The government’s surprise announcement that more than 2 million of the most vulnerable people will be allowed outside from Monday lacks any scientific rationale and amounts to a public relations exercise, a leading virus expert has said.
Dr Stephen Griffin, an associate professor at Leeds University’s school of medicine, said the relaxation of measures for shielders - those most at risk from severe Covid-19 symptoms - “seems to lack any obvious rationale other than to add to an ongoing ‘good news’ narrative that appears to have little grounding in reality”.
Ministers’ announcement on Sundaythat the rules to protect about 2.2m of the most vulnerable people sparked confusion among groups that represent them. Clinically extremely vulnerable people will be able to go outside with members of their household from Monday, while continuing to follow physical distancing guidelines. Those who live alone will be allowed to meet one other person from another household outdoors.
Groups including the Residents and Relatives Association, which represents people in care homes, had called for steps toward lifting the tightest restrictions on the most vulnerable because of fears for their mental health, but the move came faster than many expected.
Rob Burley, the director of campaigns at Muscular Dystrophy UK, said advice to shield people with muscle-wasting conditions was already confusing, but that the sudden change risked making things worse.
“We are now faced with further confusion about why the advice has changed so suddenly when only a few weeks ago the government’s recovery strategy said shielding would have to remain in place for a further period,” he said.
Phil Anderson, the head of policy at the MS Society, said his organisation was extremely concerned that the news has come out of the blue. “People who are extremely vulnerable will rightly want to hear a lot more about the scientific evidence showing this will be safe for them.”
Prof Jonathan Van Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said at the Downing Street press conference on Saturday that the UK was at a “very dangerous moment” with coronavirus infections poised to rebound “like a coiled spring … if we don’t stay on top of it”. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies estimated that the R number was 0.7-0.9 on Friday. If the number is above one, it means the epidemic is growing again.
Sally Bloomfield, an honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, back Van Tam’s view on Sunday. She questioned why so many lockdown relaxations were being introduced at once. Most people will be allowed to meet non-household members in parks and gardens from Monday, schools will take in pupils and there have been announcements about the resumption of horse racing and Premier League football.
“Why introduce all of these measures at the same time, which means that if the situation deteriorates it will be impossible to know which measures need to be re-imposed and we will just have to go back to lockdown,” she said. “This does not look like gently lifting the lid, and from what I have seen these past three days I fear that our desire to socialise means that the critical nature of our situation is being forgotten.”
Images of packed beaches and seafronts with people apparently not adhering to continued orders to remain physically distanced filled news bulletins over the weekend as the UK basked in sunshine.
Justifying the lifting of restrictions for the most vulnerable, the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, said: “Incidence rates of coronavirus are now significantly lower than before these measures were put in place.
“That’s why we are focused on finding the right balance between continuing to protect those at the greatest clinical risk, whilst easing restrictions on their daily lives to make the difficult situation more bearable, particularly enabling the contact with loved ones they and we all seek.”
Boris Johnson, the prime minister, said: “We have been looking at how we can make life easier for our most vulnerable, so today I am happy to confirm that those who are shielding will be able to spend time outside with someone else, observing social distance guidelines. I will do what I can, in line with the scientific advice, to continue making life easier for you over the coming weeks and months.”