Today
Sat 23 January 2021

Nafeez Ahmed reports on a new statement published in the Lancet which explains why the Government’s flawed Coronavirus response is likely to lead to repeated waves of the virus and lockdowns – risking lives and livelihoods

Without a common European public health roadmap, Britain and other European nations face the prospect of another devastating third COVID-19 wave in early 2021 necessitating a cycle of repeated lockdowns, a statement published in the top British medical journal, the Lancet, signed by 300 European scientists, has warned.  

The statement is authored by 20 top European public health experts working at some of the most prestigious scientific institutions across Europe on solutions to the pandemic, and continues to receive new signatories from verified scientists.

It confirms that, if the UK Government had followed the scientific consensus on public health responses to the pandemic, Boris Johnson could have avoided cancelling Christmas. But the statement also warns that, without a unified continental strategy, “further waves of infection are to be expected, with consequential damage to health, society, jobs, and businesses”.

The call to action demands that European governments take “joint action” to first and foremost achieve and maintain “low case numbers” of COVID-19. Once low case numbers are achieved through an early stringent but limited-duration lockdown, a robust test and trace system can keep numbers low. This crucial step allows a society to avoid the need for further lockdowns. 

The statement points out that “only with sufficiently low case numbers can the test-trace-isolate-support strategy quickly and efficiently help mitigate the spread. Hence, milder and more targeted physical distancing measures are sufficient, and schools and businesses can stay open”.

Achieving low case numbers is the key to “save jobs and businesses” concludes the statement, citing major economies like Australia as an example of how keeping case numbers low allows businesses to stay open.

“The economic impact of COVID-19 is driven by viral circulation within the population, and economies can and will recover quickly once the virus is greatly reduced or eliminated,” it states. “China and Australia have shown this is possible. In contrast, the economic costs of lockdowns increase with their duration.”

In contrast – although the statement does not address British strategy directly – it offers a searing indictment of the Government’s approach: “Easing restrictions while accepting higher case numbers is a short-sighted strategy that will lead to another wave, and thus to higher costs for society as a whole.”

But the Government was warned of this outcome by its own scientists as early as May 2020. Documents from the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) at the time stated: “If the test, trace and isolate (TTI) system begins operating when there is a relatively high level of incidence and prevalence of COVID-19 in the population, the system could very rapidly become overwhelmed.”

SAGE had also called for “flexible localised capacity planning” within the NHS. If contact tracing was overwhelmed, this would make another lockdown inevitable, SAGE warned.


‘The Great Barrington Variant’

Boris Johnson’s cancellation of Christmas for much of the British population has come following the Government’s refusal to implement an early two-week ‘circuit-breaker’ in September, along with repeated calls from public health experts and scientists for a more robust, localised contact tracing infrastructure. 

An investigation by the Sunday Times, corroborating Byline Timesearlier reporting on how Boris Johnson had been lobbied by fringe ‘Great Barrington Declaration’ scientists, found that this lobbying – citing discredited claims about ‘herd immunity’ – played a key role in the Prime Minister’s decision to avoid a circuit-breaker.  

Co-author of the new statement in the Lancet, Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and statistical geneticist who co-leads the GeCIP project at the Department of Health and Social Care’s Genomics England, has labelled the new mutation of COVID-19 (which is 70% more transmissible than before) as “the Great Barrington Variant” – after the document signed and published by scientists in October advocating a herd immunity approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She attributed the emergence of the new variant directly to the Government’s failure to keep case numbers low, due to “the impact of dangerous ‘natural herd immunity’ narratives on policy, which has led to high levels of transmission that are ideal for viral adaptation”.

The new statement warns that “contact tracing and quarantine is not feasible at high infection prevalence. Assuming a state with 300 new cases per million per day, 10 contacts per case, and 10 days quarantine: then 3% of the population would need to be in quarantine, resulting in strong reductions of the workforce”.

It also points out that aiming for naturally-acquired population immunity – an idea which yet again appeared to influence the Government’s refusal to take early action in September – is not an option: “The heavy burden in terms of morbidity and mortality, reflected also in the current excess mortality, and the uncertain duration of immunity should strongly discourage this approach.”

With the Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock admitting that a tier four lockdown might be required “for months”, until a vaccine is more widely available, the new statement in the Lancet underscores the extent of the Government’s disastrous failure on its pandemic response – given that the Government was aware of the virulent new strain two months earlier in October, but still failed to take action until days before Christmas.

“Unfortunately, the virus takes advantage of the free circulation of all citizens across the European Union: if the infection spread is out of control in one of our countries, all the others will be affected too and individual efforts to curb the epidemic will be jeopardised,” said the statement’s co-author Professor Giulia Giordano, a systems biologist who has modelled the COVID-19 epidemic at the University of Trento, Italy. “To avoid a ping-pong effect of exportation and reimportation of cases among countries, and still enjoy our freedom of movement, we need a common European vision and a shared commitment to lower the number of cases, and keep it low.”

According to co-author Dr Thomas Czypionka, head of health economics at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna, a lockdown must be “followed by effective contact tracing (apart from physical distancing, masking and moderate contact reduction)” to keep post-lockdown case numbers low. “With such a strategy, a third wave can be avoided at minimal economic and societal costs… Low case numbers in turn create low quarantine numbers over an extended period of time, and this is what makes the real difference economically.”

The way forward, according to the new statement, is to only use a strong lockdown as a limited tool to buy time to rapidly roll-out a localised public health infrastructure that can allow a relative return to normality using robust contract tracing and other protective measures to keep low case numbers. Instead, the Government appears to have consistently kowtowed to herd immunity lobbyists, leading to a renewed public health disaster and a months-long draconian lockdown which could have been avoided.

The new statement suggests that, if the Government continues to ignore sound public health science, Britain will be locked into further repeated waves of COVID-19 – and associated lockdown cycles – with devastating consequences for both lives and livelihoods.


Thank youfor reading this article

New to Byline Times? Find out about us

Our leading investigations include Russian Interference, Coronavirus, Cronyism and Far Right Radicalisation. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.


Support our journalists

To have an impact, our investigations need an audience.

But emails don’t pay our journalists, and nor do billionaires or intrusive ads. We’re funded by readers’ subscription fees:

Or donate to our seasonal crowdfunder to hire an additional journalist to conduct more investigations.

More stories filed under The Coronavirus Crisis

More stories filed under Reportage