Scientists call for immediate circuit breaker in urgent push to reform Test and Trace system

Scientists from the government’s top advisory committee have called for an “immediate national circuit breaker” to stop the spread of the virus in its tracks.

The Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or Sage, set out a six-week emergency plan to bring infection rates below 5,000 cases per day, arguing the local Covid-19 alert system is “not 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,” Christina Pagel, a professor at University College London, said in a statement from the group on 16 October.

The six-week plan includes an immediate two to three-week national lockdown, which would involve the closure of schools, non-essential retail and businesses, the leisure and hospitality industries and places of worship.

Only those serving takeaway food and essential retailers such as supermarkets and pharmacies would be permitted to remain open. It added that these restrictions must be accompanied by an updated package of financial support for affected individuals and businesses.

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“The circuit breaker should be followed by a period of continued restrictions sufficient to keep the R number below 1, while allowing schools to stay open,” the scientists said in their statement.

The national lockdown would be used to “buy time” for the government to reform the Test and Trace system, which it said is failing to keep up with rising infections.

Sage said only a quarter of test results in England are being received “promptly”, while the number of contacts reached has failed to improve.

The independent group of scientists also warned on 16 October that the £10bn spent by the Treasury so far on the NHS Test and Trace scheme had “not been used effectively”. It argued that with that budget, the government could have provided £1m to every general practice in the UK and £10m to each top tier local health authority.

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Sage’s report comes as data from the Office for National Statistics showed coronavirus cases had spiked in England. In the week to 8 October, a survey revealed that 1 in 160 people in England had tested positive for coronavirus, up from 1 in 240 the previous week.

Repeating earlier calls which were ignored by the government, Sage urged ministers to return to social distancing measures of two metres, a ban on all household mixing outside of support bubbles and a switch to online teaching in colleges and universities.

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Scientists pushed for the establishment of a national Covid testing consortium, which would manage all testing in England and be overseen by the NHS. Similarly, each region should have a Covid-19 office, led by top NHS executives.

Meanwhile, Lancashire is to become the second region in England to enter the government’s toughest third tier of restrictions from midnight on 16 October, after Liverpool was placed under “very high” alert earlier this week.

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The fate of Manchester, which is expected to enter tier three in the coming days, is still being discussed between government and local officials.

To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email Emily Nicolle

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