Not following the science: How No 10 parted company with Sage

“The base will not be sufficient.”

Ian Sample 

With owlish understatement, the chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, made clear that Boris Johnson’s three-tier local lockdowns, which the prime minister had just set out alongside him in Downing Street, would not curb the second wave of coronavirus crashing over England.

Just hours later, a startling late-night document dump from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) confirmed in stark terms that Johnson had parted ways with his scientific advisers.

With Sage’s call for action out in the open, it became clear that the national consensus in the fight against coronavirus, increasingly strained over the past six months, had ruptured. From Andy Burnham on the steps of Manchester city hall refusing to allow his city to become the “canary in the coalmine”, to furious Conservative MPs attacking the health secretary, to Keir Starmer calling for a “circuit breaker”, the prime minister was beset by critics on all sides.

And with winter approaching, there were growing concerns in government about the public’s willingness to comply with measures they could see being attacked from across the political spectrum.

The seeds of this week’s disarray were sown almost a month earlier. Whitty and the chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance – CMO and CSA as they are known in Whitehall – briefed Johnson on 16 September about what one person present called the “terrifying reality” of allowing the virus to go unchecked.

But eight months into the pandemic, Downing Street is unashamedly listening to other voices. “People will look at Sage papers and go, ‘Oh, they’re not following the science’, but Sage is only one part of the decision-making process, and always has been,” said a Downing Street aide.

Many key decisions are made by the Covid operations committee, which receives, as well as scientific papers, economic analysis, reports from the NHS and NHS Test and Trace, and gives updates on how other governments are managing the crisis.

“Fundamentally, this has always been the challenge the prime minister has,” the aide said. “Pretty much everyone else has a focused area. Understandably, because that’s their job – you have Alok [Sharma] looking at the impact on businesses, Rishi [Sunak] looking at the wider economy, Matt [Hancock] looking at health costs. The PM’s the one who has to tie all that together.”

Sunak allies say the chancellor is relentless in questioning the data and “pushy” where he feels ministers are parroting their department’s line without analysis to back it up. “There have been times when he’s been, like, ‘Sorry, what’s your basis for X?’, and it falls apart.”

Hancock was pressing for tough action to be taken urgently – but focused on the worst-affected areas.

By Monday 21 September, it was becoming increasingly clear inside government that Johnson had decided to try to walk a middle course, between the alarmed scientists and the lockdown sceptics in his party, including the chancellor.

“‘Circuit breaker’ felt a bit like a hammer to smash a walnut,” says a government source about the discussions that weekend, which went on late into Sunday night. “When you’re looking at cases in the south-west and south-east, to cripple those economies and totally ruin lives in a different way would feel a disproportionate response.”

While No 10 was quietly shifting towards a largely local approach, the experts on Sage were determined to send a strong message to Downing Street as they fired up Zoom for their 58th meeting on Monday 21 September.

Over the weekend, they had had time to read an eight-page paper summarising “the effectiveness and harms of different non-pharmaceutical interventions”. It was co-written by a number of Sage experts, with a cover note from Prof John Edmunds, dean of the faculty of epidemiology and population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

While most Sage papers are technical and dry, this one was different. The language was frank and bleak. It spoke of coronavirus cases rising around the country and intensive care beds filling up. A failure to act immediately, it warned, would unleash an epidemic with “catastrophic consequences”.

Most of those taking part in the meeting knew this all too well. From the opening moments, it became apparent that everyone felt the same: the situation demanded action, and fast.

They concluded that no single intervention would get on top of the outbreak. A second document, circulated before the session, gave the numbers: the impact different restrictions would have on R, which must be below 1 for the epidemic to shrink. At the time, Sage’s national estimate for R was 1.1 to 1.4. Close all bars, pubs, cafes and restaurants and R might fall by 0.2. Close the schools and it could fall by as much as 0.5.

 Boris Johnson delivers statement on new three-tier coronavirus restrictions for England – video

In the event, the experts proposed a package of interventions – “required urgently” – to push the rate of new infections down and prevent the epidemic spiralling out of control. On the shortlist were a circuit breaker, or two-week mini-lockdown; advice to work from home where people could; a ban on indoor mixing with other households; the closure of all bars, restaurants, cafes, indoor gyms and services such as hairdressers; and for all university and college teaching to be online unless absolutely essential.

