England lifting all COVID-19 restrictions labeled an “unethical experiment”
As England moves to remove virtually all pandemic-related protective measures experts are warning the decision is “a dangerous and unethical experiment” that could not only put the health of millions of unvaccinated citizens at risk, but provides fertile ground for the emergence of new SARS-CoV-2 variants.
As of Monday July 19 there are almost no legal restrictions on behavior in England. After months of lockdown and social contact limits, there are now no restrictions to businesses. Nightclubs, cinemas, and restaurants all return to full capacity; mask mandates have been removed; those working from home are able to gradually return to the office; and there are no social distancing limits.
"If we don't do it now we've got to ask ourselves, when will we ever do it?"prime minister Boris Johnson said in a video message posted to Twitter.
An open letter published early July in The Lancet expressed concerns the complete removal of pandemic restrictions are dangerous, premature, and will leave millions of unvaccinated individuals susceptible to death or long-term illness. The letter, co-signed by hundreds of scientists, lays out several primary problems with the move to lift all restrictions.
With little more than 50 percent of the UK population fully vaccinated, the letter points to the more than 17 million people still with no protection from COVID-19. As children in the country are still unvaccinated, and the data on long COVID still very much uncertain, it is argued that “this strategy risks creating a generation left with chronic health problems and disability, the personal and economic impacts of which might be felt for decades to come.”
The scientists also warn this broad lifting of restrictions “provides fertile ground for the emergence of vaccine-resistant variants.” They also note increased cases will inevitably put pressure on hospital systems, “at a time when millions of people are waiting for medical procedures and routine care.”
The UK is currently recording around 50,000 new COVID-19 cases per day. This is close to the caseload peak seen in early January as the region suffered through its devastating winter wave. Unlike that period, which led to over 1,000 deaths per day, the current level of population-wide vaccination is limiting mortality. However, hospitalizations are rising with rates increasing ten-fold over the past month.
Neil Ferguson, from the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), estimates the lifting of restrictions will lead to at least 100,000 new cases a day and 1,000 new hospital admissions a day. Ferguson, whose modeling was key to understanding the progression of SARS-CoV-2 in the early stages of 2020, says the big unknown is how high the caseload could rise over the coming weeks and months.
“And that’s where the crystal ball starts to fail,” Ferguson said recently. “I mean, we could get to 2,000 hospitalizations a day, 200,000 cases a day – but it’s much less certain.”
Mike Ryan, head of the World Health Organization’s emergency program, did not mince words when asked recently about the England's move to lift all restrictions. He said it was dangerous to assume current vaccination rates would prevent hospitalizations and death.
“The idea that everyone is protected and it’s ‘kum-ba-ya’ and it can go back to normal, is a very dangerous assumption,” said Ryan. “The logic of more people being infected is better, is, I think, logic that has proven it’s moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity previously.”
Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, was just as frank in his criticism of the dropping of UK COVID-19 restrictions. Horton says what is about to happen in England is not an experiment, because experiments are designed to test a hypothesis or make a discovery. In this instance, Horton says, it is clear what will happen if these restrictions are broadly removed.
“We know there will be an increase in infection. That’s not an experimental hypothesis to test. We know that hospitalizations are going up. We know that there will be an epidemic of long COVID. And we know that we’re creating risks for new variants,” says Horton.