Navigating COVID-19 through the volume of competing voices

Our President, Professor Sir Robert Lechler PMedSci, gives his views on the reality behind the perceived ‘scientific divide’ and the increasing volume of the ‘libertarian expert’.

Earlier this week [Tuesday 6 October 2020] a group of scientists published an open letter, the Great Barrington Declaration, arguing against lockdown policies and for ‘Focused Protection’ of the vulnerable, while allowing for the rest of the population to operate as normal. None of us want to let the virus rule our lives, and I am acutely aware of the detrimental impacts that COVID-19 restrictions have on the nation’s mental health and economy, but this letter does not acknowledge that managing the virus is a near-impossible balancing act. It has gained a worrying amount of prominence and I am concerned about the public perception of what this document calls for. Below I address some of the main ideas put forward in the Declaration, and why they are untenable.

The idea of selective protection of the elderly and vulnerable is unethical and simply not possible as there is no way to sustainably protect such a large group of people without imposing huge risks to their mental and physical health. Even if this were an option, and we were to shield the vulnerable from infection while letting the virus run through the rest of the population, we must remember that this virus is in no way benign for the young and fit. Yes, the elderly are significantly more likely to get seriously ill from the virus, but we have seen grave impacts across all age groups. We are also seeing an increase in cases of Long Covid, where people are suffering from persistent and enduring symptoms for months after COVID-19 infection, and we just don’t understand enough about this at the moment to even consider ‘Focused Protection’.

On herd immunity, the current estimate of people who have been infected by the virus in the UK is around 8%. To get to herd immunity we would need around 70% of the population to have been infected with the virus. Not only are we a huge way off this but we now know that immunity to COVID-19 decreases over time, and that people can be re-infected with the virus.

Our July 2020 report on preparing for a challenging winter* highlighted the increased risk of coronavirus spreading when the weather is colder and people will be spending more time inside, which is likely to favour transmission of the virus. We are not far into autumn and we are already seeing a sharp increase in COVID-19 hospital admissions. When hospital beds and NHS time is taken over by care for COVID-19 patients, where do the heart attacks and cancer screenings go? We cannot stop the care for cancer, cardiac and all other patients, so we must reduce the number of COVID-19 cases to ease pressure on hospitals and allow vital routine care to continue as needed.

Earlier this year when the Academy connected with older people and those who were asked to shield due to medical conditions, we heard how the pandemic had taken away their control of their lives, their care and their futures. For those in vulnerable groups the prospect of going outside, near people who may not abide by social distancing rules, was a major source of concern. Some wondered whether they might ever take public transport or visit town centres again.

We cannot lock entire sectors of society away because others want to live their lives ‘as normal’. Neither should we expect younger or healthier people in the population to take a hit for herd immunity, especially when there is so much we are still to discover about the long term effects of COVID-19. We should not be making plans or decisions on how to control its spread behind closed doors in wood-panelled rooms. We must engage with people in the communities most affected to make sure that no decision about them is taken without their input.

With COVID-19 being the biggest issue our society faces, it is easy for advice from credible experts to become politicised. Scientists bear a strong responsibility here and must work to ensure the public not only have access to the latest reliable evidence, but have been involved in how that evidence was produced. This is particularly true if the views they are sharing could be used to undermine public health measures. Extraordinary claims about COVID-19 measures should only be made with solid evidence and a large amount of certainty.


* The Academy's July 2020 report on 'Preparing for a challenging winter 2020/21' was commissioned at the request of the Government's Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance. Find out more on our news pages and policy project page.

The Academy has also published a report on COVID-19 in winter in July 2021., again at the request of Sir Patrick Vallance. Find out more about this new report: 'COVID-19: Winter 2021-22 and beyond' on our news pages and policy project page

Find out more about our ongoing policy work supporting the UK response to the COVID-19 pandemic on our coronavirus information hub. To find out more about how to support the work of the Academy, visit our dedicated Support Us webpage.

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