UK coronavirus: Whitty says aim of lockdown is to reduce R enough to move on after 2 December – as it happened

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  • November 3, 2020
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Early evening summary

  • Prof Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical adviser, has told MPs there is a “realistic possibility” that the lockdown for England can be eased after 2 December. Asked if the restrictions would definitely be lifted then, as planned by the government, Whitty said:

The decision as to whether to lift restrictions on December 2 is rightly a decision for ministers and parliament.

I think that the aim of this is to get the rates down far enough that it’s a realistic possibility to move into a different state of state of play at that point in time.

But he also said he did not expect England to return to the exact tiering system in place now. He said:

I think that the prime minister would probably want us to look at whether there should be variations on exactly the same tiering system as at the moment, rather than just assuming we would just revert to an absolutely identical one.

I think there’s a lot to learn. And in fact, the next two or three weeks we will start to see the effects of the tiering in an even more granular way than we’ve got to date and I think we should wait until we got that before we start to decide how best to use that in future.

  • Prof Tim Spector, who runs the Covid symptom study (CSS), has said his latest figures suggest coronavirus cases in England, Wales and Scotland are plateauing, with R, the reproduction number, now at about 1. The CSS monitors the spread of the virus through an app, with 4m downloads, which people use to report symptoms.

Tim Spector

More good news as the Zoe CSS app survey continues to show a plateauing and slight fall in new cases in England Wales and Scotland with an R of 1.0 – cases still increasing in the south from a lower base. Use the app to stay ahead !

November 3, 2020


A Foreign Office minister was accused of burying his head in the sand by claiming no connection existed between the £400m debt owed by the UK to Iranian, and the inability of the UK to secure the release of the British Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe.

The minister, James Cleverly, told MPs today the two issues were unrelated.

He also repeatedly refused to tell MPs anything about any private discussions between the UK government and the Iranians over the potential payment of the debt, saying simply he was unwilling to do so and it would not be appropriate to do so.

He also refused to answer MPs request to say whether the debt could be paid through a humanitarian payment. He did acknowledge that a debt was owed by the UK.

The Iranians were due to take the UK to the high court this week over the non-payment of the 40 year old debt this week, but the hearing was postponed last week for six months at the instigation of the Iranians, Cleverly said. At the same time as the postponement, the Iranians chose to bring Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe back to court in Tehran to face a new set of charges. Her hearing today was postponed after 45 minutes with little explanation, and she was allowed to return to her parent’s home in Tehran on a tag.

She has already served 4.5 years of a five year sentence after being arrested for spying in April 2016.

Despite Cleverly insisting there was no connection between the non payment of the debt and Zaghari Ratcliffe’ detention, Zaghari Ratcliffe’s MP Tulip Siddiq said the hearing in Tehran was not a coincidence, but a punishment. She accused the government of continuously refusing to acknowledge the link between Nazanin’s imprisonment and our failure as a country to pay the debt.

She said there was no point the government burying their head in the sand adding it was costing her constituent’s life.

Cleverly said:

We recognise the debt is due. We are working to resolve this.

This is a 40-year-old debt and we are exploring options to bring this to a conclusion. It is not possible for me to comment either further or in more detail on this.

Here is the 32-page statutory instrument (pdf) containing the regulations that will impose the lockdown for England. MPs will vote on them tomorrow.

My colleague Peter Walker has been reading them.

Peter Walker

In a minor bonus in the new lockdown regulations, you are allowed to order alcohol using orders submitted by post. Food as well. But it can’t arrive between 10pm and 5am.

November 3, 2020

Peter Walker

Another snippet from the regulations: “workplace canteens” must close unless there’s no practical alternative for getting food. As far as I know, the Commons canteens are staying open – I’ve asked the press office for confirmation.

November 3, 2020

Peter Walker

Some of the regulations about businesses which have to close are *very* specific.

November 3, 2020

Peter Walker

This is slightly curious, Earlier, No 10 said botanical gardens, eg Kew, did have to close. But the regulations seem to say this only applies to indoor parts of these.

November 3, 2020

Peter Walker

And, among businesses which can stay open:

November 3, 2020

Dido Harding speaks to CBI

Dido Harding, the head of the much-criticised NHS Test and Trace, is speaking to the CBI now.

She says her service has set itself demanding targets.

She says they only count an email as a successful contact if they get a reply. That is not how it works in Scotland, she says.

Asked about reports that people are not complying with instructions to self-isolate, she says the figures can be misleading. One person might say they did not comply because they took the dog for a walk at midnight. For someone else, not complying might mean going to a party she says.

Asked about claims that test and trace should be localised, she says some countries with localised test and trace have found their services overwhelmed. A mixed system works best, she claims.


Vallance backs up what Whitty said about the Great Barrington declaration. (See 4.54pm.)

He says Sage drafted a paper explaining why it was flawed recently.

It’s here (pdf).

He also says it is important to remember that in England there are many multi-generational households (implying you cannot shield the old from the young).

Whitty says, if there was no prospect of a vaccine, there might be some argument for this approch. But he says he is very confident the situation will improve next year. Repeating a line he used at the press conference on Saturday, he says they have “multiple shots at goal” through vaccines and better treatments.

The situation will get steadily better, he says.

Q: So you are predicting a difficult winter, but a bright spring?

“Brighter”, both Whitty and Vallance reply.

And that’s it. The hearing is over.

Whitty says Great Barrington anti-lockdown plan would be ‘ethically really difficult’

Greg Clark comes to his last question.

Q: The Great Barrington declaration proposes a different policy. Do you model approaches like that?

Whitty says he has no doubt that the scientists involved in the Great Barrington declaration are trying to be helpful.

But he says the plan is flawed, and impractical and “ethically a little difficult”.

