The Prime Minister will deliver his “living with Covid” plan during a press conference to the nation on Monday evening alongside England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance. This plan will include scrapping the coronavirus restrictions currently in place, including legal isolation, as well as cutting access to free tests. Boris Johnson will remove pandemic requirements in England that negatively impact on personal freedoms, such as self-isolating after a positive Covid test, as part of a programme to return the country to normality.
But removing this particular element has sent fears surging through the UK’s science and medical community, who have written to Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick, urging them to step in.
‘Open Letter from UK Scientists and Medics Re: Early End to England’s Isolation Rules’ has been signed by 27 medical experts from across the country.
They have expressed their “concern” about the Government plans to end testing, surveillance surveys and legal isolation of Covid cases, and want Downing Street to “clarify the scientific advice underpinning these policy decisions”.
The medical experts said they “do not believe there is a solid scientific basis for the policy”, and warned: “It is almost certain to increase the circulation of the virus and remove the visibility of emerging variants of concern.”
They referred to “SAGE 105 minutes”, which noted: “The emergence of new variants and a resultant wave of infections can occur very quickly, potentially within just several weeks.
“The ability to rapidly detect and characterise new variants and to scale up necessary responses (such as TTI and vaccinations) quickly will be very important. Considerations for future response preparedness and surveillance infrastructure should take this into account.”
The 27 medical professionals also highlighted SAGE’s “Viral Evolution Scenarios” document from February 10, which said: “Higher global SARS-CoV-2 prevalence provides more opportunities for viral evolution, while new variants can drive higher prevalence.”
This document also warned “higher transmissibility does not necessarily mean lower severity or vice versa”, with the experts adding in their letter: “We have no reason to assume that all future new variants will be mild.”
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“This pattern will likely be repeated, and further reinfections will occur, with a continuing burden of disease and displacement in the healthcare system.
“We urge you to clarify the extent to which the planned policies are consistent with scientific advice and what specifically that scientific advice contained.
“We feel that transparency on such matters is an essential requirement of your roles as Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Officer, respectively.”
Mr Johnson’s “living with Covid” plan drew 11th-hour objections earlier on Monday with warnings it was premature and would leave the country vulnerable to new viral variants.
A Cabinet meeting of top ministers was delayed just before it was supposed to sign off on the new strategy, with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Welsh counterpart Mark Drakeford warning the policy make it harder to tackle new Covid variants in a timely manner.
There have also reportedly been a furious reaction from scientists over the decision to reduce access to free tests, seemingly sparking a row between finance and health ministers over what level of testing should continue and how it should be financed.
A spokesman for Mr Johnson declined to comment on reports of a dispute, saying: “The Cabinet meeting was postponed until this afternoon so that the Prime Minister could have both a security briefing and to have further meetings to finalise the plan on living with Covid.”