Doctors criticise UK government’s ‘reckless plans during raging pandemic’

Medics write opinion piece in British Medical Journal criticising strategy

The morning rush hour at Waterloo train station in London this week. AP
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Doctors have launched an attack on the UK government’s latest plans for dealing with the pandemic.

In an opinion piece published in the British Medical Journal, they criticised British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s strategy, saying it “recklessly exposes millions to the effects of mass infection”.

They said putting infection before vaccination was “unethical and unscientific”.

The UK is easing its Covid-19 restrictions, with social distancing and a return to workplaces on the cards and the legal requirement to wear masks in shops and public transport dropped from Monday.

But there has been a backlash. Many stores and transport networks are still encouraging customers to cover their faces.

The move has been widely criticised by trade unions and employers, with ministers accused of sending out “mixed messages” while giving businesses little time to prepare.

Daily cases have been rising in Britain for more than a month, but one of the world's fastest vaccination programmes appears to have weakened the link between infections and deaths, with daily fatalities remaining low.

The latest figures showed 48,553 more cases, the highest since January 15, while the 63 deaths were the biggest daily reported increase since March 26.

The government has been following "hybrid immunity", reaching the highest number of people possible with antibodies, either through infection or by being vaccinated.

England’s Chief Medical Officer, Prof Chris Whitty, has warned of a difficult winter, especially if flu season combines with high numbers of Covid-19 cases.

He has also warned of an "exit wave", with cases bound to rise when restrictions ease.

In their BMJ letter, Dr Deepti Gurdasani and colleagues say a strategy that chooses mass infection in the young over vaccination to achieve greater population immunity to protect the vulnerable in winter is “unethical and unscientific”.

Instead of allowing infections to rise, they urge the government to take urgent action to inform and protect the public and prepare for autumn.

These include outlining a long-term strategy for pandemic control, and keeping basic measures such as masks and physical distancing until cases return to low levels.

They also called for investments in workplaces, schools and public transport to make them safer, and providing extensive testing and support for people to be isolated.

Mr Johnson's claims that it is better to accept mass infection now than to postpone until winter, when “the virus has an advantage”, is deeply flawed and misleading, they wrote.

They say this strategy will put at unacceptable risk about 48 per cent of the population who are not yet fully vaccinated, including children, the clinically vulnerable and those with compromised immune systems.

This approach is already putting intense pressure on struggling healthcare services and will lead to many avoidable deaths and long-term illness, they say.

It also provides a fertile environment for variants that could have huge consequences for the UK and countries globally.

They say more than 1,000 scientists have already signed a letter to the Lancet setting out why allowing mass infection this summer is a "dangerous and unethical experiment".

The British Medical Association, Directors of Public Health, Sage, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the Royal College of Nursing and NHS leaders have all highlighted the dangers of allowing mass infection.

More than a third of young adults in England have not had a first dose of Covid-19 vaccine, new figures suggest.

About 64 per cent of people aged 18 to 29 had received a first dose as of July 11, according to estimates from NHS England.

A breakdown of this age group by gender shows vaccine take-up continues to be lower among males than females.

All adults in England have been able to book a first dose since June 17 – about three and a half weeks before the latest snapshot of vaccinations by age.

The slow acceptance of vaccines among young adults is also having an effect on the overall rate of vaccinations in England.

As of July 14, nearly 38.7 million first doses had been delivered in England, which is the equivalent of 87.4 per cent of the adult population.

Mr Johnson claimed on Thursday that it was “highly probable” the worst of the pandemic is over.

He urged people not to “throw caution to the winds” as England’s restrictions ease on Monday and acknowledged there would be more hospital admissions and deaths from Covid-19 to come in “difficult days and weeks ahead”.

Mr Johnson has already acknowledged daily cases could hit 50,000 by “freedom day” on Monday and Health Secretary Sajid Javid said they could top 100,000 over summer.

But the prime minister said the success of the vaccination programme meant the government could go ahead with the final reopening of the economy.

“If we are careful and if we continue to respect this disease and its continuing menace, then it is highly probable – almost all the scientists are agreed on this – the worst of the pandemic is behind us,” Mr Johnson said.

Updated: July 16, 2021, 10:29 AM