They felt a two-week circuit breaker was particularly appealing. The mini-lockdown could replace two weeks of growth with two weeks of decline, pushing the epidemic back four weeks. England’s struggling test and trace system would likely catch more people. An inexorable rise might become a sequence of smaller, sawtooth peaks. All the measures had downsides, but doing nothing was worse. When the meeting wrapped up, the consensus was clear: England needed decisive action.

Yet the following day, when Johnson announced new restrictions, it became clear that Sage’s call to arms had gone unheeded. The centrepiece was a 10pm curfew on hospitality – and a reversal of Johnson’s message, a few weeks previously, to go back to the office.

Some Conservative MPs welcomed the prime minister’s willingness to deviate from the path set by the scientists. One former cabinet minister praised Johnson for his leadership. “Once you say publicly that you’re following the science, then you basically have to do everything that Chris Whitty says, and I think that’s very unhealthy, because that’s asking him to do something that he’s not actually qualified to do,” he said.

One Whitehall source remarked waspishly that if the government had followed Sage, “we would never have come out of lockdown”, adding, “They’ve always wanted to let nothing happen.”

Sceptics about the circuit-breaker plan argue that it merely buys time. “It doesn’t change the fundamental path of the virus. The argument that it changes the trajectory is scientifically wrong. Unless you’re expecting it to change behaviour, in which case it’s not a circuit breaker, it’s about frightening people, and there are better ways of doing that.”

But in the face of the government’s lack of action, Sage members turned to the media to hammer home their point. Edmunds and Graham Medley, a member of Sage and professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, went public with some of their concerns.

But inside government, negotiations were ongoing about the details of a three-tier local Covid alert system. Insiders said this was actually Hancock’s idea. “He’s pleased that approach has won out,” a source said, describing the policy as a result of the “healthy challenge” between those with different responsibilities.

Among the scientists, however, frustration was evolving into alarm and fear. At a subsequent Sage meeting, Whitty looked “quite murderous”, one researcher was told after the session.

It was his Sage co-chair, Vallance, who decided to publish the minutes of the committee’s fraught discussions of September. The timing was striking: it was the earliest moment Vallance could have made them public – and it dramatically reignited the public debate over a circuit-breaker lockdown.

The release of the papers had been signed off by the Cabinet Office. Downing Street hoped the more extreme options laid out would help reassure anti-lockdown renegades on the Tory benches that far from taking an extreme course, the prime minister was holding the line.

Instead, Steve Baker and his band of rebels underlined the prime minister’s fragile base by delivering a carefully calibrated symbolic rebellion, with 42 Conservative MPs voting against the government.

The sharp contrast between the scientists’ evident alarm and the government’s modest measures hadn’t gone unnoticed by Keir Starmer. “Constructive opposition requires a constructive government,” said one source close to the Labour leader. “There’s a frustration that every time we put a proposal, it’s dismissed, only to be adopted a couple of weeks later.”

Much of the decision-making about Labour’s handling of the pandemic takes place at Starmer’s Covid committee, an inner shadow cabinet. Meeting several mornings a week by Zoom, the group includes the shadow health, foreign and home secretaries, Starmer’s deputy, Angela Rayner, the shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, and Rachel Reeves, the opposite number to the powerful Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove.

Increasingly alarmed about the trajectory of the disease, they had been discussing the idea of a short-term circuit breaker since the idea emerged from leaked accounts of Sage meetings. By the time they met on Saturday 10 October, there was “pretty much a consensus” to back a short, sharp shutdown, but they decided to wait for the prime minister’s statement to parliament on Monday before taking a public stand.

The group met again on the Tuesday morning to make their final decision. It was signed off by the wider shadow cabinet at lunchtime, and Starmer’s team contacted Labour’s metro mayors to prepare the ground.

Later that day, Starmer gave his dramatic press conference at the Garden Museum just across the river from Westminster, endorsing a two- to three-week circuit breaker, albeit with schools kept open.

The prime minister’s allies insist that they are “really relaxed” about Starmer’s intervention. They believe when the hard winter has passed, Johnson will come into his own. “When we get to the spring, and we get over the hump of this, then it will all be about building confidence; and then it gets more like a campaign. That will be a very natural groove for him,” said one.

