Boris Johnson’s government has come under pressure to urgently reconsider its plan to end Covid restrictions in England on Monday, as international scientists warned that the move poses a “danger to the world”.
More than 1,200 scientists from around the globe have condemned the prime minister’s decision to forge ahead with so-called “freedom day” on 19 July, describing it as “unscientific and unethical”.
Some of the experts convened an emergency summit on Friday, warning that the UK government’s decision to lift its rules on social distancing and masks amounted to a “murderous” policy of “herd immunity by mass infection”.
The group of scientists – who all signed a recent letter to The Lancet warning against the plans – fear next week’s reopening in England will allow the Delta variant to spread rapidly around the world.
The warning comes as more than 50,000 cases were recorded on Friday, the highest figure since mid-January. A further 49 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were also reported – bringing the UK’s total death toll from the pandemic to 128,642.
The latest data from the Office for National Statistics suggests that 1 in 95 people in England had Covid last week, with 67.5 per cent of the adult population now fully vaccinated and 87.6 per cent having received their first jab.
Professor Michael Baker, a member of the New Zealand government’s Covid advisory group, said his colleagues were “amazed” and “astounded” that the UK had decided to lift curbs when transmission of the virus was rising so rapidly in the country.
Official advisers to the governments of New Zealand, Israel and Italy all expressed alarm at the UK government’s strategy.
Professor Baker claimed the UK had started the pandemic “with an approach of herd immunity ... rapidly identified as unacceptable”. He added: “It seems now, strangely, that the UK is going back to that approach.”
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Professor Stephen Duckett, Australia’s former health secretary, said the UK and other governments should make sure transmissions were under control and the population was protected through vaccination before lifting restrictions.
“If you open up when either one of those is not the case, you are doomed to an exponential rise in [Covid] cases,” Prof Duckett said, adding that it “defied logic” to open up when the virus was spreading rapidly.
Professor Jose M Martin-Moreno, from the University of Valencia in Spain, said: “UK policy affects not only UK citizens, it affects the world. We cannot understand why this [unlocking] is happening.”
The public-health professor claimed Spain had already made the mistake of allowing transmission to rise by ending compulsory face coverings. “Our prime minister in Spain decided to remove on 26 June the mandatory use of masks outdoors … It is an experiment in disaster to remove the tools to contain transmission.”
The international experts were joined by some of the scientists from the UK’s Independent Sage group, which has urged Downing Street to rethink the end of restrictions.
Professor Christina Pagel, a member of the group, said: “Because of our position as a global travel hub, any variant that becomes dominant in the UK will likely spread to the rest of the world.”
She added: “We saw it with the Alpha variant. I’m absolutely sure that we have contributed to the rise of the Delta variant in North America and Europe. UK [government] policy doesn’t just affect us – it affects everybody.”
Speaking at the online summit, she said: “What I’m most worried about is the potential for a new variant to emerge this summer. When you have incredibly high levels of Covid, which we have now in England – and it’s not going to go away any time soon – and a partially vaccinated population, any mutation that can infect vaccinated people better has a big selection advantage and can spread.”
William Haseltine, an eminent US scientist renowned for his work on HIV/Aids and cancer at Harvard University, said: “We have always looked to the UK for good, sensible policies. Unfortunately that has not been the case for the Covid pandemic.
“It is leading to disaster as we can see in the numbers. I follow the numbers daily in the UK and I am extremely dismayed to see the very rapid rate of increase in infections in a population which is vaccinated like we are.”
He added: “I believe that the strategy of herd immunity is actually murderous: I think that’s a word we should use, because that is what it is; it is knowledge that you are doing something that will result in thousands, and in some cases tens of thousands of people dying. It is a disastrous policy, it’s been clear that that’s been the case for some time, and to continue to espouse that policy is unconscionable.”
And Professor Walter Ricciardi, president of the World Federation of Public Health Associations, warned: “This is becoming international, because from England and the UK the virus is spreading all over the world: there are flights from London every day in Europe; we have already seen in the past that from the UK the virus spreads all over Europe.”
The warning comes as Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, conceded that the number of people in hospital with Covid in the UK is currently doubling about every three weeks and could reach “quite scary numbers” soon.
Speaking on Thursday evening, Prof Whitty said: “I don’t think we should underestimate the fact that we could get into trouble again surprisingly fast.”
Prof Whitty has said there is “no clear evidence” that delaying the next step of England’s road map out lockdown would make a difference in reducing the spread of Covid transmission.
But Lancet editor-in-chief Richard Horton said Prof Whitty was “wilfully misrepresenting scientific opinion” with claims that there was widespread support for the prime minister’s approach.