SAGE scientist says next two weeks are 'CRUCIAL' for lockdown to work

SAGE scientist says next two weeks are 'CRUCIAL' for lockdown to work

Brits MUST stick to the rules for the next to weeks to save Christmas: SAGE scientist calls next fortnight ‘crucial’ after warning that tier system WON’T work when Boris’s lockdown ends on December 2

  • Susan Michie urged people to resist breaking rules to ease prospect of spending Christmas with loved one
  • She also suggested that the announcement of a potential Covid-19 vaccine could lead to complacency
  • Sage documents warn a return to the tiered system of coronavirus restrictions will see infections rise again

The next two weeks will be ‘absolutely crucial’ in ensuring that England’s coronavirus lockdown ends as planned on December 2, a Government scientific adviser has warned.

Professor Susan Michie, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), urged the public to resist breaking current rules, to ‘be in a position’ to spend the festive period with loved ones.

She also suggested that the announcement of a potential Covid-19 vaccine could lead to complacency with the measures, adding that the jab will make ‘no difference’ to the current wave.

It comes after documents released by Sage on Friday warned that a return to the tiered system of coronavirus restrictions will see infections rise again.

When asked what should replace current restrictions when lockdown ends, Prof Michie told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘It’s too early to know. I think the next two weeks is going to be absolutely crucial.

‘They’re going to be a very challenging two weeks, partly because of the weather, partly because, I think, the promise of a vaccine may be making people feel complacent.

‘But the vaccine is very unlikely to come in until the end of the year or beginning of next year and that’s going to make no difference to the current second wave.

‘So I think for the next two weeks, everybody has to really get all their resolve together.’

Professor Susan Michie, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), urged the public to resist breaking current rules, to ‘be in a position’ to spend the festive period with loved ones

Prof Michie, a behavioural scientist at University College London, advised the public to ‘really pay attention to resisting any urges to break the rules’ on social distancing and visiting other households.

‘Because that will maximise the chance that in two weeks’ time, on December 2, we’re in a position where actually we don’t have to continue the lockdown,’ she added.

‘And better still, what everybody wants, is to be in a position where they can spend the Christmas and winter holiday times with loved ones.’

When asked if this meant the gains during lockdown would be lost, Prof Michie said she was ‘quite hopeful’ after tough measures in Wales and Northern Ireland brought transmission rates down.

Newly-released documents, written the day before the second national lockdown was imposed, show a consensus statement prepared by a modelling subgroup of Sage raised concerns about returning to the tier system.

Modelling found that if the lockdown is ‘well-adhered to’, it is likely to reduce the reproduction number to less than 1, with hospital admissions and deaths expected to fall until at least the second week of December.

But the document, dated November 4, added: ‘If England returns to the same application of the tiering system in place before November 5, then transmission will return to the same rate of increase as today.’

Other documents from late October state that any hopes of families gathering at Christmas will also be dependent on the R value staying below 1 for ‘some time’.

On Friday, Sage said that the R rate for the UK has fallen to 1-1.2, with experts believing it is already below 1 in some places.

It is hoped that R will drop in more places next week or the week after, as people remain under lockdown restrictions.

Elsewhere on Friday, the Government said a further 376 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19.

As of 9am on Friday, there had also been a further 27,301 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK, compared to 33,470 on Thursday.

It comes after a sub-group of SAGE warned yesterday that Christmas is still in jeopardy unless social distancing rules are toughened up after England’s second lockdown.

The scientific advisory group told ministers last week that returning to the same three-tier local system after lockdown will just take England back to where it was when the second wave peaked at the end of October.

But confusion is emerging over how well it worked, as a senior Government adviser admitted that Tier Three does work and had been ‘having the effect it needed to have’ before England’s second lockdown started.

SAGE insisted, however, that it still isn’t clear whether the Tier Three rules are strong enough to keep the R rate below one in the longer term. R, which measures how many people each Covid-infected person passes the virus on to, must stay lower than one for an outbreak to shrink.

Boris Johnson and his advisers have already confirmed England will return to a tiered local lockdown system in December, but exactly how it will look is not yet clear – SAGE advisers say it must be able to tighten the screw even more than in the past.

Real-world data, however, suggests that Tier Three rules already work well enough to bring the R at least to one, if not lower. 

SAGE’s official estimate today puts the R rate in the North West – based on data from before the national lockdown and from during Tier Three – at between 0.9 and 1.1. This was down from a high of between 1.3 and 1.5 in mid-October, before Tier Three.

Department of Health testing data also shows that infection rates plummeted in Liverpool under the local lockdown rules, from a rate of 681 cases per 100,000 people to just 274 per 100,000 last week.  