But the mood among scientists remains gloomy. Jeremy Farrar, a doctor on Sage and director of the Wellcome Trust, described the measures as “the worst of all worlds”. His comments reflect a pessimistic mood on Sage as Covid continues its relentless march.

On Friday, the Office for National Statistics estimated that 28,000 people had caught the virus each day between 2 and 8 October.

Stephen Reicher, a professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews and a member of the behavioural science subgroup of Sage, said: “For me, this was not just another decision. It seemed to portend something much larger in terms of the way the science is treated.” The measures, he said were a “middle-of-the-road fudge … This is like going to sea in half a boat”.

How Boris Johnson’s indecision over a second Covid-19 lockdown is splitting the Conservative Party

Is the Covid-19 pandemic the start of a new era, or merely a painful interruption of the old one? The Conservative Party is split in its answer, and its fractious tribes reach these two conclusions through a ­variety of different routes.

By Stephen Bush 

Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, has used his private meetings with Conservative MPs not to advance his credentials as a ­future party leader, but to deliver an altogether bleaker message: that the economic ­activity lost during this period will not ­return. The British economy will be ­suffering from its own form of “long Covid” for some time. The biggest headache, as far as Sunak is ­concerned, is that the government’s debt will be more than 100 per cent of GDP for the foreseeable future, but the complications extend much further.

The Sunak economic remedy involves an immediate reduction of financial support for businesses, no second lockdown and a tax-raising budget sooner rather than later. The coronavirus crisis has robbed Sunak of the opportunity to use his first budget to hike taxes long before a general election, as chancellors tend to do, and both he and Treasury officials are keen to catch up as soon as possible.

For other Conservatives, the ­problem with lockdowns is as much social as it is economic: they bridle against the infringement of ­liberty and extensive involvement of the state in people’s lives. “It’s not a question of whether we can afford it,” one ­backbencher told me, “it’s a question of whether a Conservative Party should be locking people in their homes and forcing businesses to shut.”

For a third group, the central challenge is that the crisis is without a clear end. They note that it took the best part of a decade for medical science to produce an Ebola vaccine, and that vaccines for HIV/Aids or Sars have yet to arise. Palliative treatments have hugely advanced the care of patients with HIV/Aids, but they were the work of decades, not years.

Is it fair, some Tory MPs wonder, to ask people to spend years socially distancing from one another when there is no ­guarantee of a medical breakthrough? “We have to talk about quality of life,” says one veteran ­Conservative. “Is it really in anyone’s ­interests for an 87-year-old to spend the last years of their life locked up, unable to visit their family or attend a wedding, without a clear end date?”

All three groups, whatever route they take, reach the same conclusion: that the country needs to live with the new disease, not hide from it. Only a loud minority believes that there should be no restrictions on anything – in Westminster they are more commonly found not in the House of Commons but in the House of Lords, where among Conservatives there is a sizeable group of what one peer ­derides as “flat-earthers”.

Most think that some form of restrictions are necessary and a greater level of surveillance is a sad necessity, but that lockdowns – and painful limitations on ceremonies, religious worship and students – need to be scrapped, and government policy should facilitate a greater level of freedom and normality within those constraints.

On the other side are those who think coronavirus is something to be endured and overcome, not adapted to. Similarly, several different lines of thought lead to the same conclusion. There are those like Michael Gove, who has told MPs that the biggest weapon that Nicola Sturgeon has is the perception that she is a safe pair of hands, while Westminster is playing fast and loose with public health. There are those like Matt Hancock, whose overwhelming priority is to avoid a second spike that is more lethal than the first. And there are others who believe that there can be no economic recovery while social distancing remains in place – and that the time for the British government to grapple with the extraordinary debts it has taken on will come before, not after, lockdown measures are brought to an end.

These factions all come down in favour of something resembling a second lockdown and a series of economic measures to keep the economy in cryogenic suspension ­until either palliative treatments or a vaccine ­allows them to make progress.

The problem is that Boris Johnson is a member of neither movement, though he flirts with both. He talks up the importance of new treatments, and has imposed fresh lockdowns on large swathes of England: on 12 October he announced a three-tier system of restrictions, placing Merseyside in the highest category. Yet he rejected ­recommendations by Sage – the ad hoc body of medical and scientific experts that ­advises the government – for a swift reduction in freedoms and a second ­nationwide lockdown.

