Sage documents show scientists harshly criticised UK test-and-trace
Scientists advising Boris Johnson on the pandemic have delivered a damning critique on the government’s “world-beating” test-and-trace system, warning that it has only had a “marginal impact” on reducing the spread of coronavirus.
The revelations from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which were made public on Monday evening, follow the government announcing a new three-tier Covid-19 alert system which is set to come into effect within England from Wednesday.
In a televised address on Monday, Mr Johnson outlined the measures, by which regions will be categorised as being on medium, high or very high alert.
People within the Liverpool city region will become the first to live under the highest level restrictions. Pubs, indoor gyms, leisure centres, betting shops and casinos will close.
The Sage minutes, which detail discussions held on September 21, reveal that scientists warned the government it was becoming increasingly difficult to measure the effectiveness of the test-and-trace system.
They also warned that low levels of engagement and delays in testing were hindering the system’s success.
“Unless the system grows at the same rate as the epidemic, and support is given to people to enable them to adhere to self-isolation, it is likely that the impact of Test, Trace and Isolate will further decline in the future,” the scientists said.
The government’s testing strategy has come under scrutiny after a technical glitch meant that nearly 16,000 coronavirus cases were omitted from the daily tally of cases. It forced the government to scramble to trace thousands of missing contacts.
At the September 21 meeting, advisers also warned that a “package of interventions” would be needed to prevent the “exponential rise” in cases including a so-called “circuit breaker” and the closure of all bars, restaurants, cafés and indoor services such as gyms and hairdressers.
The scientists argued that introducing a “circuit-breaker” could push the epidemic back by approximately 28 days and reduce the R number to below 1. The current R number is between 1.2 and 1.5, which means that for every 10 people with the disease, a further 12 and 15 other people could be infected.
They said: “Over a fortnight’s ‘break’, two weeks of growth could be exchanged for two weeks of decay in transmission, assuming good adherence to measures, and no additional increase in contacts before or after the break.
“If this were as strict and well adhered to as the restrictions in late May, this could put the epidemic back by approximately 28 days or more.”
Despite the clear recommendations from the advisers, Mr Johnson opted for a less harsh approach in September. He introduced the “rule of six” and a 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants.
Reports have suggested that chancellor Rishi Sunak was instrumental in rejecting plans for a “circuit-breaker”.
In a statement to MPs in the House of Commons on Monday, Mr Johnson stressed that he did not wish to impose another national lockdown and wanted to balance the economic with the health needs of the nation.
He said: “We don’t want to go back to another national lockdown. We can’t let the virus rip, and so we have followed since June a balanced approach with the support of many members across the House, to keep the R down while keeping schools and the economy going.”
Downing Street has also defended the approach taken, arguing that the measures have been “robust” and “targeted”.
The prime minister’s spokesperson said: “We took robust but targeted and proportionate action in September, including introducing the rule of six, restrictions to hospitality opening hours, and advice for people to work from home where they can, alongside tougher enforcement.
“This was carefully judged to protect lives and reduce the transmission of the virus whilst minimising the impact to livelihoods, and followed extensive engagement including with scientific advisers.”
However, Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, described the revelations as “alarming”.
“The fact that the prime minister chose to publish it an hour after his press conference is yet more evidence that he is treating the British people with contempt,” he said. “The government now needs to urgently explain why it ignored its own scientists and what it will be doing to get control of the virus.”