Scientists warn over relaxing UK lockdown too fast

Four members of the UK government’s scientific advisory group Sage have expressed concern over Boris Johnson’s move to further relax England’s lockdown from Monday, saying it may be premature and risks a resurgence of infections.

They spoke out as the government pressed ahead with relaxation of coronavirus lockdown measures despite its own advisers and independent scientists also warning that it was too soon to do so safely.

From Monday, schools will start to reopen and outdoor gatherings of up to six people will be allowed, provided that those from different households remain two metres apart.

The measures, announced by Boris Johnson on Thursday, will go ahead despite the coronavirus threat level remaining at four, the second highest.

The prime minister had said earlier in the week that he hoped the threat level would be reduced, but the independent body that monitors the risk said on Thursday it was not yet safe to reduce it a notch.

Level four signifies that the “epidemic is in general circulation; transmission is high or rising exponentially” and means “current social-distancing measures and restrictions” should remain in place.

John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a member of Sage, said the move to ease the lockdown in England came with the number of new infections — or incidence — running at about 8,000 per day, which was “still quite high”.

He said this measure had to be taken into consideration along with the R number, the much-quoted figure that shows how fast infections are increasing or decreasing.

Prof Edmunds also expressed concern that the track and trace system in England was not yet proven.

“Many of us would prefer to see incidence driven to lower levels before we relax the measures,” he said. “At the moment, with relatively high incidence and an untested track and trace system, we are taking some risk here.” 

Fellow Sage member Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust agreed with Prof Edmunds on Twitter.

“Covid-19 spreading too fast to lift lockdown in England. Agree with John & clear science advice. TTI has to be in place, fully working, capable dealing any surge immediately, locally responsive, rapid results & infection rates have to be lower. And trusted,” he said.

Oxford epidemiologist Peter Horby, chair of Sage’s virus subcommittee, echoed these views. “We’ve got very little headroom actually”, he said, since the R number is just below 1.

Calum Semple, another Sage member, and professor of child health and outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool, told BBC Radio 5 the lockdown was being lifted too soon.

“Essentially we’re lifting the lid on a boiling pan and it’s just going to bubble over,” he said. “We need to get it down to simmer before we take the lid off, and it’s too early.”

Sage estimates R at 0.7 to 0.9. But Prof Edmunds pointed out that if the relaxation of distancing measures raised R to 1 or higher, that would mean accepting 80 or more deaths a day from the disease, assuming Covid-19 has a fatality rate around 1 per cent.

Downing Street said the government had “at all times been informed by the data and evidence”. A spokesperson said: “This package of measures has been carefully designed so we can ease the burdens of lockdown while expecting to keep R below one.”

Rishi Sunak, chancellor, on Friday denied the lockdown was being eased in a “reckless or big bang way”, adding: “As the prime minister set out, it’s been done in quite a measured and phased way progressively to make sure that we can keep an eye on things and we’re not running before we should.”

People on Clapham Common in London earlier this week
People on Clapham Common in London earlier this week © Victoria Jones/PA

Mr Sunak said the five tests set out by the government for easing restrictions, which include ensuring the NHS can cope and achieving a sustained fall in the infection and daily death rates, were being met.

However other scientists also warned safety was at risk if lockdown rules were relaxed too soon.

Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said it was “a big risk and gamble to be easing measures so quickly when daily new cases are still so high” and that politics, not science, was driving the decision.

“The question of whether it is safe to open is clearly a political one and seems to be driven by economic and social imperatives rather than public health.”

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Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of the Independent Sage group, an alternative to the government’s official advisers, said the government was “clearly” easing restrictions too soon. He said he shared Prof Edmunds’ concerns about the track and trace system.

Although the number of people dying daily from the virus has come down sharply from its peak, there are still many more daily deaths occurring than when lockdown was imposed in late March, he said.

“Any decision to open up must be dependent on there being a rigorous process in place to identify outbreaks in place and act on them,” but the government’s track and trace system was “rushed out before it was ready”, he added.


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