Wednesday, 19 June, 2024
HomeNews UpdateScepticism from EU experts over abolition of all COVID curbs in England

Scepticism from EU experts over abolition of all COVID curbs in England

Last week Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans to abolish all COVID regulations in England, including the need to isolate after testing positive, from 24 February. However, there has been mixed reaction from global experts, reports The Guardian, with France saying it’s too soon, Spain calling the decision “premature”, and Italy labelling the move as “political”.

Arnaud Fontanet, a senior epidemiologist at the Pasteur Institute and a member of the governmentʼs scientific advisory council, said France was unlikely to follow suit, at least not before March or April, and mask-wearing, home working and quarantine remained vital to slow the number of infections and keep hospital admissions down. “Allowing the virus a free run would be a fundamental error,” he said. He added that small behaviour changes could “really influence the dynamic”.

“Reducing contacts now by just 20% – a bit of home working, wearing masks in indoor public spaces – will halve the number of hospital admissions in a fortnight; we know this.”

The country’s vaccine pass, introduced in August to access leisure venues like including cafes and restaurants, and for long-distance public transport, was also likely to remain in force until spring. “Vaccination, including boosters, is still key.
Itʼs too soon to lift restrictions now.”

Johannes Knobloch, an infection prevention specialist at Hamburgʼs University Medical Centre, said: “It’s quite brave to lift all restrictions at the same time. I would have thought it possible to keep in place some measures – such as mandatory mask-wearing on public transport – to still slow down the dynamic of new infections.

“The big challenge … will be to protect those for whom vaccines donʼt offer protection, such as people undergoing cancer therapy.”

German lifted some restrictions last week, such as only those with proof of vaccination or of recent recovery were permitted entry to non-essential shops. Mask mandates in shops and on public transport, and vaccine passport checks at restaurants and bars, remain in place.

“I donʼt see Germany going down the UKʼs path quite so quickly,” he said.

Prof Rafael Bengoa, a former World Health Organization health systems director and now co-director of the Institute for Health and Strategy in Bilbao, said that while the lifting of restrictions in England would doubtless prove popular, it was premature.

“Because of our bias to normalcy, people want to believe itʼs over, which is what politicians are saying,” said Bengoa. “But most of us in public health across Europe are saying that itʼs not quite over and itʼs not like the flu.”

Lifting restrictions, especially the use of face masks in interior spaces, would slow down the descent rate of the Omicron wave because people would continue to get infected. And people who tested positive for the virus needed to stay in home quarantine for five to seven days, he added. “If you over-normalise the situation – if you lift everything and you say, ‘This is overʼ – people will not stay at home for those five or seven days.”

“And since this is not like the flu, and itʼs quite serious and you can also have long COVID with this, why is it that one needs to precipitate the lifting of restrictions so fast?”

Italy has among the strictest COVID rules in Europe, with health passes required for everything and while the country is cautiously relaxing restrictions – the outdoor mask rule was dropped on Friday – scientists are perplexed by Johnson’s plan to scrap quarantine rules for people who test positive for COVID-19, especially with the two countries still registering high daily death rates.

“These are political choices, not scientific ones,” said Roberto Burioni, a professor of microbiology and virology at Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan. “Weʼve never quarantined people who have the flu, but the flu doesnʼt kill two or three hundred people a day.”

In Greece, with one of Europeʼs highest COVID-19 death rates, reaction to the UK’s decision was relatively upbeat.

“I think the UK situation allows for relaxation of the measures,” said leading epidemiologist Gkikas Magiorkinis. “Given the countryʼs good vaccination and epidemiological profile, it seems to be a reasonable move.”

Magiorkinis, who sits on the committee of experts that advises the government, said Athens could follow suit if at this point in the pandemic, Greece had similar rates of fatalities, hospitalisations and intubations.

“If the health system is not under heavy pressure, we need to use the opportunity to try to return to normality, because if, in five monthsʼ time, there is another mutation, people might not listen to us, and that would be serious.”

In the past two years, Britain has been used by Chinese media as an unsuccessful example in the fight against COVID.

State media cite criticisms over Johnsonʼs announcement, but Chinese experts have tried to understand the logic behind it, with some expressing admiration. The UK is now the first country prepared to achieve herd immunity, said Prof Chen Wenzhi of Chongqing Medical University. “This is because their scientists have said the peak of the new variant had passed … and suggested the end of the pandemic is in sight.”

Zhang Wenhong, a leading epidemiologists, recently used the UK as an example to persuade the Chinese public to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Citing data from the UK Health Security Agency, he said the reason why some countries could end restrictions was because vaccines had led to a dramatic reduction in hospitalisation and mortality rates.

New Zealand
Epidemiologist and public health expert Prof Michael Baker said the data on hospitalisations and deaths from COVID-19 in the UK told their own story. “The numbers, I think, are screaming out a message [that] the pandemic response has been very poorly managed – the waste of lives, the excessive periods under lockdown and the flip-flopping policies.”

While death rates in the UK were down from their peak, he noted: “In New Zealand that would still be [equivalent to] 20 people dying a day – we would regard that as high mortality … it would certainly seem premature to be relaxing all safeguards.”

Inevitably, Baker said, the results would be felt more harshly by some than others – frontline workers, elderly people, ill people, the immuno-compromised. “Most of us would regard that the balance is not right in the UK in that respect, that thereʼs a need for greater emphasis on protecting the most vulnerable.

“The UK is currently among the leading contributors to understanding [the] virus, and combating it at a science level … they gave us the AstraZeneca vaccine … itʼs just the policy translation has been shockingly poor.”

Stuart Turville, associate professor in the immunovirology and pathogenesis program at the Kirby Institute, University of New South Wales, said the UKʼs “base of immunity” is high and that “the waves of Delta and Omicron (albeit high) did not translate into the deaths they observed in earlier waves”.

His primary concern was that Omicron would be replaced by another variant. “We planned for Delta and got Omicron, and although we didnʼt have the lockdowns of the past, it did create significant disruption . . . it is better to be vigilant and cautious.”


The Guardian article – ‘Why so fast?’: world experts react to England ending Covid curbs (Open access)


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


UK government backs down on mandatory Covid vaccinations for NHS staff


UK got it wrong on COVID: Long lockdown did more harm than good


UK slammed for ‘baffling’ response to SA expertise, as Omicron sweeps the world


UK vaccination committee says 4th booster not necessary



MedicalBrief — our free weekly e-newsletter

We'd appreciate as much information as possible, however only an email address is required.