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Top scientists call for herd immunity approach – as government’s ‘soft touch’ criticised

Written by on 7 October 2020

Top scientists are calling for a herd immunity approach to the coronavirus pandemic by allowing people who are less vulnerable to the effects of the disease to return to normal life.

The so-called Great Barrington declaration, signed by leading experts from the universities of Oxford, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Cambridge, Sussex and York, suggests herd immunity as a way forward.

The declaration states: “The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk.

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“We call this Focused Protection.”

It says current lockdown policies are having “devastating effects on short and long-term public health”.

The negative impact of lockdowns include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – which the declaration claims will lead to greater excess mortality in years to come, hitting working class people and young people the most.

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The declaration follows comments by the leader of the NHS in England, Sir Simon Stevens, who said that asking all over-65s to shield would be “age-based apartheid”.

But the declaration says: “We know that vulnerability to death from COVID-19 is more than a thousand-fold higher in the old and infirm than the young,” it says.

“Indeed, for children, COVID-19 is less dangerous than many other harms, including influenza.”

Other critics say the declaration ignores the growing evidence on “long COVID” – whereby otherwise healthy individuals who contract the virus are left with debilitating long-term symptoms, sometimes for months after a mild infection.

Suggestions in the declaration include:

  • Allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk
  • Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal
  • Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practised by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold
  • Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching
  • Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed
  • Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home
  • Restaurants and other businesses should open
  • Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume
  • People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity

Meanwhile, senior politicians from four major northern councils have written to the government to warn that existing coronavirus restrictions are “not working”, describing some as confusing and others as counter-productive.

Their intervention reflects growing divisions in politics and in the scientific community over how to tackle the growing number of infections.

The letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock was signed by Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake, Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese, Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes, and Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson.

The four centres are among the worst-affected areas as the pandemic worsens – the UK reported 14,542 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, almost 2,000 more than the previous day. Hospital admissions in England also hit a four-month high.

In the letter, the four leaders said they were “extremely concerned” about the sharp increase and the “national responses”.

“The existing restrictions are not working, confusing for the public and some, like the 10pm (curfew) rule, are counter-productive,” they said.

Insisting they do not support further economic lockdowns, they instead called for additional powers to punish those who break rules and for any further restrictions to be developed by police, council, and public health experts.

They also called for a locally controlled test and trace system and financial support for those who needed to isolate with a payment that recognises additional needs in areas of deprivation.

“It is critical to the future of our local – and therefore the nation’s – economic wellbeing that we look to work together to deliver a joined up and effective response for our cities and the country in the coming days,” the letter said.

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International Trade Secretary Liz Truss told Sky News that the government didn’t want to “have to go back to a national lockdown, where we effectively end up closing down the economy as well as severely restricting people’s lives”.

“So that is why we are having these different series of local lockdowns or local restrictions to make sure that we are tailoring the restrictions to the specific circumstances of each area,” she said.

“Of course that introduces an element of complexity… but these restrictions are based on the best scientific and medical advice.

“We do work with the local mayors – keeping them involved in that process.”

Ms Truss said the government was striving to “keep the balance” between those wanting tougher restrictions and those wanting looser measures.

“I think we’ve got the balance right,” she told Sky News.

“Of course we need to be constantly reviewing it as time goes on, making sure the policies are right for each local part of the country.”

“But the fact is, if somebody younger catches coronavirus, then the danger is, of course, them passing it onto somebody else.

“This is a societal disease, this is not something that only affects individuals.”

But the government’s own MPs are also divided over the coronavirus rules.

Fourteen Conservative backbenchers were joined by five DUP MPs in voting against the government over its “rule of six”, which limits social gatherings.

They were outnumbered, but a bigger challenge is expected next week over the government’s 10pm curfew for pubs, bars, and restaurants, after MPs demanded more say over the emergency measures.