SAGE’s own estimate of the R rate, based on data from before the national lockdown, saw it fall for the third time in a month to somewhere between 1.0 and 1.2 across the UK, down from 1.1 to 1.3 last week. This is the first time the advisers have thought R could be down to one since early September.

And in a weekly update from the Office for National Statistics, mass testing revealed that there were 47,700 new infections per day in England in the week up to November 6, up only marginally from the 45,700 the week before. It said infections ‘remains at about 50,000 new cases per day’.

SAGE’s official estimate of the R rate has declined this week and could now be as low at 1.0 for a whole and down to 0.9 in the North West of England. It remains higher than one in all other regions and England, however

In a paper dated November 4 SPI-M, a group of scientists who crunch numbers for SAGE, warned that there still isn’t strong evidence that Tier Three lockdowns are tough enough to keep R below one.

The rules, which included the closure of pubs and bans on households mixing, were put in place over much of the North of England before a national shutdown was called. 

SPI-M said: ‘If England returns to the same application of the tiering system in place before 5th November then transmission will return to the same rate of increase as today.’ 

The experts added: ‘It is not yet clear whether tier 3 measures alone are sufficient to reduce the reproduction number below one.’ 

Released today by SAGE, the paper comes – confusingly – as a senior Government adviser admitted this afternoon that Tier Three was working well. The source added that Tier Two was also having the desired effect in some areas, though not as much as in Tier Three areas.

In the harshest tier, residents were prohibited from meeting people they didn’t live with and saw pubs were forced to close – but gyms, non-essential shops and restaurants could stay open.

In Tier Two, people were banned from mingling with anyone outside their own homes as well, but pubs could stay open. All three tiers had to abide by the national rules that were in place at the time including the 10pm curfew and rule of six.

But the expert, who wished to remain anonymous, suggested the scheme was not driving down infections quick enough because they came too late. SAGE had been warning for weeks that a ‘circuit-breaker’ would be needed to reset the epidemic and get it under control after a spike in cases in early autumn. 

They said ministers were keen to let families meet up during the festive period and not cancel Christmas – and under the tiered strategy that was not going to be possible.   

A separate paper, dated October 28, warned that social distancing could be loosened for a ‘limited time’ over Christmas if transmission gets low enough for NHS Test and Trace to keep on top of the outbreak. 

For this to happen, they said interventions must push R well below one and ‘maintain that for some time’. However, the scientists noted that the only time this has happened so far was during the March/April lockdown.

COVID TEST POSITIVE RATE DROPS FOR FIRST TIME IN THREE MONTHS 

The percentage of coronavirus tests that come back positive has dropped for the first time in England in almost three months, according to official data. 

It raises further hopes that the country is getting a better grip on its second wave and may already be through the thick of it.

Experts say one of the most accurate and fair ways to track the virus’ trajectory is to look at test positivity rates – the proportion of swabs that come back positive.  

If a country has a high positivity rate it means the centralised system is struggling to keep up with the outbreak. But a low rate means only a small amount of the population actually have the disease.

A weekly Public Health England report published today found 9.7 per cent of Pillar 2 tests carried out in the week up to November 8 yielded a positive result. This was down from 10.2 per cent the seven days prior.

It marks the first time the Pillar 2 test positivity rate has dropped since the week ending August 2. Pillar 2 are those done in testing centres, drive-through clinics and in people’s homes – which account for the vast majority of all tests. 

Pillar 1 tests – those done in hospitals – were also down week-on-week, dropping from 4.8 per cent to 4.5 per cent. It was the first time this figure had fallen since the week up to August 23.  

It comes as Britain yeserday announced another 33,470 positive cases – 39 per cent more than last Thursday – despite indicators showing the outbreak is slowing down.

The case count is the highest since the Covid-19 outbreak began and comes a week after England’s second national lockdown started. It is an increase from 22,950 yesterday.

Unofficial statistics, however, suggest that the country’s outbreak had already started to slow down and shrink before the lockdown began on November 5, and it is expected to continue shrinking throughout November during the stringent rules.

In a different ‘high and controlled’ cases scenario, which experts believe the UK is in at the moment but with potential for cases to drop, there would be ‘little to no scope for loosening of social distancing rules over Christmas’. 

A third scenario predicts a much worse outcome but is when Government interventions ‘are not sufficient to stop epidemic growth’, SPI-M said.

But SPI-M said stricter controls will then be needed than the three-tier system that was in place before lockdown.

It said: ‘The longer-term outlook depends on both the nature of non-pharmaceutical interventions that are implemented in England after December 2 and policies over the festive period.

