Scientists split over UK easing plans

The UK scientific community has responded to the announcement by Prime Minister Boris Johnson whose plans are still on track to withdraw almost all COVID restrictions in 13 days.

Yesterday’s announcement comes as the infection levels continue to rise with the announcement that the use of face masks will no longer be mandatory prompting mixed reactions from experts.

Prof Robert Dingwall, Professor of Sociology, Nottingham Trent University, said the use of face masks had always been a divisive issue.

“The benefits of masks have always been uncertain because the quality of the evidence in both directions is so weak,” he explained. “Any benefit has probably been quite small – or it would have been obvious even from weak studies – and needs to be offset by the psychological impact on population fear and anxiety, on children’s learning and interactions with adults, on people with communication issues, and on the substantial number of adults who cannot wear masks because of underlying health conditions or other disorders, including previous trauma from assaults or abuse.”

Dingwall added: “In my opinion it is a positive step to make mask wearing voluntary.  No government can know all the circumstances of individual immunity and context. It is much better to focus on advice, guidance and education so that people can adapt their behaviour to the actual risks that they are encountering rather than having a one-size-fits-all approach. However, it is important that the messages also give equal attention to those contexts that are essentially safe, like almost anywhere outdoors or well-ventilated indoor spaces like supermarkets. The government ‘s behavioural scientists must now work to defuse the fears they have amplified for the last 15 months.”

Prof Dominic Wilkinson, Professor of Medical Ethics, University of Oxford. UK Pandemic ethics accelerator said there was a fine line to be walked.

“Data suggest that the vaccination programme is reducing the death and hospitalization from COVID-19. This means that the benefit of continuing with public health restrictions aimed at reducing transmission (such as mask mandates or social distancing) is now far smaller than it was at the beginning of the pandemic,” he explained.  “The key issue is one of proportionality. Public health restrictions that reduce transmission have costs, and not just for freedom. The lockdowns have been effective, but they have also had huge impacts on healthcare, education, and the economy. Restrictions will only continue to be proportionate if their public health benefits are still sufficient to outweigh these costs.”

“Some have claimed that the government is not ‘following the science’ in planning to relax the rules. However, science cannot tell us when to unlock. That depends on what we choose to prioritise. Like all major policy decisions during this pandemic, decisions about relaxing restrictions are not purely scientific. These are ethical questions.”

However, Dr Laurence Aitchison, Lecturer in Machine Learning and Computational Neuroscience, Department of Computer Science, University of Bristol, warned the removal of masks is likely to see further infection spikes.

“Our research has shown mask-wearing reduces the spread of COVID-19 by around 25 per cent if everyone wears them,” he said. “At a time when mask-wearing is decreasing and mask mandates are being lifted, the findings confirm that masks do indeed have a strong impact on lowering transmission of the virus and remain an important measure in our response against it. As people are now used to wearing them, it’s a simple thing everyone can do to continue managing risk while also resuming normal activities.”

The Prime Minister’s announcement prompted a harsh warning from another leading scientist who branded the government as irresponsible given the current state of the virus not only in the UK but across the world.

Prof Richard Tedder, Senior Research Investigator in Medical Virology, Imperial College London, explained that vaccines are currently being used to prevent illness in people rather than the usual primary aims of a vaccine which is to prevent infection in the first place.

“Using these vaccines in the present way to ‘free up our behaviour’ comes with the very real risk of facilitating the escape of variants which will be even more resistant to vaccines and potentially more infectious,” he warned. “Failing to recognise this is playing with fire. The repeated mantra ‘look at the infection rate, and the low disease rate’ is truly dangerous.

“This coronavirus will exploit the current rates of infection in the face of partial immunity, by definition partial immunity is the continuing infections which occur in people following a full course of immunisation. As these infections occur and the virus replicates in somebody in spite of immunisation, natural evolution of the infecting virus will select for variants which both escape immune system and which are likely to be more easily transmitted.”

Dr Peter English, Retired Consultant in Communicable Disease Control, Former Editor of Vaccines in Practice, Immediate past Chair of the BMA Public Health Medicine Committee, said there were difficult choices to be made.

“On the one hand, we are now experiencing yet another wave of Covid-19 infection, despite manifold restrictions. Case numbers around the country are well above 100 new cases per day per 100,000 population UK summary currently shows the overall rate to be 214.4 per 100,000). Case numbers in children and young people have risen particularly dramatically,” he said.

“Yet, on the other hand, a large proportion of the people most at risk have already been vaccinated with at least one, if not two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine; and the available vaccines are all >90% effective at preventing disease severe enough to require hospital admission, so the rate of hospital admission and death has not increased in the way that it did in previous waves of infection.”

English added: “It is not a huge imposition to require mask-wearing in high-risk settings such as crowded, poorly ventilated public spaces such as public transport, and while case numbers remain high, this must continue. Anybody who refuses the minor imposition of wearing a mask in such places is placing vulnerable people at risk, effectively barring them from entering such spaces – and if you can’t travel on public transport, that is a massive imposition.

“Allowing people to make their own choices on this is, effectively, handing control of the safety of such spaces over to the least informed, least caring and indeed the most callous members of society. It remains entirely proportionate, while case numbers are above 10 per 100,000 population per day, to require – and rigorously enforce – mask wearing in such spaces.

“Government ministers who have declared that they will not show consideration to vulnerable people by wearing a mask – and thereby encouraged others in this approach – have been hugely irresponsible and shown a gross failure of leadership.”

The Prime Minister’s announcement prompted a harsh warning from another leading scientist who branded the government as irresponsible given the current state of the virus not only in the UK but across the world.

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