As It Happens

England's reopening is 'deeply immoral, reckless and unethical,' says epidemiologist

England's so-called "Freedom Day" could have disastrous consequences for the country and the world, says Dr. Deepti Gurdasani.

Boris Johnson's government lifts most pandemic restrictions as daily infections in the U.K. top 50,000

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a news conference to announce England's pandemic reopening. The country lifted most of its COVID-19 restrictions on Monday. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/Reuters)

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England's reopening could have disastrous consequences around the world, says a British epidemiologist.

On Monday, the country lifted its mask mandate, physical distancing rules and size limits on gatherings. This comes as daily new coronavirus infections in the U.K. top 50,000, the highest levels since January, driven largely by the more contagious delta variant. 

While many people are gathering in pubs and nightclubs to celebrate what they're calling "Freedom Day," Dr. Deepti Gurdasani says the jubilation will be short-lived. 

She's a clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, and one of more than 100 scientists and doctors who signed a letter published in the Lancet that calls the reopening a "dangerous and unethical experiment." 

Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner. 

[Some] people in the U.K. ... see today as a long awaited chance at freedom. How do you see it?

I certainly don't see it as freedom, and I think many, many people are concerned. We've sort of opened up in the middle of a raging pandemic at a point where we're having about 50,000 cases a day and 700 people being admitted to hospital every day.

It's very likely that this whole freedom narrative will be quite short-lived, because even our chief medical officer says that we might be heading towards another lockdown. And it's certainly not Freedom Day for people who are vulnerable and immunosuppressed, who are now very, very anxious about going on transport, going to shops and into environments where it's very likely that the majority of people will not be wearing masks.

The U.K. has one of the highest vaccination rates going right now. Why are so many people still getting COVID?

Only 54 per cent of the entire population is [fully] vaccinated. The majority of young people and children are not vaccinated. And we know that much of the infection right now is happening in secondary schoolchildren and young adults.

This level of vaccination is not adequate to control the virus. We've seen that even in Israel, which has higher levels of vaccination than us and is now dealing with a rapid surge of the delta variant, which is more transmissible.

A group of friends stand and enjoy their drinks at the bar at The Moon Under Water pub in Manchester, England. As of 12:01 a.m, on Monday, the country dropped most of its remaining COVID-19 social restrictions. (Charlotte Tattersall/Getty Images)

What do you say to the argument that while vaccines may not be preventing new infections in the U.K., there is a reduction in the death rate?

That's certainly the case ... but we are still seeing [the total number of] deaths increase and we are still seeing hospitals getting fuller and fuller. And we already have hospitals that are having to cancel routine operations and care for cancer patients and are struggling to deal with the huge backlogs that have accumulated over the last two waves.

We know that this is not just a virus that causes acute infection. It causes chronic illness in many. And we do expect that as millions of young people get infected over the coming weeks, we will see hundreds of thousands of people with the consequences, which is long COVID, and a proportion of those will sadly go on to develop chronic disabilities that will be debilitating, and we don't know how to treat these yet.

You and other critics from the scientific community have described this reopening plan as "murderous" and "diabolical." Those are strong words.

Our government appears to be going for this strategy where half of our population is protected through vaccination. And the idea appears to be to let the rest of the population get infected and develop immunity through infection, which is, of course, the herd immunity through infection approach. And the consequences of that [are], sadly, the consequences of disease when we could be actually protecting people with vaccinations. 

So I think those statements are accurate because this is deeply immoral, reckless and unethical.

[U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson] was saying to reporters yesterday ... "If we don't do it now, then we'll be opening in the autumn, the winter months, when the virus has the advantage of the cold weather. We lose the precious fabric that we get with the school holidays. If we don't do it now, we're going to ask ourselves: When will we ever do it? So this is the right moment, but we've got to do it cautiously."

What's your response to the prime minister's argument and his call for caution and personal responsibility?

To ask people to accept mass infection with hundreds of thousands of people developing long COVID and hospitals becoming full now versus winter makes absolutely no sense, because that doesn't account for the fact that we could do a lot to mitigate what would happen in winter. And one of the things we could do is actually vaccinate our adolescents rather than infecting them. We could make classrooms safer with investments in masks and ventilation and smaller class sizes. We could give boosters to those with waning immunity over winter to ensure that the vulnerable are protected.

But our government doesn't seem to be willing to do any of those things. And we are being presented with this false dichotomy of two bad options and asked to accept one of them. 

And the second question about "be cautious" is ridiculous. When our government has essentially opened up in the middle of a raging pandemic, how are we to be cautious? How can a clinically vulnerable person who cannot mount a response to vaccines be cautious as they go onto transport when nobody's wearing masks or crowded workplaces where there's no masks or ventilation? How can a child be cautious when it enters a crowded classroom of 30 people with no ventilation, social distancing or masks?

Dr. Deepti Gurdasani is a clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer in machine learning at Queen Mary University of London. (Submitted by Deepti Gurdasani)

What are the possible consequences, as you see them, of this move?

We will have millions of infections over the coming weeks, which will lead to massive societal disruption. 

I think hundreds of thousands of people will develop long COVID to add to the one million who already have long COVID in the U.K. And I think a proportion of them will have chronic disability lasting for more than a year ... and this will be predominantly among young people, and more so amongst children.

I think our hospitals will get fuller and fuller. Our modelling estimates that there might be 1,000 to 2000 hospitalisations per day, which will put significant pressure on health services.

And sadly, we will have a number of deaths. I mean, we are expecting deaths in the thousands. Even though they may not reach the peaks that were reached last year, they will still be significant. And every one of them would have been preventable had our government acted appropriately and in line with the evidence.

Could the consequences spread beyond the U.K.?

Yes, I think it's entirely possible. Our own scientific advisers have warned the government that allowing high levels of transmission to continue alongside a partially vaccinated population creates the grounds for variant adaptation towards escape against vaccines.

Were such a variant to evolve, it would not only put our entire strategy, which is very focused on vaccines, back by seven months or so, but it would have impacts across the globe.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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