Downing Street explored isolation plan for over 55s to avoid second lockdown

Boris Johnson was so keen to avoid a second Covid-19 lockdown in England last summer that senior officials were ordered to make plans for all over 55s to self-isolate.

The policy, which would have meant that much of the economy could have remained open, was officially known as “segmentation” and worked at the highest level. A proposal was presented to the prime minister as he tried to avoid locking down the country when infection rates began to rise, according to two people briefed on the internal talks.

The program, which at times reportedly resulted in families splitting up in homes where children lived with grandparents or older parents, was dismissed as unworkable by science advisers.

However, it gained ground in Downing Street last summer. “Boris had a great appetite for that [segmentation]Said a person familiar with the process. The person added that Simon Case, then Whitehall’s top official in charge of the Covid-19 response and now Secretary to the Cabinet, had worked on the plans.

Another senior government official said: “The idea of ​​keeping half the population at home was launched in Downing Street last summer. The Prime Minister was strongly opposed to another lockdown and there was desperation for other options.

The plan theoretically required a “splitting” of households, which could have required separate housing, distance schooling and childcare plans.

“As a responsible government, we have systematically considered all options, at every step, that could have helped protect the NHS and save lives,” a spokesperson said. They added that “this particular option was quickly ruled out. The government has never considered separating young people from their families. ”

The scale of the planning emerged as MPs prepared to interview Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser who acrimoniously resigned last November, about his role in tackling the Covid-pandemic. 19.

Cummings is expected to make explosive allegations against the Prime Minister on Wednesday, including allegations that Johnson delayed the return to lockdown for too long last year.

The “segmentation” plan was mentioned in the press last August, but they did not provide any details on the scope of the plans and what would happen to children in affected households. Downing Street at the time reports described as “speculative”.

In September, Johnson referred to the idea in a TV address to the nation, where he said the idea of ​​isolating only the elderly would not thwart the spread of Covid-19.

“Regarding the suggestion that we should just lock up the elderly and the vulnerable – with all the suffering that would entail – I have to tell you that is just not realistic, because if you let the virus tear apart the rest of the population, it would inevitably find its way to the elderly as well, and in many more numbers, ”he said.

However, the program, although privately dismissed as “ridiculous” by scientists and officials according to insiders, appears to have remained on the government’s agenda, and has been discussed by Sage, the government’s scientific council, in July and again on October 15.

A Sage member, who asked not to be named, said the policy was flawed and it was unclear why the committee was reviewing it. “We were told that someone is seriously considering the idea and that we have to take it seriously,” the person said. “But that didn’t really warrant a serious explanation [as to why it would not work]. “

In one policy statement in October rejecting the idea, Sage concluded that it would be “unsustainable” as it would require a large part of the population to withdraw from daily life and trigger an “uncontrolled epidemic” among young people with “consequences. disastrous ”for the NHS.

The theoretical goal, the committee added, was “to boost immunity in the younger age groups of the population without waiting for a vaccine or improved treatments.”

The committee noted that the policy would more severely affect “multigenerational” households, with only 8% of white households meeting this definition, compared to 67% of Bangladeshis, 60% of Pakistanis and 36% of black African households.


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