Boris Johnson’s government is not learning from its mistakes and is failing to take tough enough action to stop the spread of the coronavirus, one of Downing Street’s top scientific advisers has said.
Professor John Edmunds – a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – said action had not been taken quickly enough back in March and that “mistake” was about to be repeated.
The leading epidemiologist spoke out after Mr Johnson announced a raft of new rules and guidance on Tuesday, including a 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants across England.
Prof Edmunds said the curfew was likely to have a “trivial” effect and “a very large range of measures” was still needed "as fast as possible" to stop the rate of transmission from growing.
“We didn’t react quick enough in March, and so I think that we haven’t learned from our mistake back then and we’re unfortunately about to repeat it,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Professor Edmunds, who is the dean of the Faculty of Epidemiology and Population Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, predicted that Mr Johnson would have to bring in more restrictions in the weeks ahead.
He added: “I suspect we will see very stringent measures coming in place throughout the UK at some point, but it will be too late again. We will have let the epidemic double and double and double again until we do take those measures.
“And then we’ll have the worst of both worlds, because then to slow the epidemic and bring it back down again, all the way down to somewhere close to where it is now or where it was in the summer, will mean putting the brakes on the epidemic for a very long time, very hard.”
Prof Edmunds – who said he was speaking in a personal capacity rather than for the Sage group – told the BBC that the UK’s R rate of transmission was “probably somewhere around 2 at the moment”.
He suggested it would be difficult to get the R rate back under 1 before Christmas without fresh curbs, adding: “In order to stop the epidemic growing any further we need to put a large range of measures in place – a very large range of measures.”
First minister Nicola Sturgeon went further than Mr Johnson by announcing a ban on indoor household visits in Scotland. However, Prof Edmunds said even that extra measure “did not go far enough”.
Dominic Raab defended measures taken by the government and said they would be enough to “bear down” on the spread of the virus. “The scientific advice that we’ve had presented by the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer is that these measures can help us bear down again on the uptick we’ve seen in the virus if everyone complies with it,” the foreign secretary told Today.
“But the risk is, of course, that that frays at the edges, that a small minority, if I can put it this way, blow it for everyone else, and that’s why the measures that we've introduced are targeted along with increased fines and making sure we've got consistent enforcement and compliance.”