Johnson’s defenders like to describe the Prime Minister as someone finding a middle or third way between extremes. The problem is that the third way doesn’t exist: you either support the economy during lockdown, or you don’t. You either remove the barriers to the country learning to live with coronavirus, or you don’t.

The Prime Minister’s present course is the worst of all worlds: a lockdown without sufficient economic support, and a regulatory environment that prevents businesses from adjusting to the new world. The mess is not surprising given Johnson’s trajectory. His political success has always been based on telling the country it can have it both ways: spending rises and tax cuts, a close relationship with the European Union and a reclamation of sovereignty. Now, events have forced him to pick one of two options, and his approach is to pretend there is a middle way. It hasn’t worked. The question is how much damage his indecision will do to the country’s economic and physical health before he realises as much.

Improving Broadband – National Audit Office (NAO) Report

“Government has set a very challenging timeline in promising nationwide connectivity by 2025 and the experience from the Superfast Programme, as well as our previous work on major programmes demonstrates the importance of setting and publishing a realistic timetable and continuing to test whether this is achievable.”

Owl can read between the lines- don’t hold your breath!

Background to report

In 2010, government announced its aim for the UK to have the best superfast broadband network in Europe. It established the Superfast Broadband Programme (the Superfast Programme) to support broadband roll-out to areas which were not commercially viable. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (the Department) allocated grant funding to local bodies (a local authority or group of local authorities, devolved governments or local economic partnerships). Local bodies would then provide additional funding and procure superfast broadband services for their areas. The Superfast Programme’s original target was for 90% of premises to have access to download speeds of at least 24 megabits per second by 2015. In June 2013, the Department revised its target to achieving 95% by 2017. These targets could only be met in conjunction with industry-funded roll-out.

Superfast broadband is fast enough for most household use today, but internet traffic is growing at around 40% each year driven largely by video streaming. In 2018, to meet future demands of consumers and businesses, government announced a new policy for the UK’s telecoms industry to provide gigabit-capable infrastructure to 50% of premises by 2025 and nationwide coverage by 2033. It has since committed to 2025 for nationwide coverage and has allocated £5 billion for its UK gigabit programme (the Future Programme), to subsidise roll-out to the most difficult to reach 20% of premises. The Department estimates that accelerating nationwide gigabit capability to 2025 will need government to subsidise roll-out of 20% of premises compared with only 10% for a 2033 timeline.

Scope of the report

This report considers what the Superfast Programme has delivered and how the UK’s broadband infrastructure has held up during the COVID-19 pandemic. We examine the lessons from the Superfast Programme and other comparative projects, and how the Department could apply these as it establishes its Future Programme.

The report focuses on the role of the Department and considers:

  • progress with superfast broadband (Part One);
  • managing current and future broadband provision (Part Two); and
  • learning lessons (Part Three).

The Department is still developing its plans for the Future Programme. It expects to let its first contracts in autumn 2021 and is currently awaiting approval of its outline business case. This report therefore does not examine the Department’s progress on the Future Programme in detail. Those that are digitally excluded out of choice or for financial or other reasons are also out of scope.

Report conclusions

The Superfast Programme has extended the nation’s broadband connectivity and has delivered benefits, which the Department expects will continue to increase with time. Better broadband has helped communities across the nation to work and study from home and stay connected during the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that would not have been possible five years ago. However, in managing the trade-off between coverage and speed, the UK has a broadband network that is not fully future-proof and, less than a decade after launching its Superfast Programme, government has identified the need to upgrade it again.

Government has set a very challenging timeline in promising nationwide connectivity by 2025 and the experience from the Superfast Programme, as well as our previous work on major programmes demonstrates the importance of setting and publishing a realistic timetable and continuing to test whether this is achievable. The Department is working towards finalising its plans for its Future Programme to support nationwide gigabit coverage. In doing so, it must manage the tension between meeting a timeline and serving those in greatest need. Failure to do so risks leaving those left behind by the Superfast Programme even further behind and widening the rural divide. The Department still has much to do to mobilise and deliver a substantial programme. It has applied some learning from the Superfast Programme but it has moved away from some of its more successful aspects in a bid to meet its challenging timeline. As the Department develops its approach for the Future Programme it will need to show that it has considered how best to mitigate any new risks arising.

