Plan to open schools on 1 June in doubt as unions air safety fears

This is the direct consequence of the Government’s failure, so far, to get a stringent coronavirus “test and trace” regime in place. As Owl has frequently commented, it is an essential prerequisite to ending lockdown and opening up the economy.

Heather Stewart 

Ministers’ plans to reopen schools as early as 1 June are in serious doubt after unions representing teachers and school staff insisted that they would not consider a return without a stringent coronavirus “test and trace” regime.

In an unusual joint statement, which one senior union official said indicated that an early return to a normal school timetable was “off the menu”, the Trades Union Congress said that there should be “no increase in pupil numbers until full rollout of a national test and trace scheme”, and called for the establishment of a Covid-19 taskforce with government, unions and others to agree on the safe reopening of schools.

But with a national strategy for a scheme that would help identify who needs to be in quarantine yet to be deployed – and a contact-tracing phone app still undergoing a limited trial on the Isle of Wight – the unions’ tests are unlikely to be satisfied by the 1 June date floated by officials last week.

That could mean children in England and Wales returning to schools for just a few weeks between now and the new school year in September, and pupils in Scotland – who break up earlier – increasingly unlikely to return before the summer holidays at all.

The Scottish and Welsh governments have already announced that their schools will not reopen on 1 June.

The news comes amid growing signs that Boris Johnson will set out a cautious “roadmap” for the next phase of the crisis on Sunday after the government faced severe criticism over its mixed messages about what the public should expect.

The statement, submitted to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, is backed by the main teaching unions, as well as Unite, GMB and Unison, which represent key school staff such as cleaners, administrators and caterers. Any return without their agreement is highly unlikely.

“The wider reopening of our schools will depend greatly on ensuring that families and carers are fully confident that allowing their children to return to school is safe. We do not believe that sufficient levels of confidence exist at this time,” it said.

Johnson told last weekend’s Sun on Sunday: “One of the things we want to do as fast as we can is get primary schools back. It’s not going to be easy, but that’s where we want to go. It’s about working out a way to do it.”

Whitehall sources suggested at the time he had in mind a phased return from the beginning of June, after the summer half-term break.

But the Guardian understands that conversations with headteachers and trade unions in recent days have underlined the practical challenges of the move – and the potential resistance from parents anxious about their children’s safety. A government source insisted on Friday: “We never set a date.”

Ahead of Johnson’s address to the nation, the environment secretary, George Eustice, on Friday played down suggestions of any major changes to the lockdown regime, stressing that the government would proceed “with the utmost caution”.

At the press briefing, Eustice also stressed the importance of abiding by the existing measures over the bank holiday weekend, despite the fact that the government is poised to allow unlimited exercise, sunbathing and picnics from Monday.

But he welcomed moves by some businesses to reopen where existing restrictions already allow – including McDonald’s. “Our view is that McDonald’s drive-through is made for the social distancing system that we are in,” he said.

The Welsh government stole a march on Johnson on Friday by announcing a three-week extension to its coronavirus lockdown and making modest adjustments, including allowing outdoor exercise more than once a day and plans to reopen libraries.

The first minister, Mark Drakeford, insisted that the lockdown needed to stay, but said “very cautious” changes would come into force. He anticipated that “broadly” similar changes would be announced by the prime minister.

He said that from Monday, people would be allowed to exercise more than once a day, provided that they do not travel “a significant distance” from their home. Garden centres will be allowed to reopen if they can ensure that the 2-metre physical distancing rule is enforced. And councils will begin work on plans to safely reopen libraries and municipal recycling centres.

The announcement came as Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said she believed “all four nations now accept there may be differences in pace of how we do these things because the level of the virus is at different stages”, although she expected divergence from England’s upcoming new guidance to be minor.

The TUC’s tests include “clear scientific published evidence” that reopening schools will not increase the transmission of Covid-19; agreement between government, unions and employers over minimum safety standards for social distancing and hygiene; and a ”secure supply” of PPE for school staff.

