Exclusive: Scrap social distancing in June to give people control of their lives, say scientists

·4-min read
Social distancing restrictions should no longer be part of the UK picture after June, the letter says - Matt Dunham/ AP
Social distancing restrictions should no longer be part of the UK picture after June, the letter says - Matt Dunham/ AP

Social distancing should be abolished in June to allow people "to take back control of their own lives", a letter signed by 22 leading scientists and academics says.

The open letter states that "a good society cannot be created by obsessive focus on a single cause of ill-health" and calls for all restrictions to be lifted on June 21 – the final date in Boris Johnson's roadmap out of lockdown.

Mass community testing is also unnecessary, say the signatories, who favour a more targeted approach along with encouraging hand-washing and surface cleaning.

They are also urging the Government to scrap vaccine passports as Covid "no longer requires exceptional measures of control in everyday life".

Ending social distancing restrictions would allow family members from different households to meet up inside and give many grandparents the opportunity to hug their grandchildren for the first time in months.

The scientists – from a broad range of specialities and all sides of the political spectrum – insist the "theoretical risk" of vaccine-immune strains or a new virus surge should not outweigh the harms caused by lockdown rules, including damage to children's education and the nation's mental health.

Their comments come as it was announced that more than half the UK population has now received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Real-world data from the UK has shown the extraordinary success of the jabs, which slash infection and are also likely to cut transmission of the virus.

A number of scientists who advise the Government have signed the letter including Robert Dingwall, professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University, who sits on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag).

Other signatories include Prof Carl Heneghan, the director of the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine at Oxford University, and Prof Anthony Brookes, geneticist and health data scientist at the University of Leicester.

The scientists say face masks should not be mandatory come June 21 and that the recommendation of face coverings for schoolchildren should never have been extended after Easter. Calling for masks to be ended in classrooms by May 17, they warn that the damage to society will be too great if the current Covid control measures continue into the autumn.

Experts have warned that repeated lockdowns and restrictions have led to a mental health crisis, especially among young people. Children's mental health referrals have hit a record high.

Their calls come after senior government scientists said masks may not be needed this summer thanks to the success of the vaccine and levels of herd immunity. The optimism comes despite suggestions from some public health figures that "lower-level restrictions", like masks, could last for years.

The open letter states: "We are being told simultaneously that we have successful vaccines and that major restrictions on everyday life must continue indefinitely. Both propositions cannot be true. We need to give more weight to the data on the actual success of the vaccines and less to theoretical risks of vaccine escape and/or surge in a largely vaccinated population."

Citing official data, the letter says the vaccine programme will almost totally eliminate deaths and hospitalisations from coronavirus and become "demonstrably less fatal than seasonal influenza viruses".

It adds: "We can be very confident that they [the vaccines] will reduce Covid deaths by around 98 per cent and serious illness by 80-85 per cent" once uptake of the vaccine among vulnerable groups is completed in the forthcoming weeks.

It says face coverings should no longer be worn by schoolchildren after May 17, and "all exceptional measures to control the virus should cease no later than June 21" because unproven benefits are outweighed by "damage to mental health, education of children and young people, to people with disabilities, new entrants to the workforce and to the spontaneous personal connections from which innovation and enterprise emerge".

It adds: "All consideration of immunity documentation should cease" before concluding: "It is time to recognise that, in our substantially vaccinated population, Covid-19 will take its place among the 30 or so respiratory viral diseases with which humans have historically co-existed.

"For most vaccinated and other low-risk people, Covid-19 is now a mild endemic infection, likely to recur in seasonal waves which renew immunity without significantly stressing the NHS. Having endured the ravages of 2020, things are very different as we enter the spring of 2021. It is more than time for citizens to take back control of their own lives."

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