Government experts warn reimposing lockdown would be 'serious failure'

The SAGE files: Government’s science experts warn having to reimpose coronavirus lockdown restrictions would be a ‘serious policy failure’ and make people less likely to stick to the rules

  • Government advisers warned ministers not to lift rules and then reimpose them
  • Said this would be ‘serious failure of policy’ and harm trust in government advice
  • Experts said any easing of restrictions must therefore be done on gradual basis
  • Suggested government could adopt ‘traffic light’ system for resuming activities 
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

Ministers have been warned by their expert scientific advisers that lifting the coronavirus lockdown and then reimposing restrictions later would be seen by the public as a ‘serious failure of policy’. 

Newly-released secret documents show the government’s scientists have argued in favour of only a very slow easing of measures. 

They said if lockdown was ‘abruptly’ lifted people would expect the risk of infection to have ‘ceased or significantly reduced’. 

If there was then a spike in cases and the government had to reimpose lockdown the nation would lose trust in expert advice and would be a lot less likely to stick to the rules. 

Meanwhile, the experts on the independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) group suggested ministers could use a ‘traffic light’ system to tell people which activities they can safely do after lockdown. 

The group also warned against only lifting measures which have been harming the economy, suggesting some social or family restrictions would also have to be eased to make sure people feel they are being treated fairly. 

Experts have warned the government not to lift lockdown and then reimpose measures. People are pictured queueing at a post office in London today

Many shops across the UK remain shut as the state of lockdown continues with minister syet to set out an exit strategy

Boris Johnson, pictured in St James’ Park this morning, is expected to set out an exit strategy on Sunday 

The lockdown guidance was one of a number of SAGE revelations today as some of the panel’s documents were finally published. Others included: 

  • Scientists urged the government  to tell people to stop shaking hands the same day Boris Johnson was boasting about shaking hands with ‘everybody’. 
  • A government-funded study found at least a dozen different strains of coronavirus were spreading through the UK in March. 
  • Experts warned ministers that employers could shun workers who have not had coronavirus after lockdown, prompting people to actively try to catch the disease.

Boris Johnson is expected to renew the lockdown on Thursday before setting out an exit strategy in an address to the nation on Sunday. 

The SPI-B group – a sub-committee of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – discussed the best ways to ease restrictions on social distancing and activities on April 1, according to a batch of documents published for the first time today.     

The experts were unequivocal that lockdown should not be lifted wholesale because of what the public reaction could be if measures subsequently had to be put back in place again. 

They also warned reimposing measures could lead to ‘community tension’ because people on low incomes have been disproportionately impacted during the current crisis.  

Scientists were urging the government  to tell people to stop shaking hands the same day Boris Johnson was boasting about shaking hands with ‘everybody’, it was revealed today. 

Newly-released records on the advice given to the government as the coronavirus crisis erupted show Mr Johnson seemingly flouted the recommendations from his own experts.

A meeting of the behavioural group that feeds into SAGE on March 3 concluded that ‘Government should advise against greetings such as shaking hands and hugging, given existing evidence about the importance of hand hygiene’. 

‘A public message against shaking hands has additional value as a signal about the importance of hand hygiene,’ the Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) said. 

‘Promoting a replacement greeting or encouraging others to politely decline a proffered hand-shake may have benefit.’

However, that evening Mr Johnson told a press conference in Downing Street that he ‘continued to shake hands’ and the important thing was washing them. 

The documents state: ‘If strict restrictions are retained for months and then abruptly eased and people are told it is safe to resume social contact they will expect this to mean that the risk of infection has ceased or significantly reduced. 

‘If there is then an increase in infection rates that necessitates a reintroduction of restrictions this is likely to be seen as a serious failure of policy and trust in public health advice will be lost, leading to lower adherence to advice to restrict or to resume activity. 

‘There are also many practical barriers for the community in stopping and restarting some activities that need to be considered (e.g. hiring and furloughing staff, arranging childcare). 

‘Prolongation or reintroduction of measures will also disproportionately affect those on low incomes, potentially leading to community tension.’

The experts therefore recommended ministers should choose to ease restrictions slowly and provide the public with regular updates on the effect any changes have had. 

‘To avoid these problems we would advocate trialling easing restrictions very gradually when epidemiologically indicated while clearly explaining why these particular activities are being resumed and how risks must be controlled if these activities are to be maintained,’ they said. 

The lockdown’s impact on the economy has been cited by many as a reason for lifting restrictions. 

But the experts suggested any easing of measures to get Britain back to work would also have to be accompanied with easing of restrictions on non-work activities. 

Experts: More than 12 coronavirus strains were spreading across UK in March

At least a dozen different strains of coronavirus were spreading through the UK in March, a Government-funded study has found.

Leading genetic scientists analysed the genomes of the killer virus in 260 infected patients from all corners of the UK.

They say they have identified 12 unique lines of the virus, one of which has only ever been found in Britain – meaning it mutated on UK soil.

But the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) said the number of strains ‘is very likely substantially higher’ due to under-sampling in the UK.

The scientists say most of the strains were imported from Italy and Spain, the worst-hit countries in the world at the time the research was carried out.

There is no suggestion that any of the strains are any more potent or infectious than another, infectious disease experts say.

The documents state: ‘To maintain public trust and support it will be important to have acceptable and equitable criteria for selecting which activities can be resumed. 

‘For example, it may be difficult to justify easing restrictions solely for economic activities without any easing of restrictions for low risk activities with significant social and psychological benefit.’

The experts said the messaging on lifting lockdown will need to be clear to avoid confusion but it will also need to be more nuanced than the current ‘stay at home’ slogan.

‘Guidance must explain exactly which activities can be resumed by whom, why, when, and in what way in order to support appropriate adherence,’ the documents said. 

The group also recommended lessons be learned from successful public health campaigns on things like healthy eating when it comes to communicating what people can and cannot do. 

It suggested a traffic light system could be used so people understand which activities are allowed and which are not.

The group said: ‘For example, methods that have been used successfully for helping people understand how to implement other behaviour changes include providing a “traffic light” list of examples of high (avoid), medium (do rarely and carefully) and low (do freely) risk activities.’

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