But the key demand is that opening up schools cannot begin until there is a “full rollout” of the government’s test, trace and isolate policy, with targets for testing being consistently met and the numbers of new cases of Covid-19 falling.

Williamson has maintained that his top priority is the safety of children, and said that the question of when and how to reopen schools is the government’s most difficult decision.

The teaching unions and the Department for Education have been consulting closely in recent days, with ministers and advisers contacting individual headteachers and academy leaders to canvass their views. Following the discussions, the DfE believes the TUC’s tests do not differ significantly from those set out by the government to end the lockdown.

Michael Veale, a lecturer in digital rights and regulation at University College London who has been involved in the development of coronavirus tracing apps in countries including Switzerland and Germany, said it was possible that the first NHS tracing app could be ready by 1 June. But he warned that an app alone would be unlikely to be sufficient to curb a Covid-19 outbreak affecting schools.

“The question is, would an app help schools?” he said. “Primary schools don’t contain humans with smartphones in the same way as the rest of the world. Certainly, unions should be alert to health risks for the workers they represent, but I don’t think unions should rely on an app to protect their workers. They should make demands that relate to broader tracking and tracing capabilities.”

Veale said that an underlying problem in the UK was its failure to conduct enough tests to make tracing work effectively, even with a functioning app available. The first version of the NHS app requires users to self-report symptoms.

“We must be careful not to make strong claims about the effectiveness of an app before we have even deployed one,” he said.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has claimed that a nationwide contact-tracing scheme, involving 18,000 contact tracers, will be in place by mid-May. But he has conceded that it is a “huge national undertaking of unprecedented scale and complexity”.

The NASUWT teaching union has already called for schools to remain closed until the end of the summer holidays, while the National Association of Head Teachers said it is “clear that parents are very nervous about sending their children back to school”.

A DfE spokesperson said: “Schools will remain closed, except for children of critical workers and vulnerable children, until the scientific advice indicates it is the right time to re-open and the five tests set out by government to beat this virus have been met.

“We are also working closely with the sector as we consider how to reopen schools, nurseries and colleges and will ensure everyone has sufficient notice to plan and prepare.”


The UK government’s changing coronavirus strategy

Owl wonders from time to time whether the only thing driving the strategy, if you can call it that, is the formulation of catchy three word slogans. Whenever the clever clogs in No 10 come up with a new one, we are off on a new tack. Please keep up at the back!

Haroon Siddique 

Since the coronavirus outbreak hit the UK the government has changed its strategy and public messaging a number of times, in some cases within days. Here are some of the areas where the line has changed:


Chief medical adviser to the government, Prof Chris Whitty, 12 March:

It is no longer necessary for us to identify every case and we will move from having testing mainly done in homes and outpatients and walk-in centres, to a situation where people who are remaining at home do not need testing.

Patrick Vallance, Britain’s chief scientific adviser, 5 May:

I think if we’d managed to ramp testing capacity quicker it would have been beneficial. And, you know, for all sorts of reasons that didn’t happen. I think it’s clear you need lots of testing for this …

I think if we do test, track and tracing well and we keep the social distancing measures at the right level we should be able to avoid a second wave.

Herd Immunity

Vallance, 13 March:

Our aim is to try to reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it. Those are the key things we need to do.

Vallance, 5 May:

I should be clear about what I was trying to say, and if I didn’t say this clearly enough then I apologise. What I was trying to say was that, in the absence of a therapeutic, the way in which you can stop a community becoming susceptible to this is through immunity, and immunity can be obtained by vaccination, or it can be obtained by people who have the infection.

Death toll

National medical director of NHS England, Stephen Powis, 28 March:

If we can keep deaths below 20,000 we will have done very well in this epidemic.

Boris Johnson, 30 April (when death toll stood at 26,711):

We avoided an uncontrollable and catastrophic epidemic where the reasonable worst-case scenario was 500,000 deaths.

