Scientists round on UK over plan to end Covid-19 curbs

People by the river Thames in London on July 16, 2021.
People by the river Thames in London on July 16, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (AFP) - The British government's plan to scrap day-to-day pandemic restrictions in Britain next week is reckless and has no basis in science, international experts warned on Friday (July 16), with one arguing it amounts to premeditated murder.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week it was "highly probable" the worst of the coronavirus pandemic was over as he pressed ahead with Monday's reopening, despite the Delta variant spreading out of control.

He has said Britain can reopen because two-thirds of adults are now fully vaccinated, but the country's Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty warned that infection rates were on track to reach "quite scary" levels.

International scientists including advisers to other governments had brutal words for Mr Johnson.

"I've written that I believe that the strategy of herd immunity is actually murderous," United States scientist William Haseltine said after an emergency discussion among experts about the British plan.

Aiming for herd immunity would mean pursuing a policy in the knowledge that it would lead to many thousands of deaths, he said.

"It is a disaster as a policy," he added.

The British government denies it is pursuing a policy of "herd immunity" by letting the Delta variant rip, but concedes that daily infection rates could surge to 100,000 in the weeks ahead, which would put further pressure on hospitals.

"I don't think we should underestimate the fact that we could get into trouble again surprisingly fast," Mr Whitty said on Thursday, urging the public "to take things incredibly slowly" as restrictions ease.

From Monday - dubbed "Freedom Day" by some media - the government will lift most restrictions on public gatherings in Britain and allow businesses such as nightclubs to reopen.

Mandates covering face masks and work from home will be lifted as Mr Johnson promotes a new approach of personal responsibility, although he has also urged people not to "throw caution to the winds".

But that is just what Mr Johnson is doing with a policy of allowing the virus to spread, "infect people, make them ill, and have them die", according to Professor Gabriel Scally at the University of Bristol.

The government's stated approach of lifting controls now before any winter surge of respiratory disease is marked by "moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity", he said.

The devolved governments of Scotland and Wales set their own health policy and will keep in place a legal requirement to wear face coverings in enclosed spaces such as shops and on public transport. Northern Ireland looks set to follow suit.

The scientists attending Friday's online meeting warned that Britain was falling out of step not just with its neighbours in the United Kingdom but with the rest of the world.

The meeting was organised by the authors of a protest letter published by medical journal The Lancet last week that originally carried 122 signatures.

Another 1,400 scientists have since added their names.

"In New Zealand we've always looked to the UK for leadership," said University of Otago in Dunedin professor of public health Michael Baker.

"You have a remarkable depth of scientific knowledge. You've done remarkably well in vaccine development and roll-out. Remarkable clinical trials that we're drawing on," he said.

"And that's why it just seems so remarkable that you're not following even basic public health principles here."

Professor Shu-Ti Chiou, former head of Taiwan's Health Promotion Administration, said she was "very concerned" that younger age groups and clinically vulnerable people were left exposed by the British plan.

"In our culture there is a saying that it is unethical to take the umbrella away from people while it's still raining," Prof Chiou said.

"And it's actually raining very hard." The surge in infections sweeping Britain led to more than 530,000 people being instructed to self-isolate by a government-run app in the week to July 7, the highest total since January, according to latest data.

Some companies such as carmaker Nissan have been losing staff en masse after they were pinged by the app - in a brewing crisis described by British newspapers as a "pingdemic".

Butchers, another industry hit hard, have even warned of national meat shortages unless the app is made less sensitive.