UK Covid strategy branded ‘immoral and dangerous’ by SAGE experts. Will NI Executive follow Boris when reviewing restrictions on August 12?

The science suggests that ending all lockdown restrictions while a significant proportion of the population have not been vaccinated will have disastrous consequences. JOANNE SAVAGE reports

By Joanne Savage
Friday, 30th July 2021, 8:00 am
Independent SAGE member Gabriel Scally has lambasted the UK's Covid policy under Boris Johnson
Independent SAGE member Gabriel Scally has lambasted the UK's Covid policy under Boris Johnson

As the percentage of adults who have been double jabbed reaches 70%, and those getting their first dose hits 88%, the Prime Minister has made much of such “stupendous” progress.

However statistics show that Covid is very much still with us - we are almost in a worse position than we were in January in terms of infection rates and fatalities, vaccinisation is not 100% effective in ensuring you do not catch Covid (in particular since the Delta strain became the most dominant) and in England what has been dubbed a ‘laissez faire’ approach to the removal of restrictions from July 19, where it is no longer even legally required that people wear a mask in public and the emphasis is on the exercise of individual exercise of caution and responsibility sounds worryingly as though the government has decided to adopt a potentially disastrous herd immunity approach that will almost invariably lead to an increase in the reproduction rate or ‘R’ number and the instantiation of a fourth wave of Covid infections.

What is shocking is the absence of any really pronounced criticism of government policy on the easing of restrictions in the media, despite numerous highly qualified scientists and medical experts from the Independent SAGE group and, indeed, the World Health Organisation, warning of a looming crisis occasioned by an ‘unethical, dangerous and immoral’ reopening of places like nightclubs in which infection is highly likely to spread and a too-rapid easing of restrictions is likely to lead to the development of ever more vaccine-resistant strains of the pernicious virus that has changed life so immeasurably.

Health minister Savid Javid told Parliament three weeks ago that the Government’s bonfire of restrictions was likely to result in 100,000 Covid cases per day or more: yet, where is the uproar at the prospect of such apocalyptic disaster?

More than 100 scientists set out why allowing mass infection this summer was a terrible idea in a letter to the Lancet over a fortnight ago. Dr Mike Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies programme, called such a strategy “moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity”.

The government’s logic appears to be that easing restrictions and letting infections peak during the summer months is more desirable than an inundated NHS in autumn and winter when seasonal flu adds additional strain to services already stretched by the significant demands of Covid.

But to obfuscate the fact that this strategy will lead to thousands of deaths and the near certainty of another lockdown, would be to deny the scientific facts of how Covid operates.

Professor Gabriel Scally, a Northern Irish public health physician and member of the Independent SAGE group, formed at the genesis of the pandemic, wrote in The New Statesman last week that he knew of “no episode in history where a government has willingly aided and abetted the spread of a dangerous infectious disease among its own population,” adding that given where we now find ourselves, “history is being made”.

He said: “The government of the United Kingdom seems to actually want people to catch Covid-19 in the summer, rather than in the autumn and winter. Ministers reason that the understaffed and underfunded NHS will be in major trouble over the winter. To “go now” with the removal of all legal restrictions, thus producing an even higher level of infections, appears to be regarded as the right thing to do as it will reduce the inevitable problems later this year.

“In the view of much of the rest of the world, and most of the medical organisations in the UK, there is no possibility that this extraordinary policy will be anything other than yet another failure that will cost lives and livelihoods.”

While Scally agrees the UK should be proud of its effective vaccine roll-out, which has dramatically reduced hospital admissions and deaths, both “are now rising again and rising fast” (each by 39.4% in the last seven days).

He points to an absurd reality: that before the full reopening in England on July 19, so-called ‘freedom day’ as it was heralded, Britain had one of the highest numbers of new daily cases of Covid in the world (48,161) and for weeks had more cases than the rest of Western Europe put together, yet social restrictions have been lifted, people are packing merrily into bars and restaurants and trains and tubes, and the legal requirement to wear masks in shops and on public transport is yet - astonishingly - no longer mandatory.

Damningly, Scally continues: ”The government is ignoring the absolute certainty that such high levels of new infections will produce another wave of “long Covid” cases and all the misery and suffering that results. This policy of standing back and letting the virus reproduce freely also risks the generation of new variants. Most worryingly, it gives a competitive advantage to those variants that can dodge the partial immunity created by the existing vaccines.”

Because of our extant knowledge of dealing with other infectious diseases, it is well established fact that vaccines are only really effective as part of an overall programme of public health intervention; although vaccination reduces the probability of hospitalisation or fatalities for individuals, less attention is paid to the reality that even the doubly vaccinated can become infected, infect others and suffer a debilitating illness, or worse.

Scally and others point to the importance of recognising that airborne transmission of the virus (more predominant than transmission through droplets or via surfaces) needs to be curbed through improved indoor ventilation, CO2 monitoring and upgrading ventilation systems to include virus filtration, as well as implementing relatively simple measures such as ensuring that windows and doors can open in communal office spaces, and stay open. Other countries have acted to improve indoor ventilation; the UK has not done so.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Professor Stephen Reicher, another member of Independent SAGE added: “The state no longer protects us and we are lulled into not protecting ourselves against Covid-19. All the changes currently being made amount to a massive disinformation campaign that undermines the conditions for informed decision-making.”

Fellow Independent SAGE member Kit Yates also writes in the BMJ: “Denying everyone in the country the best chance of being protected through vaccination and relying instead on “caution, vigilance, and personal responsibility” to tackle an airborne and highly contagious infectious disease is an abdication of responsibility, which will involve exposing millions to the acute and long-term impacts of mass infection.”

The Northern Ireland Executive has not yet gone as far as England in the removal of all restrictions and social distancing measures, but there is not a great deal of difference in how we have responded, with restrictions on gatherings of 15-30 people or more, but again, such restrictions could be dispensed with when the situation is reviewed by politicians on August 12.

Why, it must be asked, is government not being led by the SAGE group in its cultivation of policy, while at the same time making all the right noises about being ‘guided by the science’?

It seems that for Boris Johnson, the health of the economy is being set above that of the people, and if Northern Ireland follows England’s laissez faire approach to social distancing deregulation and dispensing with facemasks while packing people into pubs and restaurants, should we really be surprised if another wave of Covid and another unpopular lockdown is looming?