Hotel industry reels as COVID three-tier system bites in Devon

“The value of the visitor economy to Devon is £2.5BN and people employed is 63,000 and the estimated loss of revenue due to the pandemic is £1.3BN. The visitor economy is vital to the region, and many businesses will not survive this next phase if further assistance is not forthcoming. “

Eye-watering numbers – Owl has always believed that our local economy is dangerously over-exposed to tourism. It is an economic sector which provides seasonal and low paid employment. Future recovery plans must look to diversification. Not an easy task when tourism is so entrenched.

Colleen Smith

The tourism and hospitality industry across Devon is reeling as the new three-tier COVID restrictions have started to hit hard with redundancies, closures and financial losses already amounting to hundreds of million pounds.

The largest hotel group in Devon, TLH Leisure Resort which employed 420 people in Torquay, has already made redundancies and has warned staff there will be more job losses to come.

Hotel and coach tour companies are reeling as the three-tier system of local lockdowns limits millions of people from travelling outside their local areas.

Sally Everton, Visit Devon’s tourism boss, said: “The repercussions this will have across the many tourism and hospitality businesses across the county is immense.

“With travel restrictions now in place for many people across the country, the adverse knock on effect into half term will be catastrophic for many. Cancellations had already started with the Rule of 6, which of course includes children, so many group and extended family group bookings had already gone affecting many self catered accommodation providers.

“I am now hearing of increasing cancellations across the county from all areas, which is a major concern. The lost revenue for October half term is estimated at over £287M which is hugely worrying for us.

“The value of the visitor economy to Devon is £2.5BN and people employed is 63,000 and the estimated loss of revenue due to the pandemic is £1.3BN. The visitor economy is vital to the region, and many businesses will not survive this next phase if further assistance is not forthcoming. “

Carolyn Custerson, Chief Executive Officer of the English Riviera BID Company Ltd, said that in Torbay alone the tourist industry has lost £138 million because of COVID: “All the new COVID restrictions are unfortunately going to have repercussions for our local Tourism and Hospitality businesses with a large part of our market now unable to travel on holiday.

“We have already seen notable Group Coach cancellations which is very worrying.

“We will continue to promote the English Riviera and Devon as a great year-round destination but have no choice but to focus our activity closer to home whilst these latest restrictions are in place.

“The English Riviera has lost £138 million so far from the impact of COVID.”

Torbay relies heavily on the tourist industry and many staff who were on furlough during the first lockdown will now be put on to the new and less generous Job Support Scheme (JSS) which will be introduced on November 1.

JSS will replace furlough from November 1 for six months. The Chancellor announced it will be targeted at businesses required to close entirely due to tighter local or national coronavirus restrictions.

Under these proposals, the government will pay two-thirds of wages for businesses forced to close in the coming months as it seeks to slow the rise in coronavirus cases.

Jason Garside the CEO of TLH Leisure Resort – a huge complex of linked hotels and leisure facilities covering 7.5 acres near the Riviera Conference Centre, said the business had gone from an annual turnover of £14m to a likely £8m this year – and that was boosted by the boom in August and September this year when guests flocked to the Bay.

He said: “We are currently dealing with the loss of all our Welsh business.”

Mr Garside said TLH was in a strong cash position before COVID and because of that the business will survive.

He said: “We will survive this and we want to retain our loyal dedicated workers – 70 of our staff have been with us for more than 10 years. It’s more costly to keep staff than it is to make them redundant.”

But he said that after making a strong start the Government was losing its way: “The new Job Support Scheme does not go far enough to support the hospitality business.

“It’s not going to mitigate fully against job losses. We will use it over the next six months and attempt to retain as much of our workforce as we can.

“Business levels are less than a third of historic levels for the next six months.

“We have already made some redundancies. We employ 420 people and initially we made around 32 full time equivalent posts redundant – less than 10 per cent. Now we are reviewing future redundancies.

“We are going to use JSS and we have informed our workforce that we will retain as many as we can.”

Mr Garside was part of a management buyout of the hotel group in 2018 along with fellow directors Iain Piercy and John Finnegan.

He said: “It’s frustrating that the government have not got to grips with track and trace and we are disappointed with how they are communicating through media announcements followed by late guidance.

