Boris Johnson urged to abandon ‘dangerous and unethical’ plan to lift Covid restrictions on 19 July

122 signatories to letter in the Lancet 

Boris Johnson is facing calls to abandon plans to remove almost all remaining Covid restrictions as a coalition of over 100 scientists and doctors warn it is a “dangerous and unethical experiment”.

After Sajid Javid, the health secretary, admitted daily cases could exceed 100,000 in the summer as measures are lifted on 19 July, the experts stressed there are “grave risks” involved in what they described as an “illogical” policy.

The letter – published today in the medical journal The Lancet – claims ministers’ strategy amid surging cases of the Delta variant “provides fertile ground for the emergence of vaccine-resistant” variants.

The 122 signatories also warn that unmitigated transmission will “disproportionately” affect children and young people who have not been offered a vaccine, with high circulation of the virus leading to “significant educational disruption” — despite the scrapping of school bubbles.

It follows the prime minister’s announcement at a No 10 press conference on Monday that all rules on social distancing, including the requirement to wear masks, will be lifted in just under a fortnight if the 19 July date is rubber-stamped next week.

According to the latest government statistics, the UK recorded 32,548 new infections of the virus on Wednesday — the highest daily figure since January as England endured a third lockdown. Of the adult population, over 86 per cent have now received a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine while over 64 per cent have had both jabs.

While the link between infection with Covid and death has been weakened, they letter adds, it has “not be broken, and infection can still cause substantial morbidity in both acute and long-term illnesses”.

The signatories include Sir David King, a former chief scientific adviser to government, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the chair of the British Medical Association (BMA), alongside international experts and members of the Independent Sage group set up to shadow the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.

“In light of these grave risks, and given that vaccination offers the prospect of quickly reaching the same goal of population immunity without incurring them, we consider any strategy that tolerates high level of infection to be both unethical and illogical,” the letter says.

“The UK government must reconsider its current strategy and take urgent steps to protect the public, including children. We believe the government is embarking on a dangerous and unethical experiment, and we call on it to pause plans to abandon mitigations on 19 July, 2021.”

It adds: “As the third wave of the pandemic takes hold across England, the UK government plans to further re-open the nation.

“Implicit in this decision is the acceptance that infections will surge, but that this does matter because ‘vaccines have broken the link between infections and mortality’. On July 19 2021 — branded Freedom Day — almost all restrictions are set to end. We believe this decision is dangerous and premature.”

Editor-in-chief of The Lancet, Dr Richard Horton, stressed there was “no scientific consensus” over the government’s plans to scrap legal Covid restrictions in just under a fortnight.

Instead, he said : “There is deep disagreement. Many scientists are sincerely concerned that with sub-optimal double-vaccination numbers and rapidly rising transmission rates, we are at a very dangerous moment in the pandemic.”

Dr Horton added: “Removing mandates on July 19 will not only accelerate virus transmission, with substantial increased levels of acute illness, hospitalisation, and long COVID, but also create the conditions for the emergence of new variants that could escape vaccine protection.

“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.”

Dr Nagpaul said that while the link between hospitalisations and deaths had weekend due to the rollout of the vaccination programme, “it has not been broken”.

“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,” he said.

“It is vital that we continue with these targeted measures to prevent the spread of this deadly virus until we have enough of the population fully vaccinated with both doses. ”

The warning of a “dangerous experiment” was also echoed by experts involved in the People’s Covid Inquiry, who suggested on Wednesday that the decision to lift remaining restrictions would affect communities across the country unequally, according to The Guardian.

“We’re further widening the health inequalities we’ve seen play out in the last year,” said Dr Tolullah Oni, an epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge.”

A Department of Health and 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.”

‘Living with the virus’ makes no sense. Only half of the UK is fully vaccinated

After receiving my second vaccination in April, I contracted Covid a week ago. I’m now “living with the virus”, a phrase emblematic of the failure of UK public health. Just look at the relative death rates in China (population 1.4 billion), Vietnam (100 million), the United States (340 million) and the UK (68 million). When plotted on the same graph, you cannot see the death curves for those two Asian states because they are so low.

Anthony Costello is professor of global health and sustainable development at University College London 

Britain’s leaders and their advisers told us last year that we could not suppress the virus. China and Vietnam did, within six weeks. They told us these countries would inevitably face a huge second wave. They haven’t; just smaller outbreaks, suppressed with good public health practice implemented by people on the ground.