PPE (personal protective equipment)

Health secretary, Matt Hancock, 11 April:

The central challenge is one of distribution rather than one of supply and going from a business as usual, relatively low levels of PPE distribution to the unprecedented level of use of PPE now has been a big challenge.

Housing, communities and local government secretary, Robert Jenrick, 18 April:

Supply in some areas, particularly gowns and certain types of masks and aprons, is in short supply at the moment, and that must be an extremely anxious time for people working on the frontline, but they should be assured that we are doing everything we can to correct this issue, and to get them the equipment that they need.

Use of face masks/coverings by the public

Deputy chief medical officer for England, Jonathan Van Tam, 3 April :

In terms of the hard evidence, and what the UK government recommends, we do not recommend face masks for general wearing.

Johnson, 30 April:

What I think Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) is saying, and what I certainly agree with is that as part of coming out of the lockdown I do think face coverings will be useful, both for epidemiological reasons but also giving people confidence they can go back to work.


All the planning applications submitted in Devon this week

How much longer do we have to wait before we get back to some semblance of democratic oversight of the planning process in EDDC?

Earlier this month, the government made it lawful to hold council meetings – and binding votes – remotely.

EDDC needs to stop hiding behind emergency powers, allowing the leader and relevant cabinet members to take any urgent decisions which cannot await the next formal cabinet meeting.

It just needs a bit of creativity and good will.

Surely Ben Ingham, leader in name only, having lost his majority, cannot be using the pandemic as an excuse to cling on to power?   

Daniel Clark

Every week dozens of planning applications are submitted to the local councils, and the coronavirus pandemic has not changed that.

While some council services have been suspended as a result of COVID-19, planning departments are still working as usual to validate and to decide upon applications.

Here is the list of applications that have been submitted and validated by the various local councils or planning authorities in Devon in the last week. [Only those for East Devon have been copied below. To see the complete list go to the online article on devonlive]. 


Barns At Higher Musgrove Dunkeswell Abbey Honiton EX14 4RP –


Two thirds of British coronavirus cases are missed, says app expert

Owl understands that, as part of the new NHSX tracking app being trialled in the Isle of Wight, users will be asked to report “symptoms”. But what are the symptoms of Covid-19? 

Katie Gibbons

The government’s data on coronavirus cases is nonsense and two thirds of cases in Britain are undiagnosed, a leading epidemiologist has claimed.

Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, has criticised Whitehall’s refusal to class common symptoms as official indicators.

The government has listed a high temperature and a new, continuous cough as the primary symptoms of Covid-19. There is evidence, however, that a loss of taste or smell is a common sign of infection. Other countries, including the US, have recognised this as a symptom on more detailed lists.

Professor Spector has collected data from three million Britons on his team’s symptom-tracking app. “The reason that we got a bit stuck in this country is we took the data from China and just instantly said, ‘OK, the disease only has two symptoms: it’s fever or it’s persistent cough.’ That meant we were missing about 60 per cent of cases,” he said. “Only people with those two symptoms got tested and ended up on the statistics. All this governmental data on confirmed cases and how many people have recovered, it’s all nonsense.”

In partnership with the Department of Health and Social Care, 10,000 app users are being sent Covid-19 tests each week, within the first day or so of developing symptoms. Clear patterns have emerged from the data in the six weeks since the app went live and the team are close to being able to plot how the disease will progress, depending on the symptoms someone has on day one.

According to the data the coronavirus may have arrived in Britain at the new year as many users reported having classic symptoms in January. The team estimated that at the end of April there were more than 300,000 symptomatic cases, a fall from a peak of more than two million at the start of the month.

Professor Spector said: “We’re able to allocate people into five or six groups at the moment that follow different patterns of symptoms at different time points. It’s not random.”

