Covid: Scientists accuse government of chasing ‘herd immunity by mass infection’

Scientists have accused the government of a “criminal” decision to embark on a mass infection strategy to Covid by lifting most remaining restrictions on 19 July.

The authors of a letter to The Lancet signed by more than 1,200 scientists and medics described the government’s strategy as “herd immunity by mass infection” and branded it ‘unscientific and unethical”. Lancet editor-in-chief Richard Horton said that chief medical officer Chris Whitty was “wilfully misrepresenting scientific opinion” with claims that there was widespread support for the prime minister’s approach.

And the National Voices coalition of almost 60 health and social care charities wrote to Boris Johnson urging him to reconsider, warning that the recovery of non-Covid healthcare will be undermined if thousands more people are allowed to become ill with coronavirus over the summer.

The chair of the British Medical Association, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, has warned that the “irresponsible” decision to press ahead with so-called Freedom Day – including the removal of legal requirements on face-masks and social distancing in England – could have “potentially devastating consequences” at a time when infections are running at over 36,000 a day.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that all of Scotland will move to the lowest level of coronavirus restrictions on 19 July, but said face masks will remain for “some time to come”, as lifting all restrictions immediately “would put all of us at greater risk”

Latest official figures recorded 50 deaths across the UK on Tuesday and 213 over the past seven days – 50 per cent up on the previous week.

Some 36,660 daily positive cases were reported, with the seven-day total up 27 per cent on the previous week, while hospitalisations in England rose to their highest level for four months at 502 on 11 July.

The warnings came as evidence emerged that Britons in their droves are turning off the smartphone app seen by the government as a key tool in the battle to rein in the surging Delta variant.

Almost one in five adults (19 per cent) who had downloaded the NHS app – and more than a third (34 per cent) of 18-34 year-olds – told pollsters Savanta ComRes they had deleted it from their phones. And 20 per cent – including 36 per cent of younger adults – said they plan to delete it when final restrictions are lifted on Monday.

The mass removal of the contact-tracing device came amid warnings of millions of people being forced into self-isolation this summer after being identified as potential contacts of Covid-19 patients.

With the government admitting that daily infections could soar to 100,000 a day following the removal of lockdown restrictions on 19 July, ministers have not denied forecasts of up to 3.5m people a week being “pinged” by the app and told to isolate for 10 days.

Just 42 per cent of those taking part in the survey said they are still using the app, compared to 32 per cent who never downloaded it and 19 per cent who have deleted it.

Savanta ComRes political research director Chris Hopkins said: “Testing, tracing and self-isolating are all major factors in the government’s plans to remove coronavirus restrictions, and therefore this survey showing that many – particularly those who have not been fully vaccinated – plan to delete the app or have already, shows that attempts to contain the virus without restrictions are likely to be very difficult.

“Of course, many have reasons for deleting the app, including fearing a lack of income if told to self-isolate. However, on this evidence, the government can continue to blame the public if – as some expect – cases, hospitalisations and deaths from coronavirus rise in the latter half of the summer.”

The authors of the Lancet letter said that the lifting of all restrictions amounted to a decision to allow mass infection in order to achieve herd immunity before the winter, when respiratory diseases are at their worst.

Dr Deepti Gurdasani of Queen Mary University London said: “I think people are nervous about using the term ‘herd immunity through infection’ because they feel unsure about the intentionality of the government, but if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it is a duck, and that they are going for herd immunity strategy is very clear from their modeling.

“I think we will look back and see this as perhaps the darkest day for UK science.”

Prof Christina Pagel of University College London and Independent Sage, said: “The government says it isn’t [following a herd immunity strategy], but at the same time they’ve said they’re willing to live with potentially a few more million infections just before autumn. I don’t know why people aren’t talking about it more but it’s pretty clear that’s what the decision is.”

And GP Helen Salisbury, a lecturer at Oxford University, said: “I cannot understand why the government would opt to do herd immunity viral infection when they could do herd immunity by vaccination. I think it’s criminal.”

The National Voices letter to Mr Johnson – signed by groups including Kidney Care UK, MS Society, Parkinson’s UK and Blood Cancer UK – warned that the continued prevalence of Covid is “holding back the recovery”.

“We can only crack on with the crucial recovery of non-Covid healthcare if we keep Covid infections and the ongoing need for Covid care low,” it warned.

“If we have thousands of people falling very ill again with Covid, it will damage the economy and the health system both in the short and long term more than the continued use of moderate Covid control measures.”

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