As we know, exploding cases in March 2020 forced the UK into a 13-week full national lockdown, with huge damage to livelihoods, the economy and mental health. None of the east Asian states had national lockdowns, only local ones. In 2020, China’s GDP grew by 2% and Vietnam’s by 2.9%, according to the World Bank, compared with the UK’s 9.9% contraction.

Last summer the UK government set up a privatised, call centre-based test-and-trace system divorced from our underfunded local public health and primary care teams – quite unlike anything done in successful east Asian states. It couldn’t possibly work, and it didn’t. The Treasury refused to give any financial support to poorer people to isolate – in case, as the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, told a Commons select committee, they “gamed the system”. So poor families gamed the test-and-trace system instead, to keep working and feed their families. The virus simply spread, without public health control, and was only suppressed by two more prolonged national lockdowns.

The vaccines arrived with a huge wave of nationalistic fervour. We are world leaders, crowed the prime minister. The first to jab. Yes, our GP network stepped in magnificently to roll out the vaccines, but local authorities and public health remained deprived of any financial support. Meanwhile, test and trace staggered on, a fortune spent on private consultants, test companies and cronies. The £37bn spent was equivalent to a decade’s funding for the whole UK public health programme.

So the third lockdown now ends in a staggered and collapsing roadmap. In February the chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, was alone among advisers saying that find, test, trace and isolate was crucial when case rates fell to low levels. On 19 May, we saw only 1,517 cases a day. Yet no changes were made to our ineffective test-and-trace system – it remained outsourced, with the lowest rate of financial compensation for isolation in any OECD country. So another wave began.

On Monday the prime minister told us we would have 50,000 cases a day by his so-called “freedom day” on 19 July. A day later the health secretary, Sajid Javid, said we could hit 100,000 a day this summer. But it was OK, he told us. We can “live with the virus” because we are all vaccinated.

Well, all except children, and the poorest and most hesitant groups. Actually, only half Britain’s population (34 million) is fully protected with vaccines. Yes, admissions and deaths will go up, but the government can’t say by how much. The possibility of the virus becoming vaccine-resistant was not mentioned. Vaccine protection appears much less effective at stopping infection than it does at preventing serious illness or death. Talk of long Covid is seemingly taboo among ministers, even though the latest government figures show more than 2 million people have lived with symptoms for at least 12 weeks. A new study has found measurable thinning of the brain cortex areas covering taste and smell in these patients.

And the government seems to think it fine for 8.8 million children up to age 16 to become infected – even though the US, Europe and Israel have vaccinated more than 7 million children because the benefits clearly outweigh the risks. Our vaccine committee is still thinking about it. Meanwhile, even in English school classrooms, masks are no longer required.

And what of the global vaccine shortage? At last month’s G7 meeting in Cornwall, President Joe Biden urged fellow leaders to share the patent with all countries so they can manufacture the vaccine themselves. The UK, Germany and Canada said no. Although 95% of funds to develop vaccines came from the public purse, it appears that the shareholders of big pharma companies must be protected. So a million people must die every month to sustain free markets.

New variants will emerge, but those same multinationals can make new vaccines – no doubt with new patents. No new G7 money was committed to the Covax global distribution scheme. And with Indian supplies blocked, Nepal, Bangladesh and the whole of Africa have virtually no vaccines.

Under the new libertarian public health system, “living with the virus” means we must not compromise people’s freedom to do what they like. If you prefer to cough and sneeze in a crowded commuter train, so be it: there’ll be no legal restriction on that. If porters, nurses, doctors, care workers, bus drivers or factory workers become infected, and if some of them die, so be it.

Seemingly no one is accountable. Politicians say they follow the science. Advisers say ministers must make the decisions. An explosion of cases is imminent, the burden on the NHS could be severe, and the threat of new variants that can break through the present vaccine protection is real, as I know. Rather than a merry-go-round of birthday honours and George Crosses, we need a plan to deal with the rampant third wave – one that will keep us safe.

If not now, when? Here’s some alternatives

“We must be honest with ourselves that if we can’t reopen our society in the next few weeks, when we will be helped by the arrival of summer and by the school holidays, then we must ask ourselves: when will we be able to return to normal?” Boris Johnson.

Each week of delay until 23 August would reduce the peak of hospital admissions.