In one group are those whose symptoms are a sore throat and muscle pains, which then develop to include diarrhoea, stomach pains and fatigue. People in another group start with a headache, which progresses to a cough and fatigue, then the cough gets worse, they develop shortness of breath and may need to go to hospital. This classification is important in determining which patients are high risk.

Alan McNally, professor of microbial genomics at the University of Birmingham, agreed that there were many other possible signs of coronavirus infection. “There are myriad less common symptoms attached to Covid: things such as Covid toe [a rash on the feet] and loss of appetite,” he said.

He defended the decision by the government to concentrate on a few, however, saying: “I don’t see where on earth you draw a line on symptoms and whether or not they are Covid.”

Users of the Covid Symptom Study app log how they feel daily, even if they are healthy. The most useful loggers are people who were in good health when they first logged on to the app and have since developed symptoms.


Public health directors in England are asked to take charge of Covid-19 testing

“The switch is a conspicuous, if belated, vote of confidence in local government’s ability to help get a grip on the Covid crisis. There has been frustration and incomprehension that public health teams have until now been left as bit-players in the testing programme and in tracking and tracing carriers of the virus.”

In a national emergency it makes sense to Owl to harness all the assets available, particularly when they have the right skills and experience. But until now the Government appears to prefer to try and run things centrally using consultants. Private, good; public, bad. Are we witnessing this idea being tested to destruction?

David Brindle 

Ministers have asked local directors of public health to take charge of Covid-19 testing in English care homes in what will be seen as a tacit admission that centralised attempts to run the programme have fallen short.

In a letter to sector leaders, seen by the Guardian, the care minister, Helen Whately, acknowledged that testing of care home residents and staff needs to be “more joined up”. She describes the new arrangements as “a significant change”.

Under the new approach, public health directors employed by local councils will take lead responsibility for arranging the testing of some 400,000 care home residents and 500,000 staff, in discussion with directors of adult social services, local NHS bodies and regional directors of Public Health England (PHE).

Critically, the local public health directors will decide which homes should have priority in the testing programme, which is still working up to a capacity of 30,000 tests a day for the sector.

The switch is a conspicuous, if belated, vote of confidence in local government’s ability to help get a grip on the Covid crisis. There has been frustration and incomprehension that public health teams have until now been left as bit-players in the testing programme and in tracking and tracing carriers of the virus.

One senior director of public health said: “We’ve been pushing and pushing government to realise that we exist and that we are best placed to organise things like testing, alongside directors of adult social services, because we know our patch.”

The plight of care homes has shot up the political agenda in recent weeks as Covid has swept through many of them, leading to the deaths of 6,686 people up to 1 May in England and Wales. The health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, offered on 28 April to test all residents and staff, but there has been widespread criticism of the availability and speed of checks.

In her letter, sent on Thursday, Whately says there will “soon” be capacity for 30,000 daily tests of care home residents and staff, adding: “This ambitious plan requires a close partnership with local leaders to help direct these efforts to where it is needed most.”

Outlining plans to order visits by mobile test units via a new online portal, the minister says lead responsibility is being given to public health directors “to ensure that testing of staff and residents in care settings is more joined up, and that available national capacity we are delivering is targeted to areas and care homes with the greatest need”.

Care home sector leaders said that while any move to reform the testing system was welcome, homes would still have no say in determining local priorities or timetables. Lack of capacity remained a grave concern.

Vic Rayner, executive director of the National Care Forum, representing not-for-profit care homes, said: “With almost a million people needing to be tested, and only 30,000 tests a day envisaged at best, what our members really want to know is when all this is going to be a reality.”


Revealed: PPE stockpile was out-of-date when coronavirus hit UK

Austerity or just plain incompetence – Owl? 

“Almost 80% of respirators in the national pandemic stockpile were out of date when coronavirus hit the UK.”

By Channel 4 News Investigations Team

Reporters:  Ed Howker, Job Rabkin, Guy Basnett and Heidi Pett

Channel 4 News has obtained detailed stock lists that reveal exactly what was held, on the day coronavirus was declared an international emergency.

