In an open letter published on Sunday, and signed by the likes of Carl Heneghan, Sunetra Gupta and Karol Sikora, the professors pointed to the success of the UK’s vaccination programme and rising immunity levels. “Covid-19 no longer requires exceptional measures of control in everyday life,” the 22 signatories wrote.
They criticised the government for its “confused and contradictory” management of Britain’s epidemic, insisting it is “more than time for citizens to take back control of their own lives” while arguing that mandatory masks and social distancing should be dropped from 21 June.
But the letter has been condemned by other experts as reckless, dangerous and “political rather than scientific”.
One senior scientific adviser to the government told The Independent: “If it had been written by anybody without ‘professor’ as a title then it would just be ignored.”
Britain’s roadmap out of lockdown has been shaped by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which has warned that a rushed reopening will lead to a resurgence in cases and deaths, with unvaccinated pockets of the population set to be vulnerable to infection in the months to come.
Sir Mark Walport, a former government chief scientific adviser and Sage member, said that, at this stage, roughly 50 per cent of the population has yet to receive a vaccine and only 17 per cent of adults have been fully immunised.
“The UK is following a careful plan for gradual easing of the restrictions,” he said. “We should follow the data and not the polemic.”
Graham Medley, a Sage member and professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told The Independent: “The scientific consensus is that that rapid lifting of restrictions increases the risk that there is increased transmission.
“The evidence of how well the vaccines work and the severity of new variants is being assessed all the time.”
Modelling produced by Sage shows that it is “highly likely” there will be a rise in Covid infections after restrictions are fully lifted – though scientists remain unsure over the precise scale, shape and timing of this lockdown exit wave.
For now, the government has said it is a possibility that legal limits on social contact could be removed by 21 June.
Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of Sage’s subgroup advising on behavioural science, said the open letter was a “matter of deja vu”.
Prof Sikora, one of the letter’s most controversial authors, notably claimed last year that there would be no second wave, while Prof Heneghan said in September that there was no evidence to suggest that Britain was experiencing another surge.
“Just as they claimed it was all over last autumn and called for lifting of restrictions, so they are making the same claim now,” Prof Reicher told The Independent.
“Rather ironic in a week which has seen the highest ever numbers of global infections and India has over 300,000 daily new cases.”
Despite Britain’s recent progress in suppressing Covid-19 and controlling its epidemic, the pandemic is continuing to rage at an alarming rate across the globe.
Worldwide infections have been rising for nine consecutive weeks, fuelled in part by India’s fast-deteriorating situation, while governments and global health officials remain concerned by the threat posed by emerging coronavirus variants.
“Right now things are going in the right direction domestically,” said Prof Reicher. “But if we pretend the problem has gone away, if we drop our guard entirely, the lesson from around the world is that the pandemic can come roaring back very quickly.”
Sir Mark also warned that with so many younger people still yet to receive a vaccine, the risk of long Covid – which appears to be higher in working-age women than men – cannot be forgotten.
“Nor is Covid-19 infection completely benign in the young, with the latest ONS survey finding that about 18 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds with proven Covid infection still had symptoms more than three months after their infection,” he said.
The 22 signatories of the controversial letter also wrote that the UK’s immunity levels, acquired through infection and injection, mean the Covid-19 virus “has become demonstrably less fatal than seasonal influenza viruses”.
However, Professor Anthony Costello, a member of Independent Sage and former director at the World Health Organisation, has firmly disputed this.
“We don’t know how long immunity is going to last or if a new variant will arrive and surge again in the unvaccinated population, and that could potentially still overload the health service,” he told The Independent.
“They also put out this idea that Covid is less fatal than seasonal flu. If you look at the actual figures for flu, over the past eight-10 years, the total deaths in England and Wales has never been above 1600.
“This is a much more serious infection. And there’s the hundreds of thousands of people with long Covid too. This is a really nasty virus we have to try to suppress.
“To move without caution to a complete removal of all restrictions is in our view dangerous, particularly given what’s happened in other countries.”