SAGE experts have warned tighter national lockdown rules are “inevitable” – as coronavirus could hit the same rate as in March by the end of this month.
The government’s advisors sounded the alarm after the UK’s infection rate almost doubled in a week.
There are now 125.7 cases per 100,000 people across the UK. And 14,542 positive results were confirmed yesterday – up more than 2,000 on the day before.
Boris Johnson is now thought to be considering new local, regional or national lockdown measures urgently after a briefing with scientific advisors yesterday.
Whitehall had been focusing on plans for a new ‘three-tier’ system of local lockdowns, to bring in tighter restrictions at a stroke across swathes of northern Englnad.
But the PM also faces pleas to do more – as furious critics complain his 10pm national pub curfew and confusing mish-mash of local rules, including local bans on seeing people from other households, have not worked.
While the government has not yet decided how to act, scientists piled on the pressure to the PM to act now with “stringent” national rules.
Two SAGE experts said the options should include a “circuit break” lockdown – a short period of very tough restrictions to bring down the rate of new infections in the UK.
SAGE member Professor John Edmunds slammed the existing “light touch” measures, telling BBC Newsnight: “Really that’s just delaying the inevitable.
“We will at some point put very stringent measures in place because we will have to when hospitals start to really fill up.
“We will have to put those measures in place. So frankly, the better strategy is to put them in place now.”
Prof Edmunds said a “whole package” of measures “right across the country” is now needed.
He added: “If we did it tomorrow, if we went into lockdown and turned the epidemic around, hospitalisations would still build up… in the next week or two.
“We are starting to get to a point where we really will have to take really critical action, otherwise we’re going to run the risk of turning the NHS back into a national Covid service.
“And that’s what leads to all these excess deaths – because you cannot treat other patients properly because hospitals are full of Covid patients.”
Fellow SAGE member Prof Callum Semple also said a national “circuit breaker” should be considered.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme “perhaps a circuit breaker a couple of weeks ago would have been really good idea”.
He added: “It’s always easier to reduce an outbreak at the earlier stage than to let it run and then try to reduce it at a later stage.
“So, yes, circuit breakers are certainly something we should be thinking about on a national basis.”
Despite this Prof Semple suggested schools could remain open, saying there is “growing evidence that primary school children are not amplifying this disease.”
He added: “In secondary school children, again it’s less than adults, but it’s a gradient of effects such that sixth-formers are probably about the same risk as adults, but that data is slightly less stable.”
A third expert, Prof Stephen Reicher, warned the virus could reach the same levels it was at in March by the end of this month if it continues to double at the current rate.
Prof Reicher, who sits on SAGE’s behavioural science sub-group, told the BBC: “If you look at the figures at the moment, the level of infections is about 10% of what it was at the peak in March.
“But at the rate of doubling, it would probably be at the same as the peak in March by the end of October.
“So the good news is we have a window of opportunity to do something.
“If we squander that window of opportunity then we really are in trouble, then we really would be talking about going back to March in terms of full lockdown measures.
“But we’re not talking about that now – we’ve got time.”
The prediction has echoes of a chart unveiled by Chief Scientific Advisor Patrick Vallance, which modelled how the UK could reach 50,000 cases a day by the end of October.
Lockdown sceptics seized on apparently low case data last week to suggest Sir Patrick’s chart was too gloomy.
But those case numbers have since been revised upwards after more than 15,000 ‘missing’ positives were put into the system, and the difference between Sir Patrick’s graph and the actual data is now still there, but less dramatic.
Unlike the other two SAGE experts, Prof Reicher said there was “no point” in a circuit-breaker if the picture is not different at the end.
He called for more testing, increased regulation to ensure people obey the rules in places like pubs, and more support.
But he also warned some of those measures could only happen in the long term – and the government needed to focus on “what can you do quickly.”
He added: “We don’t have time – it’s got to be done now.”
Cabinet minister Liz Truss today said the government did not want a full national lockdown, but did not rule out that or a “circuit breaker” to bring the virus under control.
“We’re not going to comment on what future plans could be,” she told Times Radio.
“The whole point is we’re keeping this under review and we are making sure that we respond to what’s happening on the ground.”
Leaders of northern cities today warned local lockdown restrictions are “not working”, confusing and even “counter-productive”.
The leaders of Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle city councils – Judith Blake, Sir Richard Leese and Nick Forbes – joined Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson to write to the Health Secretary to say they are “extremely concerned” with the rise in cases.
People in all four cities and more are banned from meeting people they don’t live with indoors, and in private gardens.
“The existing restrictions are not working, confusing for the public and some, like the 10pm rule, are counter-productive,” the Labour politicians wrote.
They called for additional powers to punish those who break rules, for new restrictions to be developed by police, council and public health experts and for a locally-controlled test and trace system.
But the leaders added: “We want to be clear however that we do not support further economic lockdowns.”