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The Government May Need Stricter Measures Than The New Three-Tier System, A Cabinet Minister Has Admitted

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick defended Boris Johnson from the suggestion he had ignored his own scientific advisors on further lockdown measures (PA)

5 min read

The government may have to “go even further” and introduce stricter measures than unveiled yesterday to tackle areas with high levels of coronavirus, Robert Jenrick has admitted.

The senior Cabinet minister also attempted to brush off claims Boris Johnson ignored the advice of his scientific advisors to put the country into more severe measures three weeks ago to counter the spiralling infection rate.

He said an announcement by the PM in late September came after "extensive engagement" with the Sage group of advisors, despite it being revealed he only implemented one of their five recommendations.

The housing secretary was speaking the day after the new system of restrictions was unveiled, with every part of the UK given either a “medium”, “high” or “very high” designation, with the top tier meaning pubs will have to shut and travel into and out of there advised against.

But on whether more stringent policies will have to come in if that fails to bring down Covid-19 cases, Mr Jenrick then told Sky News:

 "We may have to go even further than we have announced but want to make sure measures work for the local community themselves.”

"We probably need to go even further, but we want to design those steps between ourselves and local leaders," he added.

It comes after the chief medical officer for England appeared to undermine the comments of the PM about the new measures as he stood alongside him.

Speaking at last night’s press conference Professor Chris Whitty, said of the restrictions in the “very high” category: “The base will not be sufficient, I think that's very clearly the professional view.”

It later emerged that in minutes from a Sage meeting on 21 September, quietly released soon after the PM spoke to the nation, the group said a so-called “circuit-breaker” national lockdown of two to three weeks "should be considered for immediate introduction".

The group said: “Modelling suggests that 14 days of significant reduction in transmission in October could put the epidemic back 28 days and could significantly reduce the prevalence of infection in December.

“The amount of ‘time gained’ is highly dependent on how quickly the epidemic is growing – the faster the growth or stricter the measures introduced, the more time gained.”

It was on a shortlist of five measures, which also included telling people who can to work from home, banning all mixing of households indoors, closing all hospitality premises, gyms and personal services like hairdressers, and moving university and college teaching online.

Sage did not call for all of them to be implemented at once but warned: "A package of interventions will need to be adopted to prevent this exponential rise in cases.

“Single interventions are unlikely to be able to reduce incidence. If schools are to remain open, then a wide range of other measures will be required.”

The day after the meeting Mr Johnson told people to work from home again, but did not announce any of the other measures.

Separately in other papers released by Sage last night the group concluded an early curfew on pubs and bars would have only a “marginal impact” on transmission of the disease, putting further pressure on the government to drop the policy.

And they also tore into NHS Test and Trace, saying “low levels of engagement with the system coupled with testing delays and likely poor rates of adherence with self-isolation suggests that this system is having a marginal impact on transmission at the moment”.

In response to the suggestion the PM had ignored his own scientists Mr Jenrick said they had taken "robust action”, such as introducing the ‘rule of six’ and the 10pm curfew on hospitality, but had overall taken a "balanced " approach to the situation.

He told BBC Breakfast: "We listened to that advice as we always do and we did take action but these are balanced judgments.

"We also have to balance that up against the effect on the economy, people's jobs and livelihoods, on education which we have made a priority and all the other unintended consequences of taking action, whether that is on people's mental health, on other illnesses and elective surgery that might be delayed or cancelled as a result of that.

"We took a balanced view as to what was required at that moment and that's the way we will continue to behave.”

And appearing later on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, the minister said the government "certainly can" say it is still being led by the science.

"We have to take a balanced judgment - these are not easy decisions,” he explained.

"But the Prime Minister has to balance protecting people's lives and the NHS from the virus while also prioritising things that matter to us as a society, like education and keeping as many people in employment as possible, and also ensuring that other health risks, like mental health and illnesses, don't get neglected as a result.

"That's the difficult but balanced judgment we are taking."

And he again admitted they may have to go further than the current “very high” measures after being quizzed about Professor Whitty’s comments.

"The base lines measures will have an impact. Objectively, they are measures that will reduce the rate of transmission because they will limit the amount of social interaction that people have in those areas,” he said

"But they are, as the Prime Minister said, a base line. What we want to do now is work with local leaders to make difficult decisions where necessary in those communities and to consider going further if we have to."

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