Deep into Sunday night, a debate was playing out in the heart of Downing Street. The prime minister had gathered the UK’s most eminent scientists – and was learning that “follow the science” is not as simple as it sounds.
After more than a week of worrying news, with cases rising dramatically across the UK, some of the scientists at the late-night summit were in fierce disagreement over what to do.
Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, held a summit of scientists from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) to help thrash out how to proceed.
Among those also present were two Oxford University figures – Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology, and Prof Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-based Medicine.
Heneghan and Gupta have voiced caution over blanket, nationwide lockdown measures and are understood to feel strongly about the presentation of data on rising cases. They have argued for more targeted measures to protect the vulnerable, such as in care homes, so that new measures do not affect those younger people who are least at risk.
There was some controversy over data showing an exponential increase in cases, such as the one showing a jump from 6,000 a day now to 50,000 in mid-October, which could lead to 200 deaths a day by the following month.
Predictably, when it was presented at the media briefing by England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser – who stressed it was not a forecast – it was this slide that created the headlines.
A Downing Street source said the prime minister had wanted to hear “a wide range of views” from scientists and other experts.
Heneghen and Gupta have since written an open letter to the prime minister and to Whitty and Vallance to try to persuade them to change course – and to impose more targeted measures to contain the virus.
The measures expected to be announced on Tuesday – to close pubs and restaurants at 10pm and limit service to tables only – are softer than had previously been predicted or advised. Over the weekend, a source in one of the devolved administrations said there was also a concerted push from health officials to “move hard and fast: do it now and do it hard”.
That response led to some pushback from the Treasury, according to several sources, amid concern that businesses and industry had no buffer to absorb any further impact. “The economy is in a very different place to March,” one Whitehall source said. The source stressed that did not mean economic advisers had told No 10 not to act.
Leaked advice to the Scottish government laid out proposed plans for a so-called “circuit breaker” lockdown – two weeks of more severe measures – which for now appear to have been rejected by the prime minister.
Written by Scottish government officials last Saturday, based on advice given by Sage scientists who cover the whole UK, it also suggests a “rolling lockdown” for different parts of Scotland linked to October’s half-term holidays, including travel restrictions, closing play parks and shutting down hairdressers.
The measures were revealed in a leaked document marked “official sensitive”, which suggested a “general message” that people should again stay at home except for essential shopping and exercise and also avoid public transport.
At the weekend a flurry of telephone briefings took place to discuss the strategy, including a cabinet phone briefing with Whitty and Vallance on Saturday, as well as the chief economic adviser Claire Lombardelli.
The strategy was finally signed off at a Covid strategy committee meeting, involving Johnson, Sunak and Matt Hancock, the health secretary. The prime minister then briefed the heads of devolved administrations, who will join a Cobra meeting on Tuesday.
Labour officials had to scramble to respond. Keir Starmer’s keynote conference speech in Doncaster on Tuesday was hastily brought forward by two hours after the prime minister said he would make a statement to MPs in the House of Commons on Tuesday, so the Labour leader could be back in London in time to respond.