Three-tier lockdown system is 'worst of all worlds', SAGE warns

Boris Johnson’s three-tier lockdown system is ‘the worst of all worlds’ because it’s inconsistent and makes rules more confusing, SAGE member warns

  • Professor Stephen Reicher said new system had been ‘disastrous’ on two fronts 
  • It failed at its main goal of making local Covid lockdown rules clearer, he claimed
  • And a lack of transparency about why areas are chosen has frayed public trust 

England’s three-tiered lockdown system is ‘the worst of all worlds’, a SAGE member warned today — highlighting the growing rift between ministers and their scientists.

Stephen Reicher, professor of social psychology at the St Andrews University, said the ‘disastrous’ scheme had failed at attempting to make local Covid-19 rules clearer.

He told the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Coronavirus – set up to scrutinise the Government’s handling of the pandemic – the system had been a ‘good idea in principle’.

But a lack of transparency about the criteria being used to justify tightening rules in various towns and cities has left residents and local leaders in the dark about why their areas were being targeted.

Professor Reicher warned this lack of clarity and inconsistency had led to a ‘growing sense of inequality and resistance’ among the public.

It comes as 2.8million people in Greater Manchester look poised to be plunged into a Tier Three lockdown against the will of the region’s local mayor.

SAGE – the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – had been banging the drum about a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown for weeks and was opposed to the three-tier system from the outset.

A circuit breaker would’ve seen the country retreat into a spring-like lockdown for two to three weeks to reset the epidemic and give ministers breathing space. But it was dismissed by Boris Johnson amid fears it would shatter the already fragile economy. 

Professor Stephen Reicher, a behavioural scientist on a panel that feeds into SAGE, said England’s three-tiered lockdown system is ‘the worst of all worlds

Professor Reicher – who sits on the Independent Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) sub group of SAGE – told the committee: ‘We have the worst of all worlds, we have a system where there is no sense of clarity. There is a growing sense of inequity and resistance.’

‘A tier system isn’t bad in and of itself, the way it’s been applied I think has been disastrous and is leading to political paralysis when we need action really quickly because infections are spiking.’  

The UK is on to a ‘losing game’ if it tries to use local lockdowns alone in responding to the coronavirus pandemic, a public health expert has said.

Speaking to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, Devi Sridhar, professor and chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said using lockdowns are ‘a last-resort measure’.

She said local lockdowns were being deployed based on data covering hospitalisations and the NHS’s capacity to manage the inflow of patients.

‘I personally think that is a losing game because with this virus it is so infectious that if you try to rely on treating your way through it you’ll be stuck in lockdown and release cycles.’

She added: ‘The analogy for me is leaving your health services alone on the pitch as if they are the goalie and the rest of the field wide open.’

Prof Sridhar said the way countries could be ‘winning’ against the virus was through ‘strong suppression’ and a ‘zero-Covid’ approach seen in east Asia.

This included using test, trace and isolate, bringing in restrictions to limit flare-ups, border restrictions and clear messaging to the public.

The increasing number of local lockdowns is driving the country towards a national lockdown in all but name, Professor Sridhar added.

She said local lockdowns should be used to protect areas with low incidence of Covid-19 cases from those that have spikes.

Restrictions on movement should be introduced, accompanied by testing and tracing, she explained.

Professor Sridhar added: ‘I think the mistake has been that we’re now seeing all over the country increases so all that’s going to be is putting in more and more local restrictions until we basically have a national lockdown but we’re just not calling it that.’

He warned if resistance was ‘politicised’ it could risk ‘polarising’ the country, as has been seen in the US. 

Professor Reicher said public trust in the Government was critical at a time when the virus is resurging and the only way to stop it is for people to follow social distancing rules.

He is calling for Downing Street to ‘reset’ its relationship with the people, become more transparent and be willing to admit when it makes mistakes.  

‘We need to completely reset the relationship between government and public, there needs to be a lot more humility,’ he said.

‘We don’t need world beating this or that, we need functional this and that, we need to be able to admit our mistakes and we’ve got things wrong and how we’re going to improve them. We need to move away also from punishment.’ 

The Government late last month granted police more powers to punish people who do test positive and end up breaking isolation rules.

The move came as the NHS Test and Trace system continued to miss tens of thousands of cases each week and adherence to lockdown rules began to dwindle, following weeks of chopping and changing of the restrictions.

As of September 28, police are now able to carry out spot checks and act on tip-offs to enforce the rules.  

And people ordered to quarantine after they or a contact test positive for the virus face a knock on the door from officers to check they are not leaving their home. 

Those who do not self-isolate – or employers who force staff to turn up to work – will be hit with fines of up to £10,000.

Professor Reicher said the ‘threat of fines’ meant people might not get tests if they could be potentially ‘criminalised’, nor would they ‘give up the names of their mates’.

He added: ‘Treating the public as a partner with the respect and humility and support that is necessary is absolutely crucial.’ 

The Government is facing a two-pronged threat – not only is it struggling to convince people who test positive to isolate, but it’s also struggling to find cases in the first place.

About 17,000 people are testing positive every day in Britain, but some estimates put the true number of daily infections at at least double that. 

