Newly published documents from the government’s scientific advisers argue for a short “circuit breaker” lockdown to protect public health and the economy. If the government disagrees, it should explain why, writes Tom Sasse
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) advised, over three weeks ago, that a second “circuit breaker” lockdown was needed to curb coronavirus transmission. It argues that not implementing one will lead to thousands more deaths and, ultimately, prolonged restrictions – and so do greater harm to the economy.
Keir Starmer agrees – but most Conservative MPs do not, with many believing it would cause unnecessary suffering and economic harm. The government has, so far, appeared unwilling to agree to a second lockdown, with the prime minister calling it a “disaster”.
Politicians have to weigh factors that scientists do not. But the government is yet to publish the evidence to back up its position. If it rejects SAGE’s analysis, it should set out its thinking – otherwise it risks public support and national unity fraying at a critical moment.
Scientific advisers have learned from the delayed first lockdown and their thinking is now prominent
Many scientists believe the UK locked down too late in March: John Edmunds, a SAGE member, said the delay of a week “cost a lot of lives”. The decision was ultimately a matter of political judgement, but an IfG report found ministers relied too heavily on SAGE and looked to it for answers and certainty which it could not offer. The scientists, for their part, were reluctant to recommend sweeping and costly measures in the absence of data and firm evidence.
This time around, however, SAGE has been bolder. The minutes from 21 September show that that the group called for a circuit breaker to halt the “exponential rise in cases”. It has made clear that it does not believe Tier 3 of the government’s regional approach will be sufficient to bring transmission under control (and the data on rising cases supports this position). This week, SAGE published modelling that suggests a two-week lockdown would save thousands of lives.
As well as being starker, SAGE’s advice is also far more public than it was in March: back then, the public had little ability to assess the government’s claim to be “following the science”. The prominence of the SAGE documents, which have led the news bulletins and political debate, means the government risks being outgunned on communicating its position unless it can demonstrate similar levels of transparency.
Scientists recognise that such important decisions cannot be based on science alone. At PMQs, Boris Johnson quoted SAGE’s acknowledgement that politicians had to “consider analysis of economic impacts and the associated harms alongside [their] epidemiological assessment”.
Yet SAGE’s assessment of current transmission means it believes delaying a second lockdown will be worse for public health and the economy. As Jeremy Farrar, a core member, put it: “the longer we leave it the harsher restrictions will have to get and the longer they will need to be imposed”.
Pressed by Starmer, the prime minister said that he had “advice” that continuing with the regional approach would “bring down R”. Yet it was unclear what advice he was referring to, and SAGE has said current measures are not enough to bring transmission down. If the government does not share SAGE’s analysis about the transmission of the virus or the need for a short lockdown, it should publish the evidence explaining why. Some have questioned, for example, whether a two- or three-week lockdown would be enough to bring cases down, given transmission would continue within households. The government should state whether it thinks this is the case.
Similarly, if the government rejects SAGE’s analysis because the Treasury thinks the harm caused to businesses and the economy by a second lockdown would be too great – or it thinks a second lockdown would not be temporary, then it should make that clear and publish evidence that lends weight to its decision. According to Playbook, ministers are calling for the Treasury chief economist to front the next press conference and set out the economic evidence. The prime minister should listen.
The UK is at a critical moment. Jonathan Van Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, warned on Sunday that the country was at a “tipping point similar to where we were in March”. Up to now, there has been broad political support for measures – even if disagreement on how effectively they have been implemented. But that unity is beginning to fray.
The government’s scientific experts have set out their position. If the government is to maintain trust and support, it should set out evidence that explains why it disagrees with them and the basis for its strategy. That is particularly important as it asks cities and regions to make difficult sacrifices.
The government is once again weighing an incredibly difficult decision. This time it is no longer delaying a national lockdown while it waits for scientific guidance but is rejecting one despite the scientific guidance. Unless it backs up that decision, suspicions will grow that the government’s position is now being dictated by the resistance of its MPs.
- Bourne R, Twitter, 13 October 2020, twitter.com/MrRBourne/status/1316063636851429379?s=20