Boris Johnson’s plan to lift virtually all of England’s pandemic restrictions on Monday is a threat to the world and provides fertile ground for the emergence of vaccine-resistant variants, international experts say.
Britain’s position as a global transport hub would mean any new variant here would rapidly spread around the world, scientists and physicians warned at an emergency summit. They also expressed grave concerns about Downing Street’s plans.
Government advisers in New Zealand, Israel and Italy were among those who sounded alarm bells about the policy, while more than 1,200 scientists backed a letter to the Lancet journal warning the strategy could allow vaccine-resistant variants to develop.
An adviser to New Zealand’s government told the summit he and his colleagues were astounded at the approach being taken in England.
“In New Zealand we have always looked to the UK for leadership when it comes to scientific expertise, which is why it’s so remarkable that it is not following even basic public health principles,” said Michael Baker, a professor of public health at the University of Otago and a member of the New Zealand ministry of health’s Covid-19 technical advisory group.
Also participating was Prof José Martin-Moreno of the University of Valencia, a senior adviser to the World Health Organization (WHO), who said: “We cannot understand why this is happening in spite of the scientific knowledge that you have.”
Others warned the British government’s approach would be imitated, for political expediency, by authorities elsewhere.
“What I fear is that that the some of the worst impulses in many of our states will follow the UK example,” said Dr William Haseltine, a former Harvard Medical School researcher and a pioneering Aids researcher who chairs Access Health International, a New York-based thinktank.
“I am extremely dismayed to see the very rapid rate of increasing infections in a population that is vaccinated pretty much like we are.”
Prof Christina Pagel, the director of University College London’s clinical operational research unit, told the meeting: “Because of our position as a global travel hub, any variant that becomes dominant in the UK will likely spread to the rest of the globe. The UK policy doesn’t just affect us. It affects everybody and everybody has a stake in what we do.”
The letter to the Lancet said: “We believe the government is embarking on a dangerous and unethical experiment, and we call on it to pause plans to abandon mitigations on July 19, 2021.”
“The world is watching the current avoidable crisis unfold in the UK,” said Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, who is taking part in Friday’s summit.
She added on Twitter: “Let’s be under no illusions – we are in a country where our government is taking steps to maximally expose our young to a virus that causes chronic illness in many. Our govt is ending all protections for our children including isolation of contacts of cases in schools & bubbles.”
The summit, facilitated by the Citizens, a journalism NGO, was being broadcast live on YouTube at noon UK time.
The concerns expressed in other countries comes after Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, warned on Thursday that the number of people in hospital with Covid-19 could reach “quite scary” levels within weeks, as cases soared caused by the more contagious Delta variant and the lifting of lockdown restrictions.
Whitty said in a webinar late on Thursday, hosted by the Science Museum, that hospital admissions were doubling about every three weeks, and that the current low numbers of Covid admissions could rise to serious levels in the next couple of months.
New coronavirus infections in the UK are at a six-month high, according to government figures, and the number of people in hospital and dying with Covid are at their highest level since March. Thursday’s data showed 3,786 people in hospital with Covid and another 63 virus-related deaths.
Downing Street, which has defended the lifting of all remaining legal restrictions on social gatherings in England on 19 July, is hoping the rapid rollout of vaccines will keep a lid on the number of people becoming seriously ill.