UK Minister Defends Government’s Decision to Shelve Short Lockdown Advice

October 13, 2020 Updated: October 13, 2020

A UK minister on Tuesday defended the government’s decision not to impose a short national lockdown after a released document revealed that it had shelved scientific advice to impose “circuit-breaker” restrictions.

Robert Jenrick, the minister for housing, communities, and local government, said the UK government has to “take a balanced judgment,” after the Labour shadow health secretary said he was “alarmed” by the revelation.

Shortly after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a three-tiered alert system for CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus restrictions, the government released a document dated Sept. 21 that summarized the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ (SAGE) assessment of non-pharmaceutical interventions.

The SAGE document (pdf) listed a “circuit-breaker” lockdown as one of the non-pharmaceutical interventions that it said “should be considered for immediate introduction.”

The document said the national lockdown in March reduced the reproduction number (R) by about 2, or transmission rate by 75 percent.

Therefore, “a ‘circuit-breaker’, in which a package of stringent non-pharmaceutical interventions is reintroduced for 2–3 weeks should act to reduce R below 1,” the document states.

“Multiple circuit-breaks might be necessary to maintain low levels of incidence,” it adds.

Jonathan Ashworth
Jonathan Ashworth, Shadow Secretary of State for Health, speaks during a rally at the Emmanuel Centre in London on Dec. 15, 2016. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, told the BBC that he was “quite alarmed” when he saw the document.

The prime minister “didn’t allude to them in any of his statements,” he said on the BBC’s “Breakfast” program on Tuesday. “And he always tells us that we’re following the science.”

Ashworth said the government “quite self-evidently … have rejected significant recommendations here from the scientists.”

Responding to the criticism on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program, Jenrick said the government had taken action at that time—introducing, for example, the “rule of six“—and does follow scientific advice but has to balance it with other factors.

“These are not easy decisions,” he said. “The prime minister has to balance protecting people’s lives and the NHS from the virus, whilst also prioritizing things that matter to us as a society, like education and keeping as many people in employment as possible.”

He said a “blanket national lockdown” would be incredibly damaging.

“We want to try, wherever we can, to avoid a blanket national lockdown. That is incredibly damaging to people’s lives,” he said, adding, “and remember the rate of infection does vary very widely across the country.”

The three-tiered CCP virus alert system, which divides England into medium, high, and very high categories by the areas’ infection rate, is being debated and voted on in Parliament on Tuesday.