Around 200 million vital pieces of kit – including respirators, masks, syringes and needles – had all expired in the eight months before 30 January.

This included 20.9 million out-of-date respirators, from a total of 26.3 million. The tightly-fitting mouth masks are vital for filtering the air that NHS workers breathe.

The documents also reveal that more than half of the national stockpile of surgical facemasks had also expired.

In total, 45% of the 19,909 boxes holding PPE supplies had exceeded their use-by dates.

The documents suggest a failure by Public Health England and NHS Supply Chain’s management company, Supply Chain Coordination Limited, to maintain the stockpile in a state of readiness.

Expired stock is excluded from distribution, meaning millions of boxes of kit could have been delayed from being sent to hospitals and care homes – just as the virus began to spread.

Millions of expired respirators weren’t cleared for release until they were tested, between 10 March and 19 March. By this time, the UK was already suffering a desperate shortage of PPE.


There are questions over whether expired PPE offers the same level of protection as equipment that is still within its use-by date.

More than three-quarters of the expired respirators were manufactured by US safety firm 3M, which provided guidance to Channel 4 News that said respirators past their shelf life should not be used.

The guidance, entitled ‘Respirators Beyond Their Shelf Life – Considerations’, said: “Most respirators have a limited shelf life, after which they are intended to be discarded. The longer a respirator is stored beyond its shelf life, or stored outside the recommended conditions, the less likely it is to perform at its full potential.”

The guidance also links to a 3M blog about respirator shelf life that warns: “Over time, components such as the strap and nosefoam may degrade, which can affect the quality of the fit and seal.”

3M has stated its FFP3 respirator models have a shelf-life of five years.

Channel 4 News has learned that a substantial number of the expired respirators in the pandemic stockpile were originally amassed between 2009 and 2010 and had already had their shelf life extended – sometimes twice before.

Other studies have also questioned whether out-of-date respirators offer the same levels of protection as in-date masks.

For instance, the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) tested expired batches of similar 3M N95 respirators. It cleared them for use, but warned: “Users provided with any of these products should be forewarned to avoid a false sense of confidence; these devices may not provide the same level of protection as those that have not exceeded the designated shelf life.”

Photographs posted by medics on social media, and others sent directly to Channel 4 News, show boxes of respirators delivered to hospitals with use-by dates repeatedly extended. Some showed original expiry dates of 2012, extended to 2016, and then again to 2019 or 2020.

Some medical staff took to social media to share complaints that they had received respirators showing evidence of degradation.

Public Health England has stated that all the expired and relabelled products distributed from the stockpile had passed “stringent tests” to ensure items including respirators and surgical masks “remain fit for consumption”.

However despite requests from Channel 4 News it has not provided the test results.


As pressure grew on vital PPE supplies, unions and healthcare professionals criticised Public Health England and Supply Chain Coordination Limited for the delays in distribution.

Channel 4 News understands both organisations received regular readouts of what the stockpile held.

Throughout 2019 hundreds of millions of products reached their use-by date. But the timing of public procurement contracts suggests the organisations’ attempts to renew them failed to stem the tide of expirations, apparently impairing the country’s ability to respond to a pandemic.

Expired stock is excluded from distribution, until tested and cleared, or replaced.

In all, 19.9 million FFP3 respirators expired between 1 June 2019 and 1 January 2020 and therefore could have been delayed until tests confirmed they could be readmitted.

More than 84 million facemasks also expired over the same period.

They represented the majority of the stockpiled respirators and facemasks.

In November 2019, Supply Chain Coordination Limited awarded a contract to test respirators and facemasks “to provide evidence-based assurance that products are suitable for readmittance to the stock set aside for distribution in the event [of] a pandemic”.

But the process appeared to take months. Channel 4 News understands that samples of 4.6 million masks made by Cardinal Health were finally readmitted to the stockpile months after expiring – and just weeks before the peak of the UK Covid-19 epidemic. Warehouse workers were told how to relabel boxes, sticking new expiry dates over the old.

