Sage adviser says Boris Johnson ‘not being cautious enough’

Prof John Edmunds: 'I think we are not being as cautious as I would like us to be.' (Parliamentlive.tv)
Prof John Edmunds: ‘I think we are not being as cautious as I would like us to be.’ (Parliamentlive.tv)

One of the government’s top coronavirus advisers has said Boris Johnson is not being cautious enough and warned his three-tier local lockdown strategy will not work.

Prof John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) argued Tier 3 lockdowns – the most severe under Johnson’s system – are unlikely to reduce the reproduction (R) rate below 1, meaning there will still be high community infection rates.

He argued a “circuit breaker” national lockdown, something which Sage recommended last month but Johnson resisted, would hold COVID-19 incidence at a “lower level” and reduce hospital admissions.

It comes a day after the government reported a surge in COVID deaths. There were 241 deaths announced on Tuesday, up from 80 on Monday. This was the highest daily number in four months.

Appearing before the House of Commons science and technology committee on Wednesday, Prof Edmunds said of Johnson’s strategy: “I think we are not being as cautious as I would like us to be. I think it’s pretty clear cases have been going up quite fast.

“What worries me a little bit is where the strategy leads to at the moment, the targeted tiered strategy. If you think it through, where that leads to is a high level of incidence everywhere.

“Let’s say Tier 3 works and keeps the reproduction number at about 1 – I don’t think anyone thinks this is going to reduce it to less than 1.

“That means that in Liverpool and Manchester and the north west [areas which are in Tier 3], it will keep the incidence at this high level which is putting hospitals under strain and causing significant numbers of deaths. We’re going to keep it at that high level now for the foreseeable future.”

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

R represents the average number of people each COVID-19 positive person goes on to infect. When the figure is above 1, an outbreak can grow exponentially.

He said the Midlands and London could soon go into Tier 3, again only reducing R to 1.

“What that means by logical extension of this,” Prof Edmunds went on, “is that we all end up at a high level of incidence where hospitals are really under stretch and we have large numbers of deaths.

“That for me is the logical conclusion of this strategy that we’re following and I would not follow that strategy.”

He said a “very stringent” circuit breaker national lockdown could “half” COVID incidence, rather than “hold” it.

It comes after Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, warned an increase in deaths is “baked in” with the second wave of new infections.

Some 21,331 UK-wide cases were recorded on Tuesday, with a seven-day average of 18,231.

Prof Van-Tam warned at the Downing Street press conference on Tuesday: “The key point is that having

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‘More than one’ coronavirus vaccine will be ready in early 2021, Sage expert says

Sage expert Sir Jeremy Farrar has said he believes “more than one” coronavirus vaccine will be available by the beginning of next year.

Prof Farrar told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday he believed that much stricter social distancing measures would be needed until the vaccine is ready.

The Wellcome Trust director said: “I do believe the vaccines will be available in the first quarter of next year, I do believe that monoclonal antibodies to treat patients and save lives will be available in the coming months.

“It’s with that context that I think we need to reduce transmission now and we need to get ourselves back to the beginning of September as a country, not in piecemeal, not in fragments across the country, but as a whole country.”

A scientist at work during a visit by the Duke of Cambridge to the manufacturing laboratory where a vaccine against COVID-19 has been produced at the Oxford Vaccine Group's facility at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford.
A scientist at work at the manufacturing laboratory where a vaccine against COVID-19 has been produced at the Oxford Vaccine Group’s facility at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford. (PA)

Prof Farrar added: “Christmas will be tough this year. I don’t think it’s going to be the usual celebration it is and all families coming together, I’m afraid.

“I think we have to be honest and realistic and say that we are in for three to six months of a very difficult period.

Read more: Northern Conservative MPs blast ‘ill-advised’ letter from fellow Tories to Manchester mayor over local lockdown

“The temperatures drop, we are all indoors more often, we have the other infections that come this time of year. It’s much better for us to be upfront and honest now.”

Elsewhere in the interview Prof Farrar said he believed that the government had made a mistake by not implementing a so-called “circuit breaker” short-term lockdown.

He claimed it was not too late to stem the large rise in infections and said the “second best time” for a national lockdown is now.

A couple wearing face masks cross Oxford Circus, past a social distancing notice, in London, England, on October 16, 2020. London is to be placed under 'Tier 2' coronavirus lockdown measures from midnight tonight, meaning 'high' alert for covid-19. Most notably the change will introduce a ban on people from different households from mixing anywhere indoors, prompting particular concern within the already badly-affected hospitality industry. (Photo by David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A couple wearing face masks in Oxford Circus, London. (Getty)

Prof Farrar said the scientific advice given to the government said that the best course of action would have been to impose a circuit breaker on around 20 September, but it was not followed.

“You either have to go very early and harder than you may think, and more geographically dispersed than you may think, or you go incrementally, one week after another or one fortnight after another to try and introduce the restrictions,” he said.

“I am in favour of going earlier, I think when you go earlier the restrictions can be less draconian and you can have a bigger impact on transmission, and critically get that R value to 1 and below 1.

“That’s what we’ve got to aim for – it has to be the objective.”

Watch: Can you catch the coronavirus twice?

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