Reimposing blanket lockdown measures to slow the spread of Covid-19 is “increasingly unfeasible” as the risk of death varies greatly depending on age and medical conditions, a group of leading scientists have warned Boris Johnson.
Urging the Prime Minister to “step back” and “fundamentally reconsider” the Government’s response to the pandemic, 32 scientists, medics and academics have signed a letter calling for more “targeted measures” to protect the “most vulnerable.”
Authored by Professor Sunetra Gupta and Professor Carl Heneghan of Oxford University, and Professor Karol Sikora of Buckingham University, it adds that attempting to suppress the virus until a vaccine is found is “leading to significant harm across all age groups.”
The scientists argue that the “mortality risk” of the disease is “highly age variant”, with 89 per cent of deaths occurring in the over 65 age group, and 95 per cent among those with pre-existing medical conditions.
“This large variation in risk by age and health status suggests that the harm caused by uniform policies (that apply to all persons) will outweigh the benefits,” they add.
Instead, they claim that the high proportion of deaths in care homes means they should be treated as a “priority” for intervention.
Pointing to Germany, the scientists say that its “effective reduction in deaths” is based on a strategy of “limiting infections in those older than 70.”
The signatories also claim that placing “all the weight” on reducing deaths fails to consider the “complex trade-offs” for wider healthcare, society and the economy.
Separately, Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the powerful 1922 Committee of Tory backbench MPs, warned that ministers could face a rebellion if they try to introduce new measures without proper Parliamentary scrutiny.
Accusing the Government of "ruling by decree", Sir Graham, who has tabled an amendment requiring ministers to put any new measures to a vote, argued that it was "entirely possible" to push through emergency laws quickly through Parliament in the normal way.
"The British people are not used to being treated like children," he added.
Their intervention comes as Mr Johnson is today expected to announce a series of fresh national restrictions, in a bid to slow the resurgence of the disease after a significant uptick in cases over the last fortnight.
In a televised address on Monday, Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said that the incoming second wave should be viewed as a “six month” problem that will need to be dealt with “collectively.”
Prof Whitty also confronted critics who have railed against more restrictions, warning that in a pandemic people who take on more “individual risk” end up increasing the “risk to everyone around them and then everyone who’s a contact of theirs.”
“Sooner or later, the chain will meet people who are vulnerable or elderly or have a long term problem from Covid,” he added.
“So you cannot, in an epidemic, just take your own risk. Unfortunately, you're taking a risk on behalf of everybody else.”
Asked about the split in scientific opinion, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “Throughout, both the Prime Minister, the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser have considered a wide range of scientific opinions.
“They are articulated at Sage (the scientific advisory group on emergencies) and elsewhere. All data and scientific opinion is considered before ultimately ministers have to make decisions.”
However, in their letter to Mr Johnson, the scientists argue that the “existing policy path is inconsistent with the known risk-profile of Covid-19 and should be reconsidered.”
“The unstated objective currently appears to be one of suppression of the virus, until such a time that a vaccine can be deployed. This objective is increasingly unfeasible...and is leading to significant harm across all age groups, which likely offsets any benefits,” they add.
“Instead, more targeted measures that protect the most vulnerable from Covid, whilst not adversely impacting those not at risk, are more supportable.
“Given the high proportion of Covid deaths in care homes, these should be a priority. Such targeted measures should be explored as a matter of urgency, as the logical cornerstone of our future strategy.”
They add that blanket restrictions would likely have “large costs” because the adverse effects will “impact the entire population”.
These include short and long-term physical and mental health impacts, while in healthcare, they point out that two-week cancer referrals decreased by 84 per cent during lockdown.
Citing research conducted by Cancer Research, which estimates that there were 2 million delayed or missed cancer screenings, tests or treatments as a result of the pandemic, they add: “The impact of this broader disruption is uncertain. However, estimates indicate it could be as high as 60,000 lives lost.”
With the OBR forecasting unemployment to hit 12 per cent by the end of the year and national debt hitting £2 trillion, the scientists claim that when “set against the high costs of these policies, their effectiveness in reducing covid deaths remains unclear.”
“Focusing on the UK, there is no readily observable pattern between the policy measures implemented to date and the profile of Covid deaths,” they write
“Caution should therefore be exercised in any presumption that such policy measures will successfully lower future Covid mortalities.”