By March, more than 17 million respirators from manufacturer 3M were also out of date, and could not be distributed without being cleared.

On March 8, when the UK government initiated the drawdown of the pandemic stockpile, expired 3M masks remained untested meaning they could not be distributed.

With the virus spreading fast, a process that had previously taken months needed to happen in days. Testing was carried out between 10 March and 19 March. By this point, hospitals were facing a critical PPE shortage.

Five days later, on 24 March, the first public sign of the masks appeared, with soldiers rushing boxes of 3M respirators from the stockpile into hospitals that were already short of PPE.

To the dismay of medical staff, many displayed expired use-by dates. Apparently, there had been no time to relabel them.


Following an outbreak of Swine Flu in 2009, the government established the UK’s national pandemic stockpile, as an epidemic was seen as the number one threat on the national risk register. Half a billion pounds was spent on hundreds of millions of items to protect health workers in the case of an outbreak.

The documents obtained by Channel 4 News show the make-up of the stockpile on 30 January 2020 – the day the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak of novel coronavirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

In all, it contained 48,998 pallets, and more than half a billion items.

The majority of the stock was held at a newly-built 373,000 square foot climate-controlled distribution centre in Merseyside, designed to house England’s pandemic supplies with products also held for use by other parts of the United Kingdom.

The stockpile was split into nine sections, with PPE the largest. It comprised aprons, gloves, and eye protection that were all in date, as well as the largely expired respirators and facemasks.

The documents confirm it did not contain any gowns, despite the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Action Group (NERVTAG) recommending to Public Health England last year that they be bought.

A shortage of gowns has been a consistent hurdle for medics fighting the infection, with many forced to rely on the much flimsier plastic aprons.

Other stockpile sections include antibiotics, antivirals, and kit for administering drugs and vaccines.

Channel 4 News has also obtained evidence suggesting the stockpile had shrunk significantly over the last ten years, while the UK’s population continued to grow.

A ‘Consumable Procurement Specification List’ from 2009 stipulated what should be stored as part of a £500 million stockpile. It recommended 28.1 million respirators, 190 million surgical masks, and 116.5 million combined needles and syringes.

However, by 30 January 2020 the stockpile held 10% fewer respirators – at 26.3 million. There were also 19% fewer surgical masks at 154.5 million, and 28% fewer combined needles and syringes at 84.2 million.

Aside from PPE, other areas of the stockpile had also fallen out of date.

The 2,409 pallets consisting of the 84.2 million combined needles and syringes had all expired in the five months between June 2019 and November 2019. And another store of 4.5 million needles had also all expired, on 31 May 2019.

An additional stockpile of 2.1 million sets of intravenous medical equipment had also exceeded its shelf life, within the six months between June and December last year.

Responding to the Channel 4 News investigation, a government spokesperson said: “The UK is one of the most prepared countries in the world and we have delivered more than 1 billion items of PPE since this global outbreak began.”

“This is an unprecedented pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided at all times by the best scientific advice, to protect the NHS and save lives.”



UK scientists condemn ‘Stalinist’ attempt to censor Covid-19 advice

Owl is reminded of the saying: “He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon”. Scientists were no doubt flattered to be asked to provide the Government with advice, maybe they should have considered under what terms that might be – easy to be wise after the event. 


 A page of the redacted text from the report. Photograph: No Credit

David Conn

Government scientific advisers are furious at what they see as an attempt to censor their advice on government proposals during the Covid-19 lockdown by heavily redacting an official report before it was released to the public, the Guardian can reveal.

The report was one of a series of documents published by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) this week to mollify growing criticism about the lack of transparency over the advice given to ministers responding to the coronavirus.

However, large blocks of text in the report, produced by SPI-B, the Sage subcommittee providing advice from behavioural scientists on how the public might respond to lockdown measures, were entirely blanked out.

