Independent SAGE have today called for an “immediate national circuit breaker” to halt the spread of COVID-19 as the government’s three-tier system of restrictions is “not enough to reverse growth”.

The panel of expert scientists, chaired by former chief scientific adviser Sir David King, today sets out a ‘six-week emergency plan’ to bring infection rates below 5,000 a day. At a livestreamed briefing Independent SAGE will also outline its blueprint for an “urgent reform” of the failing Test & Trace system, which Sir David King described as “a national scandal.”

Independent SAGE’s proposals for a 2-3 week lockdown include the immediate closure of schools, non-essential retail and businesses, the leisure and hospitality sectors (takeaways permitted) and places of worship. It also urges a return to 2m physical distancing, a ban on household mixing outside of support bubbles and a switch to online teaching in universities. The proposed measures are in line with those recommended by the government’s SAGE committee on 21st September which the government has failed to implement. The circuit breaker should be followed by a period of continued restrictions sufficient to keep the  ‘R number’ (reproduction ratio) below 1 while allowing schools to stay open.

Independent SAGE says the circuit breaker must be used to buy time for an “urgent reform” of the Find, Test, Trace, Isolate & Support (FTTIS) system which is failing to keep up with rising infection levels. New figures show that only 25% of test results are being received promptly in England and the number of contacts being reached has remained flat.

Proposals outlined in the blueprint include:

  • The FTTIS system to be overseen by a national body such as NHS England with regional Directors of Public Health placed in charge of managing their local programme.
  • Establishing a national COVID testing consortium, including all current providers, under the oversight and management of the NHS
  • Freeing resources by terminating contracts for Lighthouse Laboratories
  • The urgent creation of a COVID-19 office in each region, led by an experienced senior public health professional or NHS Chief Executive, with support from public health professionals.
  • Staff from local authorities or NHS bodies within the region seconded to oversee and manage the performance of the FTTIS programme
  • Active involvement of local health professionals, including GPs, pharmacists, health visitors, environmental health officers and school nurses, is crucial.
  • The strategy for FTTIS should be developed by Public Health England (or its successor NIPH) in conjunction with regional directors.

The Independent SAGE blueprint states that the £10 billion allocated by the Treasury for the existing track and trace system has not been used effectively. “With this budget, the government  could have provided £1 million to every UK general practice and £10 million to every top tier-local health authority.”

Professor Christina Pagel of University College London said: “Cases, hospitalisations and deaths are rising across England. The tiered system will not be enough to reverse growth. Despite four weeks of living under “tier 2” type restrictions in many areas and three weeks of “tier 1” restrictions elsewhere, cases continued to increase rapidly everywhere.”

Professor Pagel added: “Agreeing with SAGE, we believe a sharp national circuit breaker for 2-3 weeks followed by 3-4 weeks of continuing restrictions is needed to stop the current wave in its tracks, preventing tens of thousands of new cases and thousands of hospital stays. This will buy us precious time to build a public health and social scaffolding to support easing restrictions and restarting our lives. We must not waste this time.”

The Independent SAGE FTTIS blueprint states: “National and regional lockdowns and other large scale restrictions are blunt tools; testing and tracing should be a targeted, precise system. Done well, it allows us to identify sources of outbreaks and isolate individuals and those they have been in close contact with, rather than entire populations. Without an effective FTTIS system, the government has little choice but to rely on imprecise and damaging local and national lockdowns to prevent surges in infection. The urgent reform of FTTIS is the most important economic and health priority for the government and the country right now.”

The report will state: “Eight months into the pandemic, it’s clear that England’s find, test, trace, isolate and support (FTTIS) programme is failing, leading the government to rely on a succession of restrictions on people mixing to control the pandemic. The result is that the UK has some of the greatest excess death rates and economic damage anywhere. In the second quarter of 2020, the UK’s GDP fell by 20%, or around $143 billion  according to the OECD. South Korea, which rapidly suppressed the virus through a smart system of test, trace, isolate and support, experienced only a 3% drop in GDP, with only two short local lockdowns.

We recognise this is difficult but there is no reason why we shouldn’t emulate the successes of countries like Norway, Finland, Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, China and Singapore and enjoy the near normality that they have secured.

The report notes that laboratory activities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are already more coordinated but suggests that structures in the devolved nations follow the trajectory laid out in the blueprint.

Any new restrictions must be accompanied by a package of financial support for individuals and businesses affected, says Independent SAGE. It  has also called for a “comprehensive reset of the government communication strategy” to ensure that it is clear and consistent and avoids blaming the public for increasing infection rates. Finally, the committee urges the implementation of a robust regulatory and inspection framework to ensure that all workplaces, hospitality and other public spaces are COVID compliant.

 

By Editor