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Boris Johnson was so keen to avoid a second Covid-19 lockdown in England last summer that senior officials were ordered to draw up plans for all over-55s to self-isolate.
The policy, which would have meant much of the economy could have stayed open, was formally known as “segmentation” and worked on at the highest level. A proposal was presented to the prime minister as he tried to avoid locking down the country when infection rates started to rise, according to two people briefed on internal discussions.
The scheme, which would in some cases have meant dividing families in homes where children were living with grandparents or older parents, was rejected as unworkable by scientific advisers.
However, it gained traction in Downing Street last summer. “Boris had a big appetite for it [segmentation],” said one person close to the process. The person added that Simon Case, then the most senior Whitehall official in charge of Covid-19 response and now Cabinet Secretary, worked on the plans.
Another senior government official said: “The idea of keeping half the population at home was kicking around Downing Street last summer. The prime minister was dead set against another lockdown and there was a desperation for other options.”
The plan theoretically required “splitting” households which could have necessitated separate accommodation, remote schooling and childcare plans.
“As a responsible government, we have consistently examined every option, at every stage that could have helped protect the NHS and save lives,” a spokesperson said. They added that “this particular option was ruled out quickly. The government never considered separating young people from their families.”
The extent of the planning emerged as MPs prepared to question Dominic Cummings, the former chief adviser to Johnson who acrimoniously quit last November, over his role battling the Covid-19 pandemic.
Cummings is expected to level explosive allegations against the prime minister on Wednesday, including claims that Johnson delayed returning to lockdown for too long last year.
The “segmentation” plan was mentioned in press reports last August but they provided no detail about the extent of the plans, and what would happen to children of affected households. Downing Street at the time described reports as “speculative”.
In September, Johnson referenced the idea in a televised address to the nation, where he said the idea of isolating only older people would not thwart the spread of Covid-19.
“As for the suggestion that we should simply lock up the elderly and the vulnerable — with all the suffering that would entail — I must tell you that this is just not realistic, because if you let the virus rip through the rest of the population it would inevitably find its way through to the elderly as well, and in much greater numbers,” he said.
However, the scheme, while privately dismissed as “ludicrous” by scientists and officials according to insiders, appeared to have remained on the government’s agenda, and was discussed by Sage, the government’s scientific adviser body, in July and again on October 15.
One member of Sage, who asked not to be named, said the policy was flawed and it was not clear why the committee was considering it. “We were told that somebody was thinking about the idea seriously and that we needed to take it seriously,” the person said. “But it didn’t really warrant serious explanation [as to why it would not work].”
In a policy statement in October rejecting the idea, Sage concluded that it would “not be viable” because it would require a large proportion of the population to withdraw from daily life and spark an “uncontrolled epidemic” in younger people with “dire consequences” for the NHS.
The theoretical aim, the committee added, was “to build up immunity in the younger age groups of the population without waiting for a vaccine or improved treatments”.
The committee noted that the policy would affect “multigenerational” homes more severely, with only 8 per cent of white households fitting that definition, compared to 67 per cent of Bangladeshi, 60 per cent of Pakistani and 36 per cent of Black African households.
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