Several SPI–B members told the Guardian that the redacted portions of the document contained criticisms they had made of potential government policies they had been formally asked to consider in late March and early April.

One SPI-B adviser said: “It is bloody silly, and completely counterproductive.” A second committee member said: “The impression I’m getting is this government doesn’t want any criticism.”

On Friday afternoon, after the Guardian revealed frustrations over the redacted report, another member of the government’s advisory committee took to Twitter to complain of what he said was “Stalinist” censorship.

“Personally, I am more bemused than furious,” said Stephen Reicher, a professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews. “The greatest asset we have in this crisis is the trust and adherence of the public. You want trust? You need to be open with people. This isn’t open. It is reminiscent of Stalinist Russia. Not a good look.”

Members of the committee have been discussing among themselves how best to respond to the redaction, which they believe was a heavy-handed move that jeopardises their independence.

At least one scientific adviser is understood to be considering resigning over the government’s secretive approach to science around the Covid-19 outbreak, which they believe is undermining public trust.

The report, from 1 April, summarised SPI-B’s discussions about how to handle possible changes to the social distancing measures that had just been introduced to slow the spread of Covid-19.

In the version published on Sage’s government website, almost a page and a half of text was heavily redacted. The Guardian understands the blocked text related to SPI–B’s criticism about possible government proposals around that time.

These included the idea of reducing the amount of time Britons could spend exercising or shopping, and stricter financial penalties for those found to be breaking the lockdown. A third proposal involved requiring people to self-validate their movements, as was occurring in France, where citizens were required to complete permits before leaving home.

Experts on SPI-B, which includes professors in psychology, epidemiology and anthropology, said they felt the proposals were too punitive and more likely to result in unfair treatment among people in deprived economic circumstances.

A spokesperson for the Government Office for Science said the redactions took place because the policies discussed in the document were still under consideration.

“The only redactions relate to comments made by a Sage subgroup where specific reference is made to policy still under consideration or to remove contact,” the spokesperson said.

“Redactions were carried out by officials working for the Sage secretariat in consultation with the department developing the policy. All the subgroups were notified and given the opportunity to comment in advance of publication on the redactions being made to specific elements of any papers.”

However, SPI–B advisers who spoke to the Guardian disputed that they had been consulted. “We weren’t given advance notice and we still haven’t been given a satisfactory explanation,” the second SPI–B member said, adding they felt the redaction had been intended to stifle criticism.

“This government has failed to show any self-criticism whatsoever, when it is glaringly obvious to everybody that big mistakes have been made. If you want the trust of the population you hold up your hand and you say ‘we’ve made these mistakes, this is why they happened, we regret it, we’re learning from it’. Rather than just keep saying ‘we’ve done the most fantastic job’ and not being open to criticism in any way.”

A third member of SPI–B said they felt the redactions undermined the expert group’s independence from politicians. “What is recorded in the redacted document is us criticising those proposals. They were just not particularly well thought out. Here we were being independent, and you can’t see it [because of the redactions].”

A fourth member of SPI-B questions whether the heavy redaction might even have been a mistake, as the documents were summaries of the committee’s discussions produced by civil servants.

“Whether it was a mistake or deliberate doesn’t matter; it should not have happened, it’s deeply problematic,” the adviser said. “The public needs to have trust and confidence in the scientific advice, which the government claims it is relying on, and to see sections redacted in published documents diminishes trust and confidence.”

The committee’s consideration of the government proposals is understood to have occurred during the first week of the lockdown, which began on 23 March.

The behavioural scientists said in their four-page report that there was a consensus that the high-levels of adherence to government guidelines “are likely to be maintained in the short-to-medium term, for as long as it is evident that Covid-19 poses a serious risk that cannot be managed in any other way”.

However they were concerned that introducing more coercive measures, such as more draconian restrictions on movements, risked undermining the high levels of adherence, which they said was “likely based on a sense of community cooperation”.