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Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson. Photo: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Against the advice of scientists, the government is once again gambling with our lives with a strategy of herd immunity, writes Terina Hine

We have been told we must learn to live with Covid-19. That means accepting 1-2 million new Covid cases in the coming weeks; at best an additional 9,400 Covid deaths, at worst 115,000, by June 2022.

This latest plan, confirmed by Boris Johnson at a Downing Street press conference on Monday afternoon, is both unscientific and unethical. It is a “strategy of herd immunity achieved by mass infection” say a group of eminent scientists and doctors, which involves “exposing millions of people to acute and long-term impacts of mass infection”. It is no less than a complete abdication of responsibility to the citizens of this country.

According to the government’s own figures the mass unlocking on 19 July will see cases rise to 100,000 per day, hospitalisations to between one thousand and two thousand and the daily death rate to 200. But the modelling is not straight forward; it all depends on how we respond to the lifting of restrictions, and a host of other unknowns, such as the exact number of unvaccinated and vaccine efficacy - where small differences can have huge impacts. A 4% difference in a vaccine being effective against hospitalisation translates into three times the number of patients in hospital.

So while the central scenario predicts 1,000 new hospital admissions and 200 deaths per day this is predicated on most of us abiding by the non-regulatory rules and a considerable number of unknowns. Hence last night, BBC’s Newsnight projected 400 deaths per day at the peak. The worst case scenario, if pre-pandemic behaviour resumes fully over the next few weeks, could result in more than 1,000 deaths per day.

All models show an extremely high prevalence of infection lasting until the end of August. Sage minutes, published on Monday, confirm the combination of high prevalence and high levels of vaccination significantly increases the risk of an “immune escape variant”, a vaccine resistant mutation.

So this is what we are being asked to live with. The Tory plan is a danger to us, to our families and to the rest of the world.

This is also the first time the virus will have been allowed to peak naturally - uncontrolled by lockdowns. How long a natural peak lasts is unknown. Professor Graham Medley, chief modeller for Sage, suggested it could last for six weeks. With 1,000 new hospitalisations per day this would present an incredible burden on our already struggling healthcare system.

They won’t tell us what level of hospitalisations the NHS can handle - although this is one of their own measures for easing restrictions. It appears the aim is to keep hospitalisations lower than Januarys peak - but January saw the NHS on its knees and it is still recovering.

Almost half of critical care staff are reported to be off work, morale is at an all-time low, and there is an enormous backlog of cases - 5.2 million currently, expected to hit 13 million. Healthcare providers are under pressures usually experienced in January not July. So much for the great British summer” we were promised just a few months ago. So much for freedom day”.

Not surprisingly the talk of the roadmap being irreversible is long gone. At the Downing Street briefing the PM gave the strongest hint yet that autumn may usher in new measures, while making it clear that responsibility for what happens next lies not with him but with the public.

At the Downing Street press conference Chris Whitty told us to avoid unnecessary meetings”, but what does that mean in the face of the government lifting all restrictions? Almost 4 million clinically vulnerable people have been told to avoid unvaccinated people, but how can they possibly know who is or is not vaccinated?

This abdication of responsibility is part of a pattern. Throughout the pandemic the government has first ignored, then confused, then blamed the public. All the while presiding over thousands upon thousands of avoidable deaths and allowing millions to suffer long term illness.

They say they follow the science, but their own scientific advisers have become increasingly frustrated at being ignored. Sage advised that any reopening should be gradual: that people should continue to work from home where possible - but the work from home order is being lifted; that ventilation should to be improved - no measures have been introduced; and support be provided to help workers isolate - there is none.

On BBC’s Today Prof Graham Medley criticised the end of mandatory face coverings, telling listeners that wearing face masks is worth it "but only if everyone does it", and that would require it to be mandatory.

And what about the infamous test and trace? With 100,000 cases per day it will be overwhelmed, along with the UK’s genomic sequencing capacity, leaving us unable to rapidly identify new variants.

The Netherlands should act as a warning: new cases rocketed 20-fold in less than two weeks of the government removing restrictions. PM Mark Rutte was forced to apologise for relaxing restrictions too soon.

The UK has the highest number of cases among the major European countries, yet while Spain, France, Greece and Portugal are all reimposing restrictions in response to the spread of the Delta variant our government goes ahead with its herd immunity plan, sacrificing millions for the sake of political posturing and profit.

An off-the-record statement by one Cabinet minister said the government is “flying blind”, that they don’t trust the modelling, and as increasing cases and deaths are unavoidable without reimposing lockdown, which no-one is prepared to do, it is what we must accept. Well, we don’t accept it and ministers will rue to day they thought we would.

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