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Coronavirus: University of Cambridge experts and city MP call on government to impose Covid-19 circuit-breaker lockdown

University of Cambridge experts are among those calling on the government to impose a national ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown to save thousands of lives by Christmas.

The coronavirus
The coronavirus

Amid spiralling numbers of Covid-19 cases across the country, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), which advises the government, has suggested a national lockdown between October 24 and November 7.

This coincides with the half-term for schools to minimise disruption to education.

However, in a paper published on Wednesday (October 14), SPI-M said: “There are no good epidemiological reasons to delay the break as this will simply push back any benefits until later, leaving more time for additional cases to accumulate.”

Modelling by the group - which features several several Cambridge academics - suggests coronavirus deaths over the rest of the year could be reduced from 19,900 to 12,100 if a circuit-breaker is imposed, while hospital admissions would be cut from 132,400 to 66,500.

If schools and shops remain open, the death toll would be cut to 15,600.

Daniel Zeichner, Labour MP for Cambridge. Picture: Richard Marsham
Daniel Zeichner, Labour MP for Cambridge. Picture: Richard Marsham

It has emerged that members SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), of which SPI-M is a sub-group, advised the government last month to impose a circuit breaker.

On Wednesday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer joined those calling for one, saying it would prevent a “sleepwalk into a long and bleak winter”.

While Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not ruled it out, the government has so far chosen to adopt a three-tier system of restrictions based on regional infection rates instead.

Cambridge’s Labour MP Daniel Zeichner told the Cambridge Independent: “Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party seemed to have stopped listening to scientific advice but I support a two-to-three week circuit break in line with SAGE’s recommendation.

“Of course it will involve sacrifices but what the country needs is a clear plan. The government acted far too slowly last time and I fear they are doing so again. We need to get the spread of the virus down again to slow infections and hospital admissions. Not acting now is just creating bigger problems for the future.

“Crucially throughout the period the government would need to fix test and trace - there's no need for any ‘world-beating’ or ‘moonshot’ rhetoric - we just need something functional. “For the sake of people's lives, health, jobs, education, and our local economy, I hope the Prime Minister listens to the evidence and the constructive advice Keir Starmer is offering and acts decisively.”

Anthony Browne, the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire. Picture: Keith Heppell
Anthony Browne, the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire. Picture: Keith Heppell

South Cambridgehire’s Conservative MP Anthony Browne was not ready to back the circuit-breaker idea - yet.

“The evidence from across Europe shows that a targetedregional approach is far more effective at saving lives without causing unnecessary damage to businesses and jobs than the alternative of repeated national lockdowns,” he told the Cambridge Independent.

“With the new tier system in place, areas under tier 3 regulations with very high numbers of cases are essentially subject to full lockdown while lower risk areas remain active. There would rightfully be outrage if businesses in South Cambridgeshire were put at risk of collapse due to circumstances at the other end of the country, well beyond their control.

“This remains a shifting battleground, and I continue to urge the government to listen and react appropriately and proportionally.I want to urge everyone to continue to follow guidance – cover your face, wash your hands and stay safe.”

Prof Julia Gog, of the University of Cambridge
Prof Julia Gog, of the University of Cambridge

Cambridge members of SPI-M, which called for the circuit breaker, include:

  • Prof Julia Gog - professor of mathematical biology at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics and the David N Moore fellow and director of studies in mathematics at Queens’ College, Cambridge, who has just been made an OBE for the expert advice on infectious disease modelling that she has given to the government during the pandemic;
  • Prof Daniela De Angelis - professor of statistical science for health at the University of Cambridge in the Department of Primary Care and Public Health, who is also deputy director and programme leader at the Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit (MRC-BSU), which has been modelling the R number that indicates how many people each infected person is passing the virus on to;
  • Prof Dame Theresa Marteau, director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge, whose research focuses on the development and evaluation of interventions to change behaviour
  • Prof David Spiegelhalter, the Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk, and Professor of Biostatistics, at the University of Cambridge.

Professor Matt Keeling, one of the authors of the SPI-M paper, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The stricter the restrictions, the greater the impact. We stress that this is only a short-term measure – it buys us time to put other measures in place, but at the moment we do need that time.”

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “This is important analysis and more evidence that a short circuit-break is needed to get control of the virus, fix test and trace and ultimately save lives.”

A survey by YouGov on Tuesday suggested there was considerable public support for the circuit-breaker idea, with 54 per cent of the 4,222 adults polled saying the government should have introduced a national lockdown in September, and just 28 per cent disagreeing.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. Picture: PA
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. Picture: PA

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions today, Sir Keir told the Prime Minister: “I know that for someone who has been an opportunist all his life this is difficult to understand, but having read and considered the SAGE I have genuinely concluded that a circuit-break is in the national interest – genuinely concluded.