‘If England returns to the same application of the tiering system in place before November 5, then transmission will return to the same rate of increase as today.’ 

It is hoped that R will drop in more places next week and the week after, as people remain under lockdown restrictions.

Professor Chris Whitty said in October the tiered system on its own was ‘not enough to get on top’ of the autumn epidemic, adding to SPI-M’s newly revealed concern that it may not be enough to surpress the virus in future, either. 

The expert who spoke today said some form of the tiered system would need to remain in place in December to keep driving infections down further when the country re-emerges from the shutdown. 

‘On Tier Three, evidence looks like Tier Three in most places gets the R to one or below. That does have the effect needed to have,’ they said.

‘Tier Two in some places does the same depending on the place and how much it’s adhered to. Tier One doesn’t look like it does it. This gives you idea sorts of measures needed in future after lockdown to keep it under control.’  

When pressed, they would not give his opinion on relaxing measures at Christmas to let families spend the holidays together and said it was purely a ‘policy decision, not one for science’. 

SAGE fought tooth and nail for the second lockdown, presenting the Government with increasingly gloomy models that predicted thousands of daily deaths and hospitals being overwhelmed by December.

It is hard to judge the effects of the three-tier system because it was only used properly for a fortnight before the national lockdown was announced.

But there have been a number of signs to suggest the darkest forecasts would never have come true. 

SAGE’s estimate of the R rate declining is cause for optimism because it is based on back-dated information taken from before the national lockdown began. 

This means any changes that can be seen in it happened without the strictest nationwide measures in place – they may well have been driven by the tiered system. 

The group, which is led by the UK’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, said today: ‘SAGE is confident that the epidemic has continued to grow in England over recent weeks. 

‘Although there is some evidence that the rate of growth in some parts of the country may be slowing, levels of disease are very high in these areas; significant levels of healthcare demand and mortality will persist until R is reduced to and remains well below 1 for an extended period of time.’ 

SAGE said the R rate is highest in the South West, where it is likely between 1.2 and 1.4 and in the East, at between 1.1 and 1.4. And it is lowest in the North West at between 0.9 and 1.1 and in London and the North East and Yorkshire, at between 1.0 and 1.2. 

Meanwhile, the ONS report said there were signs that the rate of increase in England’s coronavirus outbreak had slowed down and was steady at about 50,000 new cases per day. 

Mass testing showed that approximately 1.2 per cent of the population in England had coronavirus during the week that ended November 6, equating to one in every 85 people. 

This was a jump from the 1.13 per cent that was recorded in the last week of October, which was half term for large parts of England. 

North West England and Yorkshire and the Humber remain the regions with the highest infection rate, with 2.2 per cent of the population there carrying the coronavirus – one in every 45 people. 

This was followed by 1.5 per cent in the North East, 1.4 per cent in the East Midlands and 1.3 per cent in the West Midlands.

London and the South West (0.8 per cent), the South East (0.7 per cent) and East of England (0.5 per cent) all had rates lower than the national average. 

Tougher lockdown restrictions in the North in October, however, mean infection rates actually appeared to be levelling off there while they were still rising in the less badly affected South, the ONS acknowledged.  

Professor James Naismith, a biologist at the University of Oxford, commented on the raft of data published this week that seemed to suggest a plateau in England’s outbreak.

PATIENTS IN LIVERPOOL HOSPITALS DROPPED 15% BEFORE LOCKDOWN

The number of coronavirus patients being treated in hospitals in Liverpool fell by 15 per cent in the week before the second national lockdown, according to official NHS data that further calls into question whether the autumn shutdown was justified. 

Ministers abandoned the three-tier scheme, which only came into force on October 14, last month and went with the crude national intervention, claiming that beds would soon be overrun.

Yet NHS England figures show there were 413 people with Covid-19 at Liverpool University Hospitals, the city’s biggest trust, on November 5, the day the country went into the second lockdown. This marked a 13 per cent drop from the 475 who were being treated the week prior, on October 30.

Liverpool – the country’s former Covid hotspot – was one of the areas in England living under the strictest Tier Three restrictions, which prohibited residents from meeting people they didn’t live with and saw pubs forced to close.

It offers more proof the tiered system was starting to work in controlling the epidemic – experts say interventions take about three weeks to have a statistically-noticeable effect – and casts doubt about whether the economically-crippling lockdown was needed.

However, it is true the trust is treating more Covid-19 patients than at the peak of the first wave – for comparison, there were 346 people with the virus in Liverpool’s hospitals on April 12. But the trust is thought to have at least 1,600 total beds, and, as of November 5, 1,268 were occupied by patients of all conditions. It suggests the trust, which cancelled scores of non-urgent operations to make room, is currently operating at 80 per cent occupancy – making it quieter than it was last December.

