Revealed: How the Government ignored its own coronavirus experts on the risks of reopening shops and schools

Sarah Knapton
A worker changes clothes rails in a store on Oxford Street on May 19, 2020 in London, England. As shops gear up to open after a long period of closure, clothing stores are beginning to prepare to open their doors, and analysts have suggested that big discounts could be on offer as out of season stock is cleared. The British government has started easing the lockdown it imposed two months ago to curb the spread of Covid-19, abandoning its 'stay at home' slogan in favour of a message to 'be alert', but UK countries have varied in their approaches to relaxing quarantine measures - Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Disagreements between scientific advisors and the Government have been laid bare as it emerged that experts warned against the opening of non-essential shops, and schools.

A new tranche of papers released by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) showed that scientists advised ministers that shops could push the R number above 1.

High-street retailers including fashion, homeware and toy shops have been given the green light to open from June 15, as long as they take precautions to ensure social distancing.

But a newly released document from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) group warns: “There is limited evidence on the effect of closing of non-essential retail, libraries, bars, restaurants, etc, but it is likely that R would return to above 1 and a subsequent exponential growth in cases.”

The estimate was based on a reproduction number of 0.6, but current Government estimates suggest the R rate is in fact now slightly higher, at between 0.7 and 0.9.

At a briefing on Friday, members of SPI-M also suggested that it was currently risky to ease lockdown when the number of infections in the community is still so high and suggested it was a political not scientific decision to lift some restrictions.

Figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) this week suggests there are around 8,000 new infections each day in England and Wales. 

John Edmunds, Professor of Infectious Disease Modelling at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said that if the R number remains around 1, the country will continue to see around 80 deaths a day for the foreseeable future. 

“I think many of us would prefer to see the incidence driven down to lower levels because that then means we have fewer cases occurring before we then relax the measures,” he said.

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“At the moment with relatively high incidence, and with an untested track and trace I think we are taking some risk here and even if that risk doesn’t play out we will be keeping flat at quite a high level if 8,000 new infections a day. 

“If there is a one per cent infection fatality rate, that’s about 80 deaths per day. So that is the number of deaths per day we might expect to see going forward. 

“That’s clearly a political decision; it's not a scientific decision.”

The Sage papers also suggested that reopening schools a month later than the Government has planned could have a significant impact on the number of deaths related to coronavirus.

SPI-M modelling compiled on May 4, by scientists from Imperial College London, looked at the impact of schools returning in June or July, and suggested that the latter could reduce the number of daily deaths in hospitals over time.

While the impact of reopening primary schools in June is negligible until August, potential deaths begin to rise to just under 400 per day by October, according to the modelling.

In comparison, reopening schools in July would see deaths creep up more slowly from August.

However, a separate document, dated April 27, adds that "there are currently different views in SPI-M on the impacts of reopening schools on R."

On Wednesday, the Government launched a new “test and trace” strategy which means anyone who tests positive for Covid-19 is asked to identify those with whom they have had close contact. But minutes released as part of the Sage documents show that just weeks ago, they said this was not sufficient. The meeting, on May 1, said that in the initial phase of the programme, “contacts should be required to isolate as soon as they are identified (i.e. based on symptomatic notification) even if test results for the index case are not yet available.” People should be freed from isolation only if the original person tested negative, they said. 

The same paper makes clear Sage's concern that “any delay beyond 48 to 72 hours in isolating contacts would increase the R significantly”.

“The aim should be to develop the capacity to test cases in less than 24 hours. When this is possible, contacts could be required to isolate only when the index case has tested positive,” it says. However, the Prime Minister this week refused to commit to any timescale by which 24 hour testing turnaround can be achieved.

Members of SPI-M also warned that current measures of social distancing and restricted gatherings would need to be in place for the foreseeable future because test and trace would only reduce transmission by around 5 - 20 per cent.

Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh University, said: “That is a possible new normal, and if we don’t like it we’re going to have to find other ways of living with Covid-19 because it doesn't look like it’s going away any time soon. A second wave is a clear and present danger.” 

It also emerged that the country's Covid Alert Level has not been lowered, despite the plans to ease restrictions going ahead. 

Boris Johnson told the Commons Liaison committee this week that the UK was about to come down from level four to level three.

The system was created as part of the Government's plan to move out of lockdown and is supposed to indicate the level of restrictions imposed according to the rate of the virus within the country.

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister told MPs the level was "coming down" to three from four, adding: "We are hoping to take a decision tomorrow". 

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "It is four, the PM said at the Liaison Committee it was moving downwards but it remains in level four... you have the PM’s words from earlier this week which sets out the position.

"In terms of moving towards the steps we announced yesterday, that was always dependent on meeting the five tests, which we are currently doing."

The papers also showed division over whether face masks were a good idea with some scientists saying they could help prevent transmission, while others warned it could interfere with policing and lead to people being harassed. 

On Friday night, Sir Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of Sage, said: "Covid-19 is spreading too fast to lift lockdown in England. [Test and trace] has to be in place, fully working, capable of dealing with any surge immediately, locally responsive ... and trusted."