain open and it will be up to local authorities to decide whether other parts of the hospitality sector must close. 
 
Some scientists have warned the newly announced three-tier coronavirus restrictions do not go far enough, and only universal measures have any chance of curbing infections.  This was immediately clear when Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, who said while standing next to Johnson during Monday’s press conference that he was "not confident" that even the restrictions currently envisaged for highest tier "would be enough to get on top" of the virus spread.
Government scientific advisers say that thousands of deaths could be prevented up to January with a circuit break. A modelling paper written by Professor Graham Medley and colleagues sets out that deaths could possibly reduce for the rest of the year from about 19,900 to 12,100. Hospital admissions could be reduced from 132,400 to 66,500. A limited lockdown, with schools and shops open but hospitality venues closed, could potentially cut deaths to about 15,600, they said.
However, the numbers come with a range of caveats - including how fast the epidemic grows - and the paper has yet to be peer-reviewed. Professor Matt Keeling, a co-author of the paper, said a circuit breaker "gives us a chance to reset the level of infection" and prevent the NHS being overloaded with coronavirus patients. It might also help other measures such as test and trace to have greater impact, he said. But Prof Keeling warned the only way to save lives in the long-term is to bring down the UK's coronavirus reproduction (R) number.
 
The Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) - which provides advice to the Department of Health and Social Care - recommends a short, sharp lockdown is imposed in England from 24 October. The date coincides with school half-term, and would minimise disruption to education. But in a paper published on Wednesday, it said: "There are no good epidemiological reasons to delay the break as this will simply push back any benefits until later, leaving more time for additional cases to accumulate."
 
Johnson’s approach has been criticised by the opposition as well as by members of his own party.
 
MPs across the country are left concerned over the new local lockdown strategy. Tory Metro Mayor for the West Midlands, Andy Street, has publicly criticised No. 10 over the measures inflicted on his region. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham told Sky News on Tuesday that a “circuit break as proposed by SAGE I think is preferable to a situation where the government, one by one, piles the pressure on local areas to go into tier three,” referring to the new highest alert level. “That will be a path to hardship for people, redundancies, business failure.” 
 
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has now come out in support of a circuit breaker, saying it would prevent a "sleepwalk into a long and bleak winter", and Steve Rotheram, the Labour mayor of the Liverpool City Region which is being put in the highest tier, accused Johnson of “trying to divide us and distract from the fact that they are failing to provide adequate support to go with any restrictions.”
 
A YouGov poll on Tuesday showed 54% of people surveyed said the government should have introduced a national lockdown in September, while just 28% of the 4,222 adults polled disagreed.
 
Northern Ireland is the first devolved administration to agree to a new national lockdown, with most measures coming into force on Friday. Pubs and restaurants will close for four weeks, with the exception of takeaways and deliveries, while schools will close on Monday for two weeks - one of which will cover the half-term Halloween break.
 
The documents also included criticism of the government’s stuttering Covid-19 test-and-trace system. Scientists advising ministers on the pandemic have warned that the system is having a “marginal impact” in a damning assessment of the multi-billion pound programme. Despite previously being described as “world-beating” by Boris Johnson, the committee warned it will need to expand quickly, and be matched by financial support to people asked to self-isolate, if its effectiveness isn’t going to “further decline” unless it grows at the same rate as the epidemic.