The latest easing of England’s coronavirus lockdown was a political decision not founded in concrete scientific advice, a leading expert has charged.
“Nothing has really changed in the epidemiology over the last couple of weeks” since Boris Johnson announced that the reopening of beauty parlours and other businesses would be delayed, said John Edmunds, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Prof Edmunds is also a member of the government’s Sage group of advisers. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that although survey data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) appeared to show a drop in how many people were infectious, from one in 1,500 to one in 1,900, “there’s huge uncertainty about each of those estimates”.
He added: “If you want to take a positive view, that’s a small improvement. From a scientific point of view, I think we would probably conclude that it’s not changed very much.” Other epidemiological indicators suggested a similarly small degree of change, he said.
From Saturday, beauty parlours and other close-contact services, soft play areas, casinos and indoor performance venues can reopen following a delay caused by a spike in cases.
Of the decision to further ease lockdown, Prof Edmunds said: “I don’t think it’s really been taken on epidemiological grounds, I think it’s really been taken primarily for economic reasons, and there’s of course extremely good reasons for doing that.”
Asked if he feared England was moving too quickly, he added: “Again those are political decisions. I think you have to balance the epidemiology with the economics and other considerations. I think all of us would prefer there to be much lower numbers of infections but the government has to balance these things out.”
Later in the programme Grant Shapps insisted that ministers had taken their decision based on science, and denied it was done for solely economic reasons.
The transport secretary told Today: ”We decide this based on what the Office for National Statistics say about it and they’d expressed concerns about a slight increase in England’s test-positives, and you’ll recall that we put on hold the measures which, as you mentioned, are now coming into place.
“They’ve now suggested that that situation has levelled off so, again, just looking at the pure data, we’ve said OK.”
Pressed by his interviewer on Prof Edmunds’ comments, Mr Shapps stressed the independence of the ONS and said the government was balancing the reopening of close-contact businesses with the introduction of quarantine on travellers from abroad as part of an R-rate “budgeting” process.
His comments came as a Royal Society research group released a new paper that addressed the balance between easing lockdown and preventing a second wave of Covid-19.
Members of the Delve Initiative, set up to provide additional context and advice for government, wrote that rushing out of lockdown for economic reasons could eventually damage British business – and trigger a double-dip recession.
The UK is already in the grip of its worst-ever recession, after GDP contracted by 20 per cent in the last quarter. Economists predicted, however, that the next set of figures would see an economic resurgence.
Delve members wrote: “A tight lockdown that is released too quickly or too fully would probably lead to adverse outcomes in terms of both lives and livelihoods.
“To be precise, too quickly or too fully here means relaxing the lockdown without sufficient regard for the state of the pandemic, the capacity of the health care system, and epidemiological markers such as the effective reproduction number.
“The rationale is simple. An abrupt and premature lockdown exit would lead to a second wave of infections that would bring with it both a higher death toll and additional costs for the economy.
“One reason to believe that the economic consequences of such a strategy would probably be dire is the evidence that perceptions about risk of infection lead to voluntary physical distancing, so that a second wave would lead to falling economic activity even in the absence of a renewed lockdown.”