“It is the failure of the Prime Minister’s strategy that means tougher measures are now unavoidable. That is Sage’s view.

“Sage has advised that a circuit-breaker should act to reduce R below one, should reset the incidence of disease to a lower level and should set the epidemic back by approximately 28 days or more.

“All three are vital and that is why Labour backs it. So can the Prime Minister tell us, what is his alternative plan to get R below one?”

Mr Johnson replied: “The plan is the plan that (Sir Keir) supported on Monday.

“And the whole point is to seize this moment now to avoid the misery of another national lockdown into which he wants to go head-long by delivering a regional solution.”

But he also said: “I rule out nothing, of course, in combating the virus, but we’re going to do it with the local, regional approach that can drive down and will drive down the virus if it is properly implemented.”

The government’s three-tier system begins today (October 14).

The three-tier system. Graphic: PA
The three-tier system. Graphic: PA

Cambridgeshire and the rest of the East of England are in the lowest tier - ‘middle alert’ - which maintains the current restrictions surrounding the ‘rule of six’ and 10pm pub curfew.

But cases are rising fast here too, with 99 cases in the 10 days to October 12 in Cambridge, 111 in South Cambridgeshire and 52 in East Cambridgeshire.

Addenbrooke’s had 10 Covid patients on its wards yesterday (October 13) while the Royal Papworth Hospital had three.

So far, only Liverpool has been placed in tier 3 - the very high alert level - which imposes harsher restrictions, including the closure of pubs unless they can operate as a restaurant.

Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson said that crowds of people dancing in the city’s centre as the tier 3 restrictions came into place “shame our city”.

Paul Brand, a councillor in Liverpool, said the city’s intensive care units are already more than 90 per cent full with the city soon expected to reach levels of bed occupancy seen during the first wave of Covid-19.

Government health officials are expected to discuss with councillors in Greater Manchester and Lancashire whether to classify the areas as “very high”.

But Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said that the tier 3 restrictions are “fundamentally flawed”, adding: “We won’t accept it.”

He and council leaders across the region said: “If the government pursues its current strategy, we believe it will leave large parts of the north of England trapped in tier 3 for much of the winter with all the damage that will do,” they said.

“If cases continue to rise as predicted, and the government continues to refuse to provide the substantial economic support that tier 3 areas will need, then a number of leaders in Greater Manchester believe a national circuit-break, with the required financial support would be a preferable option.”

Weekly rate of new Covid-19 cases. Graphic: PA
Weekly rate of new Covid-19 cases. Graphic: PA

Northern Ireland is the first devolved administration to agree to a new national lockdown, with most measures coming into force on Friday.

Pubs and restaurants will close for four weeks, with the exception of takeaways and deliveries, while schools will close on Monday for two weeks – one of which will cover the half-term Halloween break.

It stops short of the full lockdown imposed in March, but they are the toughest measures to be introduced in any of the UK’s four countries so far.

Wales is preparing to follow suit, First Minister Mark Drakeford said on Wednesday.

He told Sky News his government is “very actively talking about and preparing for” a circuit-breaker lockdown.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said England’s tiered system would “give an idea” of a similar scheme she is developing, which could come into effect when stricter measures are due to be eased on October 25.

Elsewhere other countries have already tried the circuit breaker option, with varying levels of success.

Other countries have tried the circuit-breaker approach with differing levels of success.

Israel is expected to emerge from a national lockdown this week – initially imposed to cover the Jewish new year celebrations – after a traffic-light system similar to England’s tiers plan failed to get infection rates under control.

The Israeli government said there are some “preliminary signs of success”, although infection rates continues to rise – from 4,764 new cases on September 14 to more than 11,000 on September 23.

The most recent figures show 3,538 new cases on October 12.

New Zealand’s month-long lockdown imposed on March 26 rapidly brought cases under control and the country was praised for the efficacy of its response. On April 18, New Zealand recorded 13 new cases but did not have another day in double digits until August 12, and so far has recorded just 25 Covid-19 deaths.

Scientists warn, however, that success depends on the public’s willingness to adhere to any new rules.

In other developments this week:

  • The UK recorded the highest daily death figure in four months, with a further 143 people dying within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Tuesday.
  • Mr Johnson suffered a major Tory backbench rebellion over the 10pm hospitality curfew, amid a growing backlash against government coronavirus restrictions.
  • Tory MP Chris Green, who represents Bolton West, resigned as a ministerial aide over local restrictions, saying the “attempted cure is worse than the disease”.

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