Minutes from the government advisory group’s meeting on 22 December reveal fears that the R rate may not drop – and remain – below one even with full lockdown and closure of all schools.
A return to a full March-style lockdown may not be enough to control the new coronavirus variant’s spread in England, Sage experts have suggested.
The experts concluded in comments published on Thursday: “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 one 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.”
Sage also said the R rate in England was “highly unlikely” to stay below one if schools remained open as they did in November.
On Thursday, Gavin Williamson said he was “confident” the tier system would remain in place in England, describing it as “robust” and preferable to nation-wide measures.
“I’m confident that we won’t be moving into a national lockdown situation because the tiering structure is the right place to be,” he told Sky News.
“If you don’t have to impose these restrictions on people, you don’t want to impose those restrictions on people. That to me has got to be the right approach.”
Explaining the short notice, he said: “I think we all recognise that if we go back a few weeks where there was no new variant of Covid, none of us would have been expecting us to be having to take the actions, whether it’s in regards to schools, whether it’s in regards to tier 4 moves that the government has had to make, but it’s the government that’s having to respond at incredible pace to a global pandemic and then a new variant of that virus.
“It’s not what any of us would want to do, it’s not a decision that any of us would be wanting to have to implement, but we’ve had to do that because circumstances have dictated it.
“I think the British public expect the Government to do what is right and even though that is sometimes uncomfortable, it is taking the right actions, dealing with these extraordinary times.”
In its minutes Sage concluded: “It is highly unlikely that measures with stringency and adherence in line with the measures in England in November (ie with schools open) would be sufficient to maintain R below one in the presence of the new variant.
“R would be lower with schools closed, with closure of secondary schools likely to have a greater effect than closure of primary schools. It remains difficult to distinguish where transmission between children takes place, and it is important to consider contacts made outside of schools.”
R is still climbing in England and is “clearly above one” in London, the southeast and Midlands. Sage experts said it was “concerning” that estimates had now gone above one in the southwest as well. Overall it is thought to be between 1.1 and 1.4.
In a further warning to ministers, who have been accused of making confusing and muddled public statements throughout the pandemic, Sage added: “Adherence will remain critical to the effectiveness of interventions, and clear and consistent policy and messaging will remain important in supporting understanding and enabling adherence.”