NHS Test and Trace – once hailed as world-beating by ministers – was supposed to be one of the country’s main lines of defence against rising outbreaks.

But latest figures show the beleaguered system is struggling to track down 40 per cent of close contacts of people who test positive. 

With more than 100,000 people testing positive every week, it means tens of thousands of close contacts may have been allowed to walk the streets without knowing they were carrying the disease.

Devi Sridhar, professor and chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, told the APPG that impoverished countries in Africa and South East Asia had better contact tracing systems than the UK.

She said she did not understand how countries such and Senegal and Vietnam were able to return test results rapidly but ‘we’re not able to do that in the UK’.

Professor Sridhar added: ‘There is something fundamentally wrong here when we are needing to look at who is being given contracts to deliver what and with what expertise, because it is public taxpayer money that is being spent.

‘We are going into another lockdown because that test and trace system is not working, and it’s not because we are not putting enough money in.’

‘It’s not about lack of money here, countries that are far poorer are doing better on it.’

Dr David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation special envoy on Covid-19, told the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Coronavirus the virus was ‘not going to go away’, even if a vaccine comes to the rescue next year

Devi Sridhar, professor and chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, told the APPG that impoverished countries in Africa and South East Asia had better contact tracing systems than the UK

It’s unclear the success rate of the systems in these countries, but Senegal has set up local contact tracing teams in 78 district health centres scattered around its towns and cities.

The UK Government has been repeatedly criticised for taking a more centralised approach to contract tracing, using call centres instead of a boots on the ground approach. 

Senegal – where 66 per cent of the population are living in dire poverty –  has experience in tracking and tracing during epidemics, having fought the Ebola crisis in 2014.

Eat Out to Help Out helped restaurants in short term but likely was driving factor behind them closing again, expert claims 

The Government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme set the hospitality industry back, a public health expert has said.

Professor Sridhar told the APPG that the scheme had given a ‘boost to the hospitality industry in the summer but now many are being shut’.

She added: ‘It’s been one step forward for the industry, five steps backwards.’

She said the sector was ‘vital’ but also ‘one of the riskiest settings for transmission’, and warned against ‘short-term populist views that pump money in that don’t do it in a sustainable way’.

Stephen Reicher, professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews, said his ‘heart fell’ when pubs and hospitality were re-opened in July, leading to headlines of ‘independence day’.

Professor Reicher, who sits on the SPI-B sub group of Sage, told the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus: ‘By opening up too fast in far too unregulated a way we, instead of suppressing the virus, which we had the opportunity to do, we allowed it to continue.’

He added: ‘If you relax too quickly I think you pay the cost in the long term.’

Meanwhile, Professor Reicher also warned the committee that a potential coronavirus vaccine will not be ‘the cavalry’ saving people from the pandemic.

He told the APPG: ‘There is a little bit of a representation that the vaccine is a bit like the cavalry riding over the hill and saving us all so we don’t actually have to save ourselves: well, it’s not.’

He said it would be ‘counter-productive’ if a vaccine was used to delay implementing other measures.

Professor Reicher added: ‘A vaccine solves nothing, it’s people getting vaccinated that solves something.’

He said polling indicated that about 50 per cent of people were ‘dubious’ over a vaccine, which was related to the ‘lack of trust’ from the public at the moment.

‘The loss of trust in the UK Government – which has been catastrophic – [has led to confidence] falling from about 70 per cent to little over half.  

‘When it comes to a vaccine you need to have trust in that vaccine as it being safe and for your own good, so loss of trust is a real issue.’

Dr David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation special envoy on Covid-19, said the virus was ‘not going to go away’, even if a vaccine comes to the rescue next year.

He told the APPG: ‘Coronavirus is by and large much more stable than many other viruses that we deal with.

‘So we’re basically saying, my colleagues and I, just recognise that we as humanity are going to have to live with this virus for the foreseeable future.

‘Living with the virus means holding it at bay, it doesn’t mean letting it come and infect anybody and not worrying about it.

‘The talk about herd immunity as a strategy is not viable, it’s not ethical, it’s not based on anything that we’ve ever done before.

‘We encourage everybody to just put that one on the side, we may change our advice, but right now that’s not the advice.’ 

Dr Nabarro said it would take time for people to come to terms with the new normal way of life on the back of the pandemic, particularly people in countries in the West which have not had an outbreak of an infectious disease in decades.  

He added: ‘The last time we had to do a big behaviour change because a new infectious agent came along was when HIV appeared and starting causing Aids, and it took many years for societies to come to terms with the reality that sex could be associated with death.’

Dr Nabarro added: ‘We’ve got the same situation now, a new virus has come along, behaviour has to change and people find it stunningly difficult to take it on board.’

He said estimates of mask use and physical distancing in western Europe were around the ’60 per cent to 70 per cent mark’.

‘It’s not bad, if we could get it up to 90% it would make a huge difference to the rate of which Covid is spreading through society,’ he said.

‘That might mean, if we could get it up, that the necessity for top-down restrictions on behaviour would greatly diminish.’

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