A group of scientists is calling on the UK government to enforce a two to three-week “circuit breaker” to help stem the coronavirus’ spread.
Cases are currently increasing exponentially across almost all regions. In an effort to control the outbreak, officials in England have introduced a three-tier system that limits social contact.
All regions are at least under the “medium” severity tier 1, which prohibits groups of larger than six and forces social venues to close at 10pm.
The “very high” tier 3 restrictions mean pubs and restaurants not serving food cannot open at all, while residents are urged not to leave the area.
Before the tier system was introduced, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called for a two to three-week circuit breaker lockdown in England to bring the infection rate under control.
This has now been echoed by the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). As the UK’s daily confirmed cases approach 20,000, the panel argues an immediate nationwide circuit breaker is needed to curb the virus, warning the tier system is “not enough to reverse growth”.
Critics have argued this would further damage the economy, with Independent Sage calling for non-essential retail, restaurants and even schools to temporarily close. It stressed schools could close over October half-term, which ordinarily lasts a week.
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, 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 called for a short lockdown in England to halt the spread of the coronavirus on 21 September. Welsh officials are looking into imposing strict two to three-week restrictions.
“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.”
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On 15 October, 18,980 people tested positive for the coronavirus in the UK, bringing the total number of cases 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.
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While a break will not eliminate the pandemic, it may 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.
Once students go back to school, the panel wants to see a return to 2m (6.5ft) social distancing, which was reduced to 1m (3.2ft) on 4 July.
For the last three to four weeks of the plan, Independent Sage has proposed a ban on household mixing outside of support bubbles, working from home where possible and a switch to online teaching only at universities.
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” (FTTIS) system.
“Eight months into the pandemic, it’s clear England’s 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 $143bn (£110.7bn), 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.”
Independent Sage wants NHS Test and Trace to be “dismantled”.
“National and regional lockdowns and other large scale restrictions are blunt tools; testing and tracing should be a targeted, precise system,” its report states.
“Done well, it allows us to identify sources of outbreaks and isolate individuals and those they have been in close contact with, rather than entire populations.
“Without an effective FTTIS system, the government has little choice but to rely on imprecise and damaging local and national lockdowns to prevent surges in infection.
“The urgent reform of FTTIS is the most important economic and health priority for the government and the country right now.”
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