Britain hasn’t learnt its lesson from the first wave of coronavirus and is on the brink of making another ‘mistake’, one of the Government’s scientific advisers warned today amid claims tougher action is needed to control the outbreak.
And another member of Number 10’s advice panel SAGE fears Boris Johnson’s 10pm curfew on pubs, bars and restaurants will not be ‘anything like enough’ to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Professor John Edmunds warned action was not taken quickly enough back in March and that ‘mistake’ is about to be repeated. He said not controlling the spiralling cases now will mean ‘putting the brakes on the epidemic for a very long time’.
The epidemiologist, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told BBC Radio 4’s Today show that was what ministers had to do in March ‘because we didn’t react quick enough’, adding: ‘So I think that we haven’t learned from our mistake back then and we’re unfortunately about to repeat it.’
And Professor Robert West, a health psychologist at University College London and member of SAGE, added: ‘Closing early will have some impact but I don’t think it will be anything like enough, even with the other measures announced, to stop the increase.’
The 10pm curfew — enforced in England, Scotland and Wales but not yet announced in Northern Ireland — was neither recommended or modelled by Downing Street’s advisory panel, it was also reported today.
Scientists are divided over the raft of new measures to be introduced on Thursday, which differ across each of the home nations.
Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, is understood to believe the restrictions do not go far enough, and has sided with Scotland in saying people should not be allowed to socialise in other people’s homes.
Some scientists have praised No 10 for ensuring people will get ‘less drunk’, leaving them ‘more able’ to observe social distancing. But pub bosses have decried the curfew as ‘impossible’ to enforce and warned it could drop the axe on many businesses that are ‘just treading water’.
But this morning Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab defended the policy, claiming it will ‘preserve the health gains we’ve made’ and ‘protect businesses and livelihoods’ while stopping the ‘exponential’ growth of the virus.
Professor John Edmunds, an epidemiologist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, warned that the Government has not learnt the lessons from March
People enjoy a socially-distanced pint at a pub on the outskirts of Covent Garden, London
Boris Johnson told the nation last night that unless his warnings were listened to and measures were followed there would be further restrictions on the cards
DO CURFEWS WORK AT SLOWING THE SPREAD OF THE VIRUS?
From Thursday evening, bars, pubs and restaurants across England will be required to close from 10pm every night.
The move is an ‘intermediate’ step in the fight against the virus, and follows in the steps of Thailand.
When Thailand imposed a 10pm to 4am curfew on April 3 it was counting just over 100 cases of coronavirus a day. By the time the curfew was removed on June 15 this number had dropped into the low tens.
Although the country’s success has been attributed to the curfew, some scientists dispute this, saying that the lockdown and other social measures in force at the time had a greater impact.
The UK is hoping that its curfew may help it mirror the success of the South-east Asian nation.
Linda Bauld, professor of public health at Edinburgh University, told HuffPost curfews are used because ‘we know that night time economy generally is risky’.
‘There have been outbreaks linked to nightclubs and to bars and restaurants,’ she said. ‘We’ve known this for months.’
‘The longer people are in these venues, the more they probably let their guard down and the mix of social distancing and alcohol is not a good one despite the best efforts of publicans and venue owners.’
Behavioural expert Professor Susan Michie, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said she thought the 10pm time had been chosen to balance the needs of the night-time economy with the need to control the virus.
Professor Edmunds accused the Government of failing to heed the warnings from March on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Speaking in a personal capacity, he said the authorities will let cases of coronavirus ‘double and double and double again’ before taking the right steps, but by then it will be ‘too late’.
‘And then we’ll have the worst of both worlds, because then to slow the epidemic and bring it back down again, all the way down to somewhere close to where it is now or where it was in the summer, will mean putting the brakes on the epidemic for a very long time, very hard,’ he said.
‘(This) is what we had to do in March because we didn’t react quickly enough in March, and so I think that we haven’t learnt from our mistake back then and we’re unfortunately about to repeat it.
‘I suspect we will see very stringent measures coming in place throughout the UK at some point, but it will be too late again.’
Adding to the sense of alarm among epidemiologists, Professor West told The Times: ‘Closing early will have some impact but I don’t think it will be anything like enough, even with the other measures announced, to stop the increase.’
He said there is a ‘drinking equilibrium’ where people have the ‘amount they want to drink’, and that through an early closure ‘you might have some decrease but it won’t be proportionate to the reduction in hours’.
