Lockdown restrictions should be ditched in favour of a herd immunity approach to tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, a group of experts has said.
An international coalition of scientists penned an open letter calling for those who are less vulnerable to coronavirus to be allowed to return to normal life, while others shield.
The new declaration, titled the Great Barrington Declaration after the US town where it was written, has been signed by more than 2,600 scientists and 3,300 medical experts, as well s more than 50,000 members of the public.
Those from the universities of Oxford, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Cambridge, Sussex, York, St George’s University of London, Strathclyde, Leicester, Queen Mary University of London and the University of East Anglia are among the global experts who have signed the declaration.
It comes after recent remarks from the leader of the NHS in England, Sir Simon Stevens, who said that asking all over-65s to shield to slow the transmission of the second wave of coronavirus would be “age-based apartheid”.
Another expert also warned that the declaration ignores the growing evidence on long Covid – whereby thousands of fit and young people who contract the virus have been left with debilitating symptoms months after a mild infection.
Professor Jeremy Rossman pointed out that research suggests that protective antibody responses may “decay rapidly” and that there have been cases of re-infection of the virus.
The declaration states: “As infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists we have grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing Covid-19 policies, and recommend an approach we call Focused Protection.
“Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health. The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden. Keeping students out of school is a grave injustice.
“Keeping these measures in place until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed.
The letter continues that Covid-19 is “more than a thousand-fold higher in the old and infirm than the young”. It claims that all populations will eventually reach herd immunity, and that society’s goal should be to minimise social harm until herd immunity is reached.
It adds that those who are not vulnerable should return to office working, and that schools, universities, restaurants, and pubs should remain open.
“The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.”
Commenting on the declaration, Prof Rossman, honorary senior lecturer in virology at the University of Kent, said: “Unfortunately, this declaration ignores three critical aspects that could result in significant impacts to health and lives.
“First, we still do not know if herd immunity is possible to achieve. Herd immunity relies on lasting immunological protection from coronavirus re-infection; however, we have heard many recent cases of re-infection occurring and some research suggests protective antibody responses may decay rapidly.
“Second, the declaration focuses only on the risk of death from Covid-19 but ignores the growing awareness of long Covid, that many healthy young adults with mild infections are experiencing protracted symptoms and long-term disability.
“Third, countries that have forgone lockdown restrictions in favour of personal responsibility and focused protection of the elderly, such as Sweden, were not able to successfully protect the vulnerable population.”
Prof James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, and of the University of Oxford, said: “The main signatories include many accomplished scientists and I read it with interest. I will not be signing it however. The declaration risks the same error we have seen with the UK’s track trace and isolate scheme – one can promise a scheme that is very easy to describe but is hard to deliver.”