“It’s further eroding confidence. We went to great lengths to ensure we were a COVID secure hospitality business.

“We experienced a boom in August and that was very positive for us. But then a week ago the Government announced tiering and further restrictions on parts of the country. “

Mark Wright, director of Majestic Tours and the Torquay Majestic Templestowe Hotel, said: “We have refunded in excess of £2million this year due to cancelled tours.

“It really is a scary time for everyone and it looks like a number of hotels along Belgrave Road have closed.”

Majestic Tours usually brings over 350 coaches of holidaymakers a year to Torquay.

“Hopefully, we will all be able to trade through the winter, all be it on reduced numbers of guests, able to keep all our staff employed – without the safety net of furlough.

“In relation to coaches from Wales, we haven’t had an arrival since South Wales went into lockdown.

“We cancelled all coaches departing from Wales from the 25th September immediately they had lockdown announced and refunded all clients.”

In the meantime the Templestowe is closed for a two week £100,000 refurbishment to the ballroom.

Cases rising steadily and rapidly in the North of England – Covid-19 symptom tracking app

16 October 2020. According to the data, Burnley and Manchester, the two regions already earmarked by the Government to be next to enter Tier 3, are top of the app’s Tier Prediction model. The next regions are; Newcastle upon Tyne, Nottingham, Bury, Hartlepool, Salford, Sheffield and Leeds.

According to the COVID Symptom Study UK Infection Survey figures, there are currently, 27,762 daily new symptomatic cases of COVID in the UK on average over the two weeks up to 11 October (excluding care homes) [*]. This compares to 21,903 daily new symptomatic cases a week ago. This figure is based on the number of newly symptomatic app users per day, and the proportion of these who give positive swab tests. The latest survey figures were based on the data from 13,361 recent swab tests done between 27 September to 11 October.

The app’s data continues to show a big disparity between the North and South of England. This week the North West (7,313 new cases per day) has overtaken the North East and Yorkshire (5,762). The South West (1,279) remains the lowest region, followed by East of England (1,356) and South East (1,417).

The COVID Symptom Study is now using its symptomatic COVID estimates to predict which regions in the UK could be next to be put under Tier 3 restrictions. Using predicted symptomatic cases means that predictions can be made up to ten days before confirmed tested cases are made public. The new Tier Prediction model takes the Tier 2 regions as defined by the Government (100,000 cases per million), uses the average estimated cases over the last seven days and ranks the regions in descending order. The area with the largest weekly average prevalence is ranked the highest. According to the data, Burnley and Manchester, the two regions already earmarked by the Government to be next to enter Tier 3, are top of the app’s Tier Prediction model. The next regions are; Newcastle upon Tyne, Nottingham, Bury, Hartlepool, Salford, Sheffield and Leeds.

The COVID Symptom Study UK Infection Survey has been running since early May when the COVID Symptom Study commenced the daily swab testing programme provided by the Test and Trace. The CSS has so far recorded over a million swab results from app users. The COVID Symptom Study UK Infection Survey estimates the number of current COVID-19 positive cases in the community based on the information logged by users in the app and the results from the swab testing programme. It identifies differences in numbers within the regions throughout the UK, and tracks the change in estimated cases over time. It is the largest survey of its kind in the UK.

The COVID Symptom Study app is a not-for-profit initiative that was launched at the end of March 2020 to support vital COVID-19 research. The app was launched by health science company ZOE with scientific analysis provided by King’s College London. With over 4 million contributors, the Study is the world’s largest ongoing Symptom study of COVID-19.

Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London, comments:

“The data is no longer showing the exponential increases that we were seeing a couple of weeks ago, but is clearly showing new cases continuing to rise. The North West still has the most cases and the fastest acceleration of cases with doubling times of around 10 days. Slowing this rapid rise is a priority. Scotland, Wales, London and the Midlands are slowly increasing with a doubling time of 14-28 days and the South and East of England remaining relatively flat with five-fold fewer cases than the worst hit regions. Our data is roughly 7-10 days ahead of other sources meaning that it acts like an early warning system, whilst we wait for the data from the confirmed cases.

Our new Tier Prediction model highlights that nine out of 10 are in the North of England, where most of the cases currently are concentrated, unlike the North which is accelerating, London has been showing a steady linear increase, doubling every 21 (range 14-28) days so it will be interesting to see how the new Tier 2 restrictions influence the rate of new cases in the next two weeks.”

