SAGE warned ministers the local lockdown system must get stronger

SAGE pushed for FOUR tiers: Scientists warned ministers the local lockdown system must get stronger and called Tier Two ‘barely adequate’ if R is above one, papers reveal

  • Papers from sub-group of SAGE say there is a ‘great deal of uncertainty’ on tiers 
  • They called for a new super-tier, or Tier Four, to be brought in to control Covid-19
  • Boris Johnson has unveiled a dialled-up tier system in effort to stop the disease

SAGE scientists called for a fourth tier to the local lockdown system so rules could be even stricter than the previous policy allowed, official documents show.  

In papers from a sub-group of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies published today, top experts said a ‘more stringent’ approach was needed to stop a third lockdown being ordered across England. 

And they said Tier Two – where visiting the homes of friends and family is banned – should be considered the ‘minimum intervention’ to maintain ‘any degree of control’ over the virus. 

But they said even that was ‘barely adequate’ to keep the virus under control when an epidemic was growing. 

Ministers were also chastised for failing to consider the speed at which cases surged alongside the total number of infections when enforcing tiers, meaning there was no attempt to slam the brakes onto spiralling cases until the virus was widespread. 

Boris Johnson today unveiled his toughened three-tier system, with pubs and restaurants to be forced to go takeaway only under the dialled-up Tier Three. 

But there was a silver lining as gyms will now allowed to remain open under the toughest measures.

‘Unlike the previous arrangements, the tiers will now be a uniform set of rules,’ Boris told the Commons via Zoom from his flat above Number 11 where he is self-isolating. ‘We won’t have negotiations on additional measures with each region – it’s a uniform set of rules.’

He revealed that Christmas shopping will also be saved, while there is the potential for small family gatherings over the festive season. Spectator sports will also be able to make a limited comeback in the two lower levels. 

Modelling by a sub-group of SAGE revealed areas in Tier One often experienced higher virus growth rates after the system was brought in (blue dots) but those in Tier Two (green and orange) and Tier Three (red) saw lower growth rates

In a Commons statement this afternoon, Boris Johnson is set to confirm the second national lockdown will end in England on December 2, with a return to the regional approach that was in force before

In a statement on November 11 and released today, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, Operational sub-group (SPI-M-O) said their data suggested Tier Three had cut the Reproduction rate – the number of people someone infected with the virus passes the disease on to – by a quarter or half.

‘It is therefore unclear whether baseline Tier Three restrictions alone would be sufficient at a regional or national level to reduce R below 1,’ they said.

‘It is likely that some localities may need a “Tier Four” to prevent the epidemic from growing. A “Tier Four” that guarantees a reduction in prevalence would be required in most places, if the prevalence is to be reduced.’

SAGE told the Government on November 12, in minutes published today, that the data suggested Tier Two should be considered as the ‘minimum intervention’ needed to maintain ‘any degree of control’ over the virus.

‘In most cases moving from Tier One to Tier Two would slow growth rather than reverse it,’ they said warning that tighter measures were likely to be necessary. 

Infection rates remain stubbornly high in areas across the country that will face Tier Three local lockdown rules when England’s shutdown ends next week, with Hull, Kent and parts of the North West and Midlands in the firing line.

The district of Swale was recording 631.7 cases per 100,000 people in the week up to November 18, according to analysis of the latest Public Health England figures. It marked a sharp rise from the 425.8 infections per 100,000 reported for the previous seven days.

The rising case rate means Swale will likely be plunged into a Tier Three lockdown when the national shutdown ends on December 2 unless the borough can drastically reduce its infection rate.

Hull, in East Yorkshire, is also in danger of being put in the high-risk category next month because the city is recording 615.1 cases per 100,000, according to the most recent snapshot. It is second only behind Swale in terms of infections. 

The infection rates in the worst-hit London boroughs are still outside the top 100 in the league table of 317 authorities in England, Department of Health statistics show, with the seven-day average in London down to 197.2 per 100,000 residents yesterday from 198.9 on Saturday. The national average is currently 235.

The experts added there was a ‘great deal of uncertainty’ over how effective the previous Tier Three had been because of the differences in how it was implemented – such as whether gyms were allowed to keep the shutters up. 

‘The implementation of Tier Three restrictions differed across the country with many places having measures beyond the “baseline” Tier Three,’ they said. 

‘There are also many confounding factors that cannot be accounted for, including but not limited to: behavioural changes resulting from increases in prevalence irrespective of formal guidance, changing levels of population immunity, changes in local testing strategies and geographical distribution of different measures.’ 

They also criticised ministers for failing to move regions up the tiers fast enough, saying in many cases they waited for the total number of cases to get high instead of leaping on the accelerate once growth rates began to surge.  

‘When considering transitions from national measures to a localised tiered approach or between tiers, both prevalence and growth rate of the virus need to be considered,’ they said.

‘Basing transitions on prevalence alone leads to a perverse outcome where growth rates four of seven are highest in the lower prevalence areas and interventions sufficient to halt this growth do not take place until prevalence is very high. This has led to high prevalence across the whole country and, ultimately a second national intervention.’

Experts have repeatedly said that the former Tier Three was able to drive down infections, although some warned ministers should have been faster to activate it.

Under the new system announced by Boris Johnson the highest tier will get stricter, with cinemas now required to shut and pubs and restaurants pushed back to take-away only.

Tier Two has also been strengthened, with pubs now only able to open if they are serving ‘substantial meals’ – which was the measure in the old Tier Three.

In Tier One people have been asked to work from home and it has been suggested there will be limits on multiple households indoors, but the 10pm curfew is to be relaxed – with last orders at 10pm and closure at 11pm. 

Announcing the strengthening of the tiers, Boris Johnson said: ‘While previous tiers did cut the R number they were not quite enough to reduce it below one, so the scientific advice I’m afraid is that as we come out of lockdown our tiers need to be made tougher. 

But, after assessing the data, he also said ministers had made further concessions: ‘We’ve learnt from experience there are some things we can do differently, so from the 10pm closing time for hospitality we are going to change that so it is last orders at 10pm with closing at 11pm. 

‘In Tier One and Tier Two spectator sports and business events will be free to resume inside and outside with capacity limits and social distancing providing more consistency with indoor performances in theatres and concert halls.’

Boris Johnson today announced a dialled-up tier system

It is not yet clear which tiers will apply where, with this expected to be announced on Thursday.

The Prime Minister said: ‘Later this week we will announce which areas will fall into which tier, i hope on Thursday, based on analysis in all age groups especially the over 60s, and also the rate by which cases are rising or falling the percentage of those tested in a local population who have Covid-19 and the current and projected pressures on the NHS. 

‘We expect more regions to fall, at least temporally, into higher levels than before but by using these tougher tiers and by using rapid turnaround tests on an ever greater scale to drive R below one and keep it there it should be possible for areas to move down the tiering scale to lower levels of restrictions.’

The restrictions will come into force from December 2 and have a sunset clause in March, when ministers hope they will no longer be necessary. 

Their winter plan notes that scientific advances – such as the vaccine – should reduce the need for these come the spring. 

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