Boris Johnson has been urged by a group of scientists to not “waste a moment” in introducing a package of emergency restrictions to stem the spread of coronavirus.
In a stark warning, Independent Sage said hospital admission rates in the north of England could reach levels seen in London on 23 March – the day the prime minister imposed a nationwide lockdown – within a week if infection rates continue to increase rapidly.
Emphasising the urgency of the current situation, the group of scientists, who hold weekly briefings to mirror the government’s official Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), also called on the government to reinstate daily No 10 Covid-19 briefings.
It comes as Mr Johnson is widely expected to to unveil a three-tier system for local lockdowns next week and order the closure of pubs, restaurants and bars in vast swathes of northern England where the infection rate is surging.
The group of scientists argued existing restrictions across England are not sufficient to reverse the growth of the epidemic, while professor Karl Friston, of University College London warned: “The window of opportunity for enhanced contact tracing has passed.
He added: “It’s gone too far. No amount of contact tracing will work at the moment.”
Among “emergency measures”, the group is calling for a return of the 2 metre social distancing rules, suspension of indoors service in pubs and restaurants, a ban on household mixing and online-only teaching at universities.
However, Independent Sage, chaired by the government’s former chief scientific adviser Sir David King, also urged ministers to develop a clear “exit strategy” from the tighter restrictions and greater financial support for those acutely affected by the crisis.
Speaking on Friday, Sir David said: “What I would say to government because you will not develop the test and trace system fast enough now is don’t waste a moment.
“Take the steps that are necessary to slow down the pandemic in its tracks today. This evening, for example prime minister, please introduce the new policies with clarity on whether it’s a partial lockdown, a total lockdown, whether it’s a circuit breaker, introduce them right away.
“And when you do that, don’t sit back, make sure you have fully functional find, test, trace and support system in place so that people can go into isolation. We need all that put in place.”
Outlining the latest data on transmissions, UCL professor Christina Pagel added: “I think the existing restrictions are not sufficient to reverse growth – if they were we would have seen it, and actually we’re not at all. And we do now need to do that and time has run out for us to wait and see what happens.
“I think the government urgently needs to halt and reverse growth and it needs to do that now, not next week. I think we do have to have additional temporary restrictions – they have to be really clearly communicated and they have to be transparent.
“The government must return to its daily briefings. I don’t understand why now is not as urgent as it was in March. I think we do need to hear everyday about what the plan is, what the situation is and how they are making decisions.”
Earlier, Sir Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust and member of the official Sage group, warned the country is now “back to the choices faced in the early March”.
Responding to reports that hospitals in the north of England are set to run out of Covid beds for patients within weeks, he posted on social media: “The tragedy is how predictable this has been since at least early July. It was not inevitable.
“It is not inevitable now that this worsens, but to avoid spiralling out of control needs to be action now. We are close to or at events & choices of 13-23 March.
“With the lag time between making a decision, its implementation & its effect measured in weeks the longer the decisions are delayed the harder & more draconian are the interventions needed to change trajectory of epidemic curve.”
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