The plan implies herd immunity will apply. But for most diseases herd immunity does not happen.

And if it were to work, you would have to have up to 70% of them population infected. We are a long way from that, he says.

Second, he says, the plan involves shielding the vulnerable. But that is impractical. You could not do it year after year, he says.

And, third, he says this plan assumes that very many people would die.

Other than that, it no doubt has merits.

To have this as an element of policy would be ethically really difficult.

Q: If we go back to the tier system in December, will R go back above 1?

Whitty says that will depend on what the situation is then, and what come next.

He says he assumes there will be modifcations to tiering.

In the next few weeks we should have better data about that, he says.

Q: Are you happy for Wales to lift its lockdown while England imposes its?

Whitty says:

I am very strongly of the view that what happens in Wales is for Wales.

He says it is important to respect the fact that the two systems are different.

Q: Have you given advice to parliament about how it operates in a Covid-secure way?

Whitty says he spoke to the Speaker and Lord Speaker about this early on. But mostly Public Health England has been giving advice, he says.


Q: If we had had six times as many intensive care beds, would our response have been less dramatic?

Vallance says there would have been more headroom. But, without a lockdown, there would still have been many more deaths. There would have been a question for society as to whether or not that was acceptable.

Whitty suggests he would like to see test and trace made more localised

Graham Stringer (Lab) goes next.

Q: Should test and trace have been more local?

Whitty says directors of public health have done an amazing job.

And with the need to set up a system from a standing start, he can see the case for a national system.

But, especially with the trace element, he says he agrees that where possible we should be using “local skills”.


Whitty says he thinks lockdown will bring R below 1

Greg Clark is asking the questions again.

Q: Can we come out of this if R is still above 1?

Whitty says the whole point is to get R below 1.

Q: What if it isn’t?

Whitty says his expectation is that these measures will bring R below 1. He says he has faith in the willingness of the public to comply.

If people adhere in the way that I expect they will, it’ll reduce R below 1, in my view, in the great majority or all of the country.

I wouldn’t want to imply that suddenly that means that Covid is over as a problem.

This is a long haul.

Q: What if it’s just above R?

Whitty says there are endless possibilities. He says it is best to wait and see what happens.

Clark says MPs may only want to vote for these measures if they are certain how they will be lifted.

Whitty says these are decisions for ministers.

He says you could have R just below 1 in one place, but with the NHS struggling; or you could have R just above 1, but with the NHS coping; there would be different responses in different circumstances.


In the committee Whitty says the scientists are looking at what advice they will be able to give people about Christmas.

But it will very much depend on what the epidemiological situation is at the end of the year, he says.


This is from the BBC’s Nick Robinson summarising the committee hearing.

Nick Robinson

Remember those bewildering graphs & charts? Now @CMO_England & @uksciencechief are telling a simpler story. The R number is above 1 everywhere so cases are doubling. @NHSEnglandLDN told them they would run out of beds quickly so govt couldn’t risk waiting to see if tiers worked

November 3, 2020

Greg Clark, the science committee chair, asks about the proposal to ban outdoors sports. He says the Sage assessment (pdf) says banning outdoor gatherings will only reduce R, the reproduction number, by 0.05.

Given the health benefits of sport, shouldn’t this be allowed?

Whitty says that that is a question for the politicians. He says it would not be wise to try to unpick a package that needs to be viewed as a whole.

If Patrick and I end up trying to unpick quite complicated packages that have been put together, that way disaster lies for everybody.


Vallance admits lockdown ‘blunt instrument’ when asked to justify ban on communal worship

Back in the committee, Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, is asked to say what the evidence is for a measure like closing places of worship.

Vallance says it is important to consider the lockdown measures as a package.

He says the evidence for the impact of each measure on R might be limited. He says:

We have not got good evidence on the exact value of each intervention on R.

He says Sage did publish a paper (pdf) looking at the impact of different interventions. But he says the evidence of not precise.

However, if you were to leave out measures just because the evidence was weak, the strength of the overall package would be lessened, he says.

Therefore I’m afraid it’s a rather blunt instrument.

Whitty says, even where churches follow social distancing guidelines strictly, there may be problems when people congregate outside afterwards.


The government has just published a series of data files supporting the projections it published on its slides at the press conference on Saturday. They are all here.

The MRC Biostatistics Unit at Cambridge University, which is one of the groups that produces Covid modelling considered by Sage, has today published its latest projections.

It says it thinks there are currently 77,600 new infections per day in England.

Deaths are likely to be between 380 and 710 on the 14 November, it says.

And it says “the number of infections is growing by 5% each day. This translates into a doubling in the number of new infections approximately every 15 days.”

MRC Biostatistics Unit

Today we have published new estimates of our real-time tracking of #COVID19. Read full report here: #Covid19UK #coronavirusuk #DailyCovidUpdate #RRate

November 3, 2020

Q: Why has Britain been worse affected than other countries?

Vallance says it is too early to say for sure.

But he says the UK was seeded with multiple infections. The epidemic was very widespread. In other countries it was more localised.

That is one factor, he says. But he says that at this stage you cannot say for certain.

He also said it is important, with epidemics like this, “to go quite early and go quite significant”.

But it is hard to make the case for early intervention when people have not seen how serious it is, he suggests.

Whitty says there is ‘realistic possibility’ of lockdown being eased after 2 December

Q: Do you expect to be able to lift the restrictions on 2 December?

Whitty says the prime minister has said that is what he expects to do.

Q: Does your modelling suggest it will be possible?

Whitty says this is a political decision for the government.

Q: But does your modelling suggest it will be possible?

Whitty said the aim of the lockdown is to ensure that there is a “realistic possibility” that after 2 December England will be able to move onto a “different state of play”.

Chris Whitty Photograph: Sky News