The UK government’s plan to scrap day-to-day pandemic restrictions in England next week is reckless and has no basis in science, international experts have warned, 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 the UK can reopen because two-thirds of adults are now fully vaccinated, but England’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 Johnson.
“I’ve written that I believe that the strategy of herd immunity is actually murderous,” US scientist William Haseltine said after an emergency discussion among experts about the UK 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 UK reported its highest number of new COVID cases in more than six months on Friday.
Government data showed there were 51,870 new cases of coronavirus, up from 48,553 on Thursday and the highest daily total since January 15.
The number of new deaths reported as having occurred within 28 days of a positive COVID test was 49, down from 63 on Thursday, taking the total on this measure to 128,642.
Data showed 67.5 percent of British adults had received two vaccine doses, while 87.6 percent had received at least one dose. Most of those who are unvaccinated are younger people who only gained access to vaccines recently.
The government says it is not 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,” 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 England and allow businesses such as nightclubs to reopen.
Mandates covering face masks and work from home will be lifted as Johnson promotes a new approach of personal responsibility, although he has also urged people not to “throw caution to the wind”.
But that is just what 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 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.