Major trusts in other Tier Three areas also saw declines in the number of Covid-19 patients in their hospitals before the second lockdown, suggesting the most stringent local measures were not given enough time to work.

For example, St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust in Merseyside was treating 105 people with the disease on November 5 compared to 118 the week before. A similar story is playing out in Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, where beds occupied by Covid-19 fell from 188 to 142 in the same time period.

But other Tier Three areas like Manchester and Lancashire have not seen a fall in Covid-19 hospital admissions – yet. Though the measures were not enforced until late October in these areas, which means the benefits could take another week or so to translate into the hospital data. This is because of the lag in time it takes for Covid-19 patients to fall seriously ill enough to need treatment. 

Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline: ‘I’ve got no doubts that Tier Three was working, personally I think the data is very clear that Tier Three was sufficient to bring down cases and I think most local authorities in Tier Two were working as well.’

He said: ‘Taken together, we can conclude that the local lockdowns have slowed the spread to around 50,000 new cases per day at the start of this week. 

‘[But] stabilisation is not deliverance, 50,000 cases per day will result in hundreds of deaths every day. These deaths will be heart-breaking.’

He did not, however, think the evidence was strong enough at the time to argue against the second national lockdown, and added: ‘Asserting the local lockdowns were clearly working well enough two weeks ago is also not grounded in data. 

‘Two weeks ago there was evidence that the virus was still growing quite rapidly. There was some evidence which suggested the growth was slowing, perhaps in some high incidence areas declining. There was no evidence at the national level it was falling.’  

Analysis by MailOnline today found the number of coronavirus patients being treated in hospitals in Liverpool fell by 15 per cent in the week before the second national lockdown.

NHS England figures show there were 413 people with Covid-19 at Liverpool University Hospitals, the city’s biggest trust, on November 5, the day the country went into the second lockdown.

This marked a 13 per cent drop from the 475 who were being treated the week prior, on October 30.

However, it is true the trust is treating more Covid-19 patients than at the peak of the first wave – for comparison, there were 346 people with the virus in Liverpool’s hospitals on April 12. 

But the trust is thought to have at least 1,600 total beds, and, as of November 5, 1,268 were occupied by patients of all conditions. 

It suggests the trust, which cancelled scores of non-urgent operations to make room, is currently operating at 80 per cent occupancy – making it quieter than it was last December. 

Major trusts in other Tier Three areas also saw declines in the number of Covid-19 patients in their hospitals before the second lockdown, suggesting the most stringent local measures were not given enough time to work. 

For example, St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust in Merseyside was treating 105 people with the disease on November 5 compared to 118 the week before. 

A similar story is playing out in Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, where beds occupied by Covid-19 fell from 188 to 142 in the same time period.

But other Tier Three areas like Manchester and Lancashire have not seen a fall in Covid-19 hospital admissions – yet. 

Though the measures were not enforced until late October in these areas, which means the benefits could take another week or so to translate into the hospital data. 

This is because of the lag in time it takes for Covid-19 patients to fall seriously ill enough to need treatment.  

Commenting on the findings, Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline: ‘I’ve got no doubts that Tier Three was working, personally I think the data is very clear that Tier Three was sufficient to bring down cases and I think most local authorities in Tier Two were working as well.’

Meanwhile, analysis of Public Health England figures revealed more than eight in 10 local authorities under Tier Three restrictions saw coronavirus cases fall in the week before the national lockdown was imposed – in more proof of Tier Three’s success.

In the final days of the tiered system, 26 out of 31 councils (82 per cent) under the then-harshest restrictions recorded a dip in their Covid-19 cases. Tier Three allowed restaurants, nonessential shops and gyms to stay open but pubs were forced to shut and people weren’t allowed to mix with other households.

Tier Two areas with the lockdowns with 22 out of the 64 councils (34 per cent) under the measures recording a fall in Covid-19 infections in the week up to November 5. Tier Two only restricted people from mingling with people they didn’t live with. 

The number of coronavirus patients being treated in hospitals in Liverpool fell by 15 per cent in the week before the second national lockdown , according to official NHS data that further calls into question whether the autumn shutdown was justified 

Major trusts in other Tier Three areas also seen declines in the number of Covid-19 patients in their hospitals before the second lockdown, suggesting the most stringent local measures were not given enough time to work. For example, St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust in Merseyside was treating 105 people with the disease on November 5 compared to 118 the week before. A similar story is playing out in Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, where beds occupied by Covid-19 fell from 188 to 142 in the same time period

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