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Corona Schism: UK Scientists Split Over How Government Should Deal With Surge in COVID-19 Cases

© AP Photo / Alastair GrantPeople queue outside a John Lewis store, in London, Thursday, 16 July 2020, some wearing masks.
People queue outside a John Lewis store, in London, Thursday, 16 July 2020, some wearing masks. - Sputnik International
On 21 September more than 4,360 new infections were reported in the United Kingdom, as many as at the beginning of the outbreak. 11 people died from the disease that day, which brought the total death toll in Britain to 41,788.

UK chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has warned that Britain could see 50,000 coronavirus cases per day by mid-October if authorities fail deal with the increase in infections. However, how exactly the government should handle the coronavirus outbreak is disputed among the UK scientific community.

Two groups of scientists have written a letter to the government and chief medical officers, where they detailed their respective suggestions.

The first group, headed by Professor Sunetra Gupta from Oxford university, argues that only the vulnerable – people over 65 and people with pre-existing medical conditions – should be protected.

Lockdowns Offset Benefits

The Gupta camp warns that imposing lockdown in places where there is an increase in infections or imposing a nationwide lockdown will lead "to significant harm across all age groups, which likely offsets any benefits".

"The existing policy path is inconsistent with the known risk-profile of COVID-19 and should be reconsidered. The unstated objective currently appears to be one of suppression of the virus, until such a time that a vaccine can be deployed. This objective is increasingly unfeasible," says a letter signed by 32 scientists.

Professor Gupta and his colleagues argue that the government should look beyond coronavirus, drawing attention to the fact that during lockdowns people with other diseases and medical conditions fear going to their doctor or to the fact that the healthcare system is preoccupied with treating coronavirus patients. As a result of lockdowns, the Gupta camp argues, deaths will occur from other diseases.

In addition, the Gupta camp notes that the government should think about social and economic effects of lockdowns. "Blanket COVID policy interventions likely have large costs, because any adverse effects impact the entire population," the group wrote in a letter.

Sam Williams of the consultancy Economic Insight, a member of the Gupta camp, argues that the public should be given honest and objective information about "the risks they face". Williams claims that the danger of COVID-19 for everyone was talked up, which made people in the low-risk group more scared than they had reason to be.

Targeted Approach is Ineffective

The second group, led by Trisha Greenhalgh, at Oxford University supports greater restrictions and a nationwide approach to the outbreak. Scientists in this camp say that "long COVID" – symptoms of the coronavirus that last for more than a month – has affected tens of thousands of people in the United Kingdom and many of them are young.

The Greenhalgh camp argues that the targeted approach, which will protect only the vulnerable, is not effective in the open society "especially for disadvantageous groups" - people living in multi-generational households and in overpopulated housing. The scientists note that many seniors are looking after their grandchildren, while their parents are at work.

The Greenhalgh camp says it shares the public’s desire to lead a normal life, but notes that people will have to compromise for some time to come. At the same time, the group notes that the safety measures should be introduced to curb the spread of the disease should respond "to the day-to-day and week-to-week changes in cases".

"Whilst it is always helpful to have more data and more evidence, we caution that in this complex and fast-moving pandemic, certainty is likely to remain elusive," reads the letter.

Back to the Start?

Before Britain and several other European countries witnessed an uptick in coronavirus cases, health experts and authorities repeatedly warned the public that the virus hadn't gone anywhere, therefore it is necessary to follow the rules. The warning seemingly fell on deaf ears as revellers rushed to meet with friends and relatives in pubs and restaurants.

After a rise in infections, UK authorities introduced the rule of six, banning gatherings of more than six people, both outdoors and indoors, and introduced large fines for breaching the rule. Officials went as far as to say that people should inform authorities about the disobedient citizens. Many Brits believe the rule of six is useless as people are still allowed to gather in large groups at weddings, funerals and workplaces.

Critics of the move also note that cafes, pubs, and places of worship can still hold more than six people in total, but within those venues people are not allowed to gather in groups larger than six.

Now UK authorities plan to announce new restrictions. According to local media, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to say that pubs restaurants and other hospitality venues will be closed after 10pm. Johnson is also expected to stress the need for people to maintain social distance, wear masks and wash hands regularly.

The development comes as government scientific advisers warn that if the public doesn’t start to follow rules, the nation may go into another lockdown.

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