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Boris Johnson

British Prime Minister Boris outlined his government's new plan top end nearly all pandemic-related public health measures on February 21, 2022. (Photo: Tolga Akmen/PA Images via Getty Images)

Public Health Experts Warn Against UK's End to Covid Restrictions

"For the one in four people in the U.K. who are clinically vulnerable, the current approach appears a perilous and politicized pandemic response," wrote more than 2,000 physicians and scientists.

Julia Conley

Thousands of scientists and doctors in the United Kingdom on Monday rejected Prime Minister Boris Johnon's assertion that it is time to begin "living with Covid" and demanded to know how his government is justifying its decision to end nearly all pandemic-related public health restrictions in the coming weeks, warning the policy change could worsen the spread of future variants.

Writing to Patrick Vallance, Johnson's chief scientific officer, and Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, more than 2,900 physicians, epidemiologists, and other experts in science and public health called on the officials to share the "scientific advice underpinning" the new policy.

"We believe humanity is in a race against the virus. We believe the science strongly supports using vaccines combined with public health interventions to slow transmission and regain the upper hand on viral evolution."

Under the plan announced by Johnson on Monday, people in England will no longer be legally required as of this Thursday to self-isolate after testing positive for Covid-19 or if they suspect they have the disease.

The same day, the government will also terminate a program under which some people with lower incomes have been able to receive nearly $700 in "test and trace support" funds if they have to self-isolate.

In most cases, the government will stop providing free coronavirus tests to the public on April 1, and as of March 24, sick pay for Covid-related reasons will only be paid after four or seven days of absence from work instead of immediately.

The "weakening of sick pay" is "proof once again the Tories simply aren't on the side of workers," said Jonathan Ashworth, a Member of Parliament for the Labour Party.

The scientists and doctors said they "do not believe there is a solid scientific basis for the policy" and warned the government's call for the public and employers to treat the pandemic as though is it is over "is almost certain to increase the circulation of the virus and remove the visibility of emerging variants of concern."

The letter cited a document released less than two weeks ago by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), a government panel.

"The emergence of new variants and a resultant wave of infections can occur very quickly, potentially within just several weeks," wrote SAGE on February 10. "The ability to rapidly detect and characterize new variants and to scale up necessary responses (such as [test-trace-isolate] and vaccinations) quickly will be very important."

"Considerations for future response preparedness and surveillance infrastructure should take this into account," added the panel.

Despite that warning released earlier this month, Johnson on Monday also asserted that the country's rate of vaccination would allow officials to "tackle" new variants when they arise.

"We have no reason to assume that all future new variants will be mild," said the signatories of Monday's letter.

The health experts cited data released by SAGE on February 2 which showed that if self-isolation guidelines and testing availability were eliminated, transmission could increase "by between around 25% to 80% if the population were to return to pre-pandemic behaviors and no mitigations."

"We believe humanity is in a race against the virus. We believe the science strongly supports using vaccines combined with public health interventions to slow transmission and regain the upper hand on viral evolution," wrote the doctors and scientists. "For the one in four people in the U.K. who are clinically vulnerable, the current approach appears a perilous and politicized pandemic response."

The concerns expressed in the letter were echoed by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who said Johnson's plan amounted to "inexcusable negligence."

Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis Charitable Trust, which includes more than 50 schools across England, said the government's decision to lift public health measures was "a huge gamble" for immunocompromised students, teachers, and family members around the country.

"I think it will become a forced form of exclusion of those who are vulnerable, those immunosuppressed children and staff who are put at increased risk," Chalke said of Johnson's new plan. "They will not be able to afford to take the gamble. I think we will see a group of children turning away from education."

"Removing the requirement for positive cases to self isolate puts them all at increased risk," he added.

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