Scientists recommended face coverings weeks before Government advice

Scientists advising on the Government’s coronavirus response concluded there was enough evidence to recommend the use of face coverings weeks before ministers issued the advice.

Minutes of 34 meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) released on Friday showed the thinking of the top experts on the lockdown, social contact and masks.

They concluded that the public should be advised to wear coverings when social distancing is not possible, on April 21, but ministers in England did not issue the advice until May 11.

Other disclosures in the tranche of documents released included scientists’ concerns that only half the public was obeying the seven-day self-isolation rule if they exhibit symptoms.

The evidence of low compliance was unearthed as people begin being told to isolate for 14-days, even if they do not have symptoms, under the test and trace programme.

The panel of experts, including chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty, discussed masks on April 21.

Coronavirus – Tues Apr 7, 2020
Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance are visible members of Sage (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

“Sage advises that, on balance, there is enough evidence to support recommendation of community use of cloth face masks, for short periods in enclosed spaces, where social distancing is not possible,” they concluded.

Despite Scotland and Northern Ireland issuing the advice to wear coverings, ministers in England did not give the guidance until publishing the “plan to rebuild” nearly three weeks later.

“As more people return to work, there will be more movement outside people’s immediate household,” they said.

“This increased mobility means the Government is now advising that people should aim to wear a face-covering in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible, and they come into contact with others that they do not normally meet, for example on public transport or in some shops.”

Elsewhere, the minutes showed the scientists’ hesitancy at advising a lockdown, which was finally imposed on March 23.

Ten days earlier they wrote: “Sage was unanimous that measures seeking to completely suppress spread of Covid-19 will cause a second peak.

“Sage advises that it is a near certainty that countries such as China, where heavy suppression is under way, will experience a second peak once measures are relaxed.”

And on March 5 they said: “Preventing all social interaction in public spaces, including restaurants and bars, would have an effect, but would be very difficult to implement.”

In a separate research paper, behavioural scientists advising Sage warned of the low compliance with the self-isolation rules, as seen in a Department of Health and Social Care tracker.

“We strongly recommend monitoring and rapid research into adherence rates to all key behaviours and how to improve them, noting that based on DHSC tracker only around 50% of people are currently reporting self-isolating for at least seven days when symptomatic with cough or fever,” they said.

Under the NHS test and trace programme launched on Thursday, people in England will be told to quarantine themselves for two weeks if they come into contact with someone who has tested positive.

Sage warned that there is a risk individuals become “less willing to comply” if they are repeatedly asked to isolate and “are impacted financially”, heaping pressure on ministers to ensure there is sufficient support.

And they said that 80% of an individual’s contact would need to be traced for the programme to be effective.

On May 5, Sage stressed that alterations to retail, leisure and schools not pushing the transmission rate “R” above the crucial number of one are dependent on “an effective test and trace programme” being in place.

As he launched the programme this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted test and trace would not reach the “world-beating” standard he had promised until “the next days as we go through June”.

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