NHS in Devon warns it is under ‘severe pressure’

The NHS in Devon is warning Covid-19 admissions are adding to “severe pressure” on services.

Edward Oldfield

It says patients with the virus are one of a series of factors meaning all parts of the health system are “extremely busy”.

It is urging people to only go to their local emergency department in immediately life-threatening cases.

A statement said on Wednesday: “The NHS in Devon is under severe pressure at present due to several factors, meaning GP surgeries, hospitals, community health services, mental health services and social care are all extremely busy.

“High numbers of emergency attendances, combined with the need for some health and care staff, or their children, to self-isolate and the impact of Covid-19 admissions are affecting services.”

The warning comes after the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital revealed on Tuesday it had gone into OPEL 4 status – its highest alert level – due to high demand and staff shortages.

The NHS Foundation Trust said that it was experiencing severe pressure across a range of services and both its acute and community hospitals.

In Plymouth, chief nurse Lenny Byrne urged people to book a vaccination as cases rose and there was “small but slowly rising number” of patients with Covid in Derriford Hospital.

Cases have been rising across the country, with the latest figures for Plymouth on Wednesday showing the highest number since January in the previous week.

During the week June 26 to July 2, there were 454 new cases confirmed in Plymouth, an increase on the previous week total of 218.

That is a rate of 173.2 per 100,000 people, below the current rate for England of 249.6 per 100,000 people.

In Devon, the 1,091 new cases meant a rate of 136 per 100,000, and in Torbay there were 296 new cases with a rate of just over 217.

Although cases are rising, the Government says vaccination has broken the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths.

The latest figures for Covid-related deaths released on Tuesday showed none in Devon in the past three weeks. In the previous five weeks, there were only two Covid-related deaths in Devon and Cornwall.

Dr Shelagh McCormick of the NHS Devon Clinical Commissioning Group said: “The pandemic is not over yet and we need local people to choose the right service for their needs.

“Where it is not urgent, you can help NHS staff, who are under extreme pressure at the moment, by waiting for the right service.

“You can also continue to support the NHS by continuing to follow the Hands, Face, Space, Fresh Air advice.

“Maintaining high standards of hygiene and continuing with social distancing also helps combat the spread of other infectious illnesses like noroviruses which are circulating in the community.”

The statement said that although the number of people in hospital with Covid was relatively low, hospitals were extremely busy.

It said the reasons include:

  • many staff are having to isolate and not come into work;
  • some staff are having to stay at home to look after children who have been sent home to isolate;
  • as care homes are experiencing the same problems affecting their staff, it can make it harder for hospitals to discharge patients into nursing and care homes;
  • measures to keep people safe – infection prevention and control measures – mean we have reduced capacity in many areas. This means we can’t help as many people as we normally can so waits are longer and we can fit fewer people in our buildings;
  • sustained high numbers of emergency attendances – including record attendances and higher than average ambulance arrivals;
  • caring for Covid patients – although numbers are currently small, teams still have to manage with a reduced number of beds due to infection control measures;
  • Some people are coming to ED when they shouldn’t be – other services are available to help them.

NHS Devon issued the following advice to people seeking help

Here’s what you can do to help – choose the right service for your needs, and if it’s not urgent, please be patient and wait to be seen in the right place.

Before contacting your GP, you can look up your symptoms online using the NHS App, the NHS website or 111 online and there may be steps you can take to help yourself before needing to contact a healthcare professional. Parents can download the Handiapp for information on childhood illnesses

You can also continue to support the NHS by seeking help when you need it from the most appropriate service. There are a range of options to get help in addition to your GP surgery:

Pharmacy: As lockdown eases, don’t forget your local pharmacist can provide health advice and help with minor illnesses like colds, rashes, sunburn, hay fever and diarrhoea. You don’t need an appointment and they can even provide you with the right medicines at the same time.

Mental Health: If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental wellbeing, our 24/7 mental health lines are available:

Devon and Torbay – 0808 196 8708

Plymouth – 0800 923 9323

111 First: Our NHS 111 service is available 24/7 to provide advice, treatment and care. Just ring 111 or visit and the service will provide advice and refer you to another service if you need it. If you need to be seen in person, they can book you a time slot.

Minor injury units: Emergency Departments are for life-threatening emergencies. There is a network of minor injury units in Devon who can provide the treatment you need – often they’ll see you quicker, and closer to home.