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Experts criticise ‘unethical' plan to lift Covid rules in England at 'most dangerous period of the pandemic'

A range of coronavirus restrictions are due to be eased in England, possibly as soon as 19 July.

Image: Tim Goode via PA Images

Updated Jul 8th 2021, 2:10 PM

MORE THAN 100 scientists and doctors 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 later this month.

It comes as a representative of the World Health Organization said that people should still only travel for essential reasons, and that good public health measures will be needed until enough people across the world are vaccinated, due to the threat of variants.

The WHO’s Special Envoy on Covid-19 Dr David Nabarro told RTÉ Radio’s Claire Byrne:

“It’s as though somebody has blown a whistle and we can all just stop all the things we have done, and we can just go back and socialise like normal I just wonder who it is who decided that it’s all ok. Nobody in public health is saying it’s all ok.”

He said that the next couple of months would be “really challenging”, and asked world leaders to work together to limit an increase in cases and the spread of Covid-19, saying that “no country is an island”.

“This virus is not going away, we’re in possibly the most dangerous period in this pandemic with variants, with huge death rates in the poorer world right now. I don’t see any reason to say to people ‘Back to normal, don’t worry, can just do what you like’.

“So the answer is essential travel only, please.”

He said that the EU is right to try to devise a system to regulate pandemic travel, but there was plenty of reason to be cautious about travel.

When asked whether the more transmissible Delta variant would result in similar numbers of cases as was in December-January within the next few weeks, Dr Nabarro said that it is possible.

We don’t know whether we will, and that is the life, the world we’re living at the moment. It is incredibly uncertain.

“We don’t know if there will be a variant that can beat the vaccines, we suspect that it will probably happen. So that’s why we’re saying it ain’t gone away, because new variants are coming all around.”

‘High levels of infection both unethical and illogical’

In an open letter, any strategy that “tolerates high levels of infection is both unethical and illogical”, according to the 122 signatories who include 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 UK Government announced that a range of coronavirus restrictions are due to be eased in England from 19 July.

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 19 July.”

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 19 July 2021.

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“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 19” 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: A DHSC 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.”

With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha.

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