122 signatories to letter in the Lancet
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.”