COVID cases linked to Uni fall but indoor mixing ban extended

Dr Virginia Pearson, Director of Public Health for Devon has today welcomed the continued reduction in student cases in Exeter but had warned of the need for extra vigilance across the City and the rest of Devon as wider community cases rise.

Daniel Clark

University of Exeter students are being asked to not to mix households indoors for a further seven days in a bid to tackle the spread of coronavirus.

While cases linked and confirmed in students at the University of Exeter have been dropping in the last week – the Pennsylvania and University MSOA has fallen from a height of 307 down to 169 – the University has extended the indoor household mixing ban until October 26 in a bid to drive down the infections further.

It comes as Devon’s Director of Public Health has warned of the need for residents to be vigilant as coronavirus cases in the community continue to be identified.

While the rolling average of new cases in the county has been dropping in recent days, the drop is mainly related to the fall in cases being confirmed in students at the University of Exeter.

Exeter University Forum

Exeter University Forum (Image: Google)

Mike Shore-Nye, Registrar and Secretary, at the University of Exeter, said: “We know from our close working with Public Health England that the measures we have introduced and the fact that our colleagues and students have responded so well have been a major factor in our regions being placed in the ‘medium’ (lowest) rather than ‘high’ risk level with no further restrictions introduced at this time.

“We also know that this is a fragile position and that we must remain steadfast in our commitment to prevent the virus spreading. The latest Devon County Council COVID-19 dashboard, dated 14 October, shows that there were 262 positive cases in Exeter over the preceding 7 days, and PHE tell us that more than 70 per cent of these are linked to the University. We also know that in the 7 days up to 13 October there were fewer than five cases related to our Cornwall Campus. We have seen no increase in the small number of staff cases.

“The case numbers related to our campuses in Exeter have fallen over the past 7 days. We continue to discuss the data and the underlying picture with our PHE colleagues and we are hopeful that we now see signs that the numbers of cases are no longer rising. This is due to the efforts of all of you in adhering to the guidelines and in doing so showing respect and compassion for all members of our local communities.

“These are very early signs, and for this reason I am once again asking students based in Exeter to continue not to meet indoors with students who are not part of your household for a further 7 days, until October 26.

“If we can establish a clear trend in the reduction of cases associated with the University then we can hope to reduce these restrictions and increase the amount of teaching and activities we are able to deliver on campus. To achieve this we must all continue to follow the COVID-19 rules.”

He added that in recognition of the low number of cases attributed to the Cornwall Campus, the Students’ Union have been able to begin the phased reintroduction of COVID-safe, in-person student society events.

He added: “We are working with the Students’ Guild and Athletic Union to begin the reintroduction of COVID-safe indoor sports activities next week, if we see no evidence of an increase in positive cases. We are also asking students not to join sports teams based in the community at this time, to further reduce the risk of community transmission.”

Dr Virginia Pearson, Director of Public Health for Devon has today welcomed the continued reduction in student cases in Exeter but had warned of the need for extra vigilance across the City and the rest of Devon as wider community cases rise.

“The pattern in Exeter has shown a successful reduction in student cases with no sign of significant spread thanks to the swift actions of the University and other partners in working together to contain the situation. But we must not be complacent,” she said.

“We are now seeing more community cases in Exeter and across Devon, in line with the rise in the rest of the country, particularly in the working age population, and we expect cases to increase over the next few weeks.

“These cases cannot be linked to university students and the coronavirus appears to be passing between people outside of COVID-secure settings, which suggests that community spread is now occurring.

“Obviously, we want to limit the impact on people in older age groups and on to those who are particularly vulnerable so the time to act is now.

“Everyone – and particularly those people of working age – must be extra vigilant about maintaining social distancing, handwashing, wearing face coverings and avoiding social mixing if they can.”

Coronavirus cases in Devon as of Oct 15

Coronavirus cases in Devon as of Oct 15

Across Devon’s eight districts, cases in East Devon and Exeter are dropping by specimen date – although the latter is primarily due to the large drop in University cases – while Mid Devon and West Devon are seeing cases flatline.

Cases in North Devon, South Hams and Torridge – although the latter from a very low level – are rising, while Teignbridge has also seen a rise but that has now flattened off.