But scientists remain divided on the issue, with others arguing the restrictions will limit the spread of the virus.
Dr Jennifer Cole, biological anthropologist at Royal Holloway University, said yesterday that one of the biggest influences over people observing social distancing, and hence controlling the spread of the virus, was alcohol.
‘The more drunk you are, the less inhibited and less risk-averse you are,’ she said.
‘Closing the bars and restaurants at 10pm simply keeps people more sober. It gives them plenty of time for a meal, or a quick drink with friends after work, but means they are likely to be sober enough to remember to put on a face-covering on the train or bus home, and to be careful around elderly relatives when they get home.
‘It gives restaurant and bar staff time to give the venue a thorough clean when the last customers have left, without having to work unreasonably late. This means that a lot of the risk is reduced.’
Professor Whitty is understood to support Scotland’s move to limit social interactions in household, and believe that England should have followed in its tracks, reports The Times.
Jonathan Van Tam and Jenny Harries, Professor Whitty’s deputies, are also understood to have expressed concerns that the measures did not go far enough.
Boris Johnson told the nation last night that unless his warnings were listened to and measures were followed there would be further restrictions on the cards.
‘The virus is no less fatal than it was in Spring,’ he told the public, ‘and our best weapon against it is commonsense and community.’
Announcing a wave of new restrictions, he said pubs, bars and restaurants would have to close at 10pm every night and switch to table service only, slashed the numbers able to attend weddings to 15, suspended plans for stadiums to return and banned indoor team sports.
It comes on top of the rule of six, which has been in force for more than a week, which has stopped people meeting in large groups.
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon went further by banning people from visiting others homes, unless they lived alone.
She claimed advice from Scotland’s chief medical officer and national clinical director was that the Prime Minister’s package ‘on its own will not be sufficient to bring the R number down’.
She added: ‘We must take account of the fact that household interaction is a key driver of transmission.’
The rules will be closely monitored for the next two weeks to see whether further action needs to be taken.
Local areas in England with larger outbreaks have imposed tighter restrictions, including stopping households from mixing.
Public Health England data reveals that of the 729 outbreaks in the week to September 13, only five per cent occurred in food outlets such as restaurants and pubs – 45 per cent were in care homes, 21 per cent in schools and 18 per cent in places of work.
Hospitality bosses accused ministers of unfairly singling them out for restrictions yesterday, and warned a curfew will lead to a boom in illegal house parties where the virus is more likely to spread.
Wetherspoons founder Tim Martin said: ‘The curfew doesn’t even stand up to five minutes consideration by an intelligent person because if you look at the stats… there are relatively few transfers of infections in pubs.’
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade body UK Hospitality, urged the Government to heed its own statistics because the curfew could take a sledgehammer to the industry which is already ‘on its knees’.
She said: ‘People will think it’s not that significant, but it really will have a big economic impact on jobs, not just on pubs, but also for cafes and restaurants.’
Yesterday the UK recorded 4,926 new cases, the highest number since May 8, as the second outbreak continues to gather pace.
The five days of panic which paved the way for Boris Johnson to impose a curfew on pubs
Thursday: The latest official data presented to ministers showed that coronavirus cases were on the rise in all age groups while hospitalisations were also increasing across the board. The numbers are said to have prompted Michael Gove to call for decisive action to be taken.
By the end of the day a ‘consensus’ had reportedly emerged around a plan for a total shutdown of the hospitality and leisure sectors, with Mr Gove and Health Secretary Matt Hancock said to be the leading advocates.
Advisers on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies also backed the plans on the grounds that it was not possible to predict the impact of a less severe curfew on pubs, bars and restaurants.
Mr Johnson was reportedly initially in favour of the total shutdown.
Friday: The prospect of a total shutdown spooked ministers and officials in the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy who were afraid of the damage such a move would do to the economy.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is said to have asked to see the Prime Minister and the pair then met on Friday afternoon. Mr Sunak spelled out his fears in person and Mr Johnson was apparently sympathetic to the message from the Chancellor, asking officials to look at other options.
Saturday and Sunday: Mr Johnson held further talks with senior ministers as well as with Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty as the premier tried to hammer out an agreed way forward. Mr Johnson eventually decided to go ahead with a curfew plan instead of a total shutdown as the ‘hawks’ in the Cabinet appeared to win the battle with the ‘doves’.
Monday: The PM’s latest lockdown plans were formally decided upon by senior ministers ahead of a formal announcement today.