A group of scientists is calling on the UK government to enforce a two-week circuit breaker to help stem the coronavirus’ spread.
Cases are increasing exponentially across almost all regions. In an effort to control the outbreak, officials have introduced a three-tier system that limits social contact according to a location’s patient numbers.
All regions are under “medium” tier one, which prohibits groups larger than six and forces social venues to close at 10pm. The “very high” tier three means pubs and restaurants not serving food must close, while residents are urged not to travel out of the area.
The system was introduced despite Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer calling for a two- to three-week “circuit breaker” lockdown in England to bring the infection rate under control.
This has now been echoed by Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). As daily confirmed cases approach 20,000, the panel argues an immediate national circuit breaker is needed to curb the virus, warning the three-tier is “not enough to reverse growth”.
Critics have argued this would further damage the UK economy, with Independent Sage calling for non-essential retail, restaurants and even schools to temporarily shut up shop.
Independent Sage’s proposal follows a study by the University of Warwick that suggested a “short, sharp” two-week breaker would lead to a fall in coronavirus cases throughout the UK, followed by a decline in hospitalisations and deaths.
“Cases, hospitalisations and deaths are rising across England,” said Independent Sage member Professor Christina Pagel, from University College London.
“The tiered system will not be enough to reverse growth.
“Despite four weeks of living under ‘tier 2’ type restrictions in many areas and three weeks of ‘tier 1’ restrictions elsewhere, cases continued to increase rapidly everywhere.”
The government’s official Sage team reportedly called for a short lockdown in England to halt the spread of the coronavirus in September.
“Agreeing with Sage, we believe a sharp national circuit breaker for two to three weeks followed by three to four weeks of continuing restrictions is needed to stop the current wave in its tracks, preventing tens of thousands of new cases and thousands of hospital stays,” said Professor Pagel.
“This will buy us precious time to build a public health and social scaffolding to support easing restrictions and restarting our lives.
“We must not waste this time.”
On 15 October, 18,980 swabbed positive for the coronavirus in the UK, bringing the total number of patients since the outbreak began to 673,622.
To help combat this, Independent Sage has set out a “six-week emergency plan” to bring the number of daily cases under 5,000.
Part of the proposal is a two to three week circuit breaker that will include the closure of schools, non-essential retail and businesses, leisure and hospitality sectors, and places of worship.
While a break will not eliminate the outbreak, it buy time for an “urgent reform” of the much-criticised NHS Test and Trace – dubbed a “national scandal” by Independent Sage’s chair and former chief scientific adviser Sir David King.
The panel also wants to see a return to 2m social distancing, which was reduced to 1m on 4 July, as well as a ban on household mixing outside of support bubbles and a switch to online teaching for university students.
Independent Sage has long criticised NHS Test and Trace, instead calling for local authorities to oversee a more nuanced “find, test, trace, isolate and support” system.
“Eight months into the pandemic, it’s clear England’s find, test, trace, isolate and support programme is failing, leading the government to rely on a succession of restrictions on people mixing to control the pandemic,” wrote the panel.
“The result is the UK has some of the greatest excess death rates and economic damage anywhere.
“In the second quarter of 2020, the UK’s GDP fell by 20%, or around $143 billion, according to the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development].
“South Korea, which rapidly suppressed the virus through a smart system of test, trace, isolate and support, experienced only a 3% drop in GDP, with only two short local lockdowns.
“We recognise this is difficult but there is no reason why we shouldn’t emulate the successes of countries like Norway, Finland, Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, China and Singapore and enjoy the near normality they have secured.”