Global experts urge Boris Johnson to delay ‘dangerous’ Covid reopening of UK

Warning strategy risks creating a generation left with chronic health problems

British prime minister Boris Johnson giving evidence to the Commons Liaison Committee. He said: “We have data about hospitalisations and deaths, we have had predictions about where they might go.” Photograph:   PA Wire

British prime minister Boris Johnson giving evidence to the Commons Liaison Committee. He said: “We have data about hospitalisations and deaths, we have had predictions about where they might go.” Photograph: PA Wire

 

More than 100 global experts have signed a letter accusing the UK government of conducting a “dangerous and unethical experiment” and urging it to reconsider its plans to abandon all coronavirus restrictions.

Any strategy that “tolerates high levels of infection is both unethical and illogical”, according to the 122 signatories who include Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser and chair of Independent Sage, and Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the Council for the British Medical Association.

The letter published in the Lancet comes after the British government announced that a range of coronavirus restrictions are due to be eased in England from July 19th.

They warned that an exponential growth of the virus “will likely continue until millions more are infected, leaving hundreds of thousands with long-term illness and disability”.

It continued: “This strategy risks creating a generation left with chronic health problems and disability, the personal and economic impacts of which might be felt for decades to come.”

They also stressed there was a risk of long Covid to the wider population, especially those who were vulnerable, younger people and children, as well as people who were unvaccinated.

Dr Nagpaul said the numbers of Covid-19 cases in the UK were soaring and while the link between hospitalisations and deaths had weakened, it had not been broken.

“The government has also airbrushed the impact of long Covid on one in 10 people getting infected and with two million having been unwell for more than three months. It would be irresponsible to inflict further suffering on millions more,” he said.

“We know that masks are effective in stopping the spread, so it is nonsensical and dangerous for the government to abandon compulsory mask-wearing in indoor public settings, such as public transport, on July 19th.”

Continuing targeted measures against the virus were “vital” to prevent its spread until enough of the population was fully vaccinated with both doses, he added.

Dr Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University who organised the letter, said: “The government has made a deliberate choice to expose children to mass infection, rather than protect them in schools or vaccinate them.

“This is unethical and unacceptable. Our young have already suffered so much in the past year, and are now being condemned to suffer the consequences of this dangerous experiment.”

Oxford University professor Trisha Greenhalgh described the letter as “a plea to our political leaders” to listen to scientists and claimed the world turned “its incredulous eyes on the UK government as it announced plans to abandon all mandated measures to try to control spread of the virus”.

The letter also suggested the lifting of restrictions could make the disruption of children’s education more not less likely.

It stated: “Allowing transmission to continue over the summer will create a reservoir of infection, which will probably accelerate spread when schools and universities reopen in autumn.”

The letter called on the government to reconsider “its current strategy and take urgent steps to protect the public, including children”.

It said: “We believe the government is embarking on a dangerous and unethical experiment, and we call on it to pause plans to abandon mitigations on July 19th, 2021.

“Instead, the government should delay complete reopening until everyone, including adolescents, have been offered vaccination and uptake is high, and until mitigation measures, especially adequate ventilation (through investment in carbon dioxide monitors and air filtration devices) and spacing (eg by reducing class sizes), are in place in schools.”

Dr Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet, said “there is no scientific consensus over the government’s current plans to remove protective mandates on July 19th” and the nation was “at a very dangerous moment in the pandemic”.

He added: “The government plan is not, as some have characterised it, a reasonable gamble – it is an entirely unnecessary and self-inflicted hazard that will cause real harm to health.”

A department of health & social care spokesperson said: “The success of the vaccine rollout is saving lives, having severely weakened the link between cases and hospitalisations.

“We have taken a cautious approach to proceeding with the roadmap, delaying Step 4 to allow for millions more vaccinations so every person most at risk is fully protected.

“Our approach after Step 4 balances the need to protect both lives and livelihoods and we will only proceed on 19 July with our four tests having been met.”

On Wednesday, the UK reported more than 30,000 new cases for the first time since January, and rises of more than 40 per cent in hospital admissions and deaths.

Whitehall sources have said further delay or U-turn is not on the cards, but expect to come under increasing pressure in the coming days to change course. “I think we’d only be looking at further delay if there was an emergence of a particularly nasty new variant,” one said. Another source said it was unlikely” that the plan could be knocked off course, whatever the numbers.

With the number of cases estimated to be doubling every nine days, infections are set to surpass the winter peak of 68,000 a day within a fortnight and may reach six figures before the end of the month.

The surge is forcing hospitals to again cancel operations, including cancer surgery, because they are treating growing numbers of patients with Covid and losing staff who are having to isolate.

Leeds teaching hospitals NHS trust has had to call off some planned non-urgent operations this week to help it cope with an influx of patients seriously ill with Covid.

Other hospitals and ambulance services are coming under serious pressure too in what NHS staff believe is an unfolding third wave of Covid, which they fear will only grow worse over the next few weeks.

Speaking to the liaison committee of senior MPs, British prime minister Boris Johnson said modelling from the government’s Spi-M-O advisory group suggested infections were not on course to exceed their predictions.

He said: “We have data about hospitalisations and deaths, we have had predictions about where they might go.

“At the moment we are tracking in about the middle of the projections that Spi-M made for the third wave if we went ahead with all the openings, we are in the middle to the low end of the projections they made, if you look at the graphs.”

According to the Lancet letter, the surge in infections will disrupt education, provide “fertile ground for the emergence of vaccine-resistant variants”, and have a significant impact on the health service and exhausted staff who have yet to recover from previous waves. – PA and Guardian