Nicola Sturgeon yesterday announced a further step towards another total Scottish lockdown. And I fear that Boris Johnson, still relying on his tight cadre of scientific advisers, will move in the same direction.
But nine months into a pandemic that has become a nightmare of our own making, one thing is becoming clear: Such restrictions are not working.
Lockdown was worth a try to buy a few weeks respite for the NHS and its dangerously under pressure intensive care wards, but the Government seems to be arguing that if a lockdown proves ineffective, it is because it is insufficiently draconian.
In fact, it is now becoming clear it is simply the wrong policy. Those who dissented from the Government’s Covid-19 strategy have been dismissed as mavericks on the fringes of the scientific establishment. However, this is no longer the case. I am afraid that the broadcast media has been particularly slow to reflect a shift in outlook among international scientists.
For children, Covid is less dangerous than flu. This means we must practise a policy of ‘focused protection’ under which the elderly and vulnerable are shielded from the risk of being infected by younger generations
As general immunity to a virus builds, so the risk of infection to all – including the vulnerable – declines.
We know that all populations eventually reach herd immunity, which is the point at which the rate of new infections is stable.
This process can be assisted by, but – crucially – is not dependent on, a vaccine. The problem with Mr Johnson’s strategy is that he is seeking artificially to suppress infection among the healthy – who suffer mild or no symptoms – while betting the bank on a vaccine which may not work.
That is why I felt I had to join scientific colleagues around the world and co-sign the Great Barrington Declaration – which is named after the American town where it was drafted. Since then we have been joined by more than 3,000 public health scientists and 4,500 medical practitioners.
Drawing on the declaration, here is my personal manifesto for handling our response to the pandemic.
1 The Government needs to reverse its attempts to convince healthy people they are at grave risk of dying. Sadly, Covid is a virus that discriminates in its effects, particularly when it comes to the old and those with underlying health conditions.
2 Boris Johnson needs to clearly state that the old and infirm are a thousand times more likely to die of coronavirus than the young. For children, Covid is less dangerous than flu. This means we must practise a policy of ‘focused protection’ under which the elderly and vulnerable are shielded from the risk of being infected by younger generations.
Restaurants and pubs should be open as usual, and the 10pm curfew in pubs and restaurants lifted immediately
3 Those who are at minimal risk of death should lead their lives normally. This means children and university students should return fully to their studies, with face-to-face teaching.
4 Schools should not speculate on next summer’s exams being cancelled as this discourages pupils from their studies.
5 School sports and after-hours activities and clubs should resume.
6 The Government must actively encourage healthy young adults to return to their places of work. They should not be cowering at home. Local and central government civil servants should return to their offices.
7 At every public event, ministers should be reminding the public to get tested for any symptoms that might indicate cancer, stroke or cardiac problems.
8 Restaurants and pubs should be open as usual, and the 10pm curfew in pubs and restaurants lifted immediately. The requirement that restaurants close at 10pm is particularly absurd and unjustified on any scientific basis.
9 Normal cultural life – theatre, music, sport – should be resumed with appropriate deep cleaning and other sensible basic precautions.
10 Funding should be provided for short-term solutions to the problems created by multigenerational households with the elderly, or conceivably the young, temporarily relocated.
Those who are at minimal risk of death should lead their lives normally. This means children and university students should return fully to their studies, with face-to-face teaching
When I see lines of elderly people queueing in the cold and rain outside shuttered GP practices for their flu jabs, and care home residents who cannot see loved ones, I wonder why we are inflicting so much cruelty in the name of extending the lives of the old and vulnerable.
We are confusing length of life with quality of life. One line by Tennyson, a British poet, has particular resonance for me: ‘As though to breathe were life.’
The damage can scarcely be imagined now, but one day it will be measured in children who are not now being immunised, cancer and stroke patients going undiagnosed and untreated, and a shattered economy unable to fund the NHS.
In a doomed attempt to suppress this virus, while believing in a perfect vaccine as a silver bullet, the Government is setting itself up to fail – and at a terrible cost to us all.
- David Livermore is Professor of Medical Microbiology at the University of East Anglia