Even if England shut every school, it still might not be enough to keep the new ‘mutant’ Covid strain under control, experts fear.
SAGE said they simply didn’t know yet – and the answer may only become clear in mid-January.
It comes in newly-revealed files that show the new variant may be spreading 71% more quickly than other versions of coronavirus.
Advisors also said the two-metre social distancing rule is “likely” to have to be “reconsidered” in light of the new strain. This could lead to people being told they can only break the two-metre rule they are wearing a mask, and for no other reason.
SAGE’s latest advice to the government was published today, hours after 78% of England was put into Tier 4.
Primary schools will also stay shut next week to around a million pupils – up to 15% – in 50 council areas.
But drastic though these measures are, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) still fear they might not be enough.
In a meeting on December 22, SAGE agreed it now was “highly unlikely” that Tier 4-style measures, with schools open, would be enough to keep the R number below 1 due to the new variant.
The scientists agreed R “would be lower with schools closed”, and shutting secondaries would have a greater impact than primaries.
But the experts made clear that, even if all schools were to shut, they still don’t know if it would bring the R number below 1.
They agreed: “It is not known whether measures with similar stringency and adherence as Spring, with both primary and secondary schools closed, would be sufficient to bring R below 1 in the presence of the new variant.
“The introduction of Tier 4 measures in England combined with the school holidays will be informative of the strength of measures required to control the new variant.
“But analysis of this will not be possible until mid-January.”
England has gone through two national lockdowns – one in Spring and one in November. In Spring, schools were shut to all but vulnerable and key workers’ children. In November, they were open.
Research presented to a SAGE subgroup estimated the new variant added 0.39 to the R number and 71% to the growth rate of the virus.
This raises questions about whether even a March-style lockdown – which was thought to have brought R to 0.6 – would be enough.
The minutes suggest the government’s plan will now hinge on how cases are progressing by mid-January.
Secondary schools are due to reopen fully on January 18, and primaries in the 50 worst-hit areas could reopen on the same date.
Both those plans could be reviewed, either on a local or national level, if the virus is not brought under control.
Tier 4 rules – which order pubs, hairdressers and gyms but not schools to shut – are almost exactly the same as the November lockdown.
Ministers have rolled out Tier 4 in a bid to bring the new strain under control.
But SAGE said: “It is highly unlikely that measures with stringency and adherence in line with the measures in England in November (i.e. with schools open) would be sufficient to maintain R below 1 in the presence of the new variant.”
The R number is the average number of people infected by each person with Covid-19. If it rises above 1, the virus grows exponentially.
Meanwhile, government advisors also said the two-metre rule is “likely” to have to be “reconsidered” due to the new variant.
Currently people are advised to stay two metres apart, or one metre if there are mitigations in place – which can include a mask.
SAGE subgroup SPI-B suggested on December 23: “As a consequence of the uncertainty around the mechanisms for increased transmission, enhanced mitigation measures are likely to be necessary.”
They could include “reconsidering the 2m rule and requiring that where regular interactions less than 2m are necessary this should include correctly worn face coverings”, SPI-B said.
It could also include enhancing ventilation rate “and reinforcing the importance of using face coverings, including in settings where they are not currently mandated, such as education, workplaces, and crowded outdoor spaces.”
SPI-B suggested a full national lockdown – not ruled out by Boris Johnson – could be used, but only as one possible option.
The committee agreed “primary actions” to cut transmission would include “reducing social contacts; effective testing and tracing; robust outbreak identification and control; support to ensure effective isolation and quarantine; and population vaccination remain essential. Population level approaches to further reduce contact between people are likely to be necessary, such as extending Tier 4; changing the operation of schools/ universities; travel restrictions between regions and internationally; and/or introducing a national lockdown.”