August 04, 2020

Coronavirus: Rate of new infections 'almost entirely preventable', says former chief scientific adviser

July 05, 2020

A further 27,000 excess deaths are "likely" between now and next April under the current approach to tackling the coronavirus pandemic, a former government chief scientific adviser says.

Sir David King, who has been critical of the easing of lockdown measures, told Sky's Sophy Ridge On Sunday, "we need to look at the fastest route out of COVID-19" and the current one "is not right".

He said it looked as though Downing Street's policy was to "maintain" the current level of about 3,000 new infections per day across England.

Catch up on everything that happened in Sophy Ridge On Sunday here

Sir David said: "What we are saying is 27,000 excess deaths are likely between now and next April if the expectation by the chief medical officer is that he would be surprised and delighted if the UK is in the same place next spring.

"If he's correct we would still have about 2,000 to 3,000 new infections in England per day and that is the number of deaths that would follow from that."

He said the rate of new infections is "almost entirely preventable and absolutely unacceptable and immoral" and said the group has called for a "zero COVID UK" and published a new report on Sunday.

His comments come as pubs, restaurants, cafes and hair salons reopened across England on Saturday amid reports of some people apparently flouting social distancing guidelines.

Sir David, who was chief scientific adviser between 2000 and 2007, is the chairman of Independent SAGE - a rival group that is separate to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies which advises Downing Street.

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He told Ridge: "The quicker we can get down to zero COVID UK the quicker we can get a full economic opening of our economies right across the United Kingdom."

Asked how that could be achieved, he suggested pubs should open up areas outdoors for punters where social distancing could be maintained.

"There are means for achieving these objectives, but we have to be patient, and if we are not patient, it's not just a second wave, but if it bumps along at 3,000 per day, that is what produces this additional 27,000 deaths.

"If we want to return to full economic growth as quickly as possible - get rid of the COVID virus."

In its report, Independent SAGE analysed the combined data from the government's daily figures, the Office for National Statistics, Public Health England and the government's report on NHS Test and Trace.

The group concluded:

  • We don't know if declines in positive confirmed cases are because of fewer people getting tested or fewer people having COVID-19, or a combination of both
  • ONS continues to report that a steady decline in new infections has stopped
  • None of the nations mention contact tracing as a key part of their COVID response and only Scotland encourages testing
  • NHS Test and Trace is not reaching enough newly symptomatic people with COVID-19
  • Fewer than half of contacts are reached within three days of a person being tested (from what data is available)
  • Crucial data on how many contacts are actually isolating or go on to develop symptoms is not there

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the coronavirus lockdown changes from 4 July, England's chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, warned they were not "risk free" and that he would be "surprised and delighted" if the current situation was over by the winter.

Professor Whitty and the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, both at the time declined to say they personally supported the easing of measures in England.

Sir David said he didn't think there is "any difference between the scientists on SAGE and Independent SAGE".

"I think the difference is that we are in the public domain. You are talking to me and not the chair people of SAGE, precisely because they are not free to come and be cross-examined by the media," he told Ridge.

"Frankly, that is the way to gain the trust of the public in the policies that the government wants to lay down. The whole issue is extraordinarily challenging.

"We are not providing an alternative to SAGE, we are providing an independent voice for the public and the government to listen to.

"When I was chief scientific adviser, whenever I could, I was out in the public domain explaining my advice to government, and then explaining that it was government that made the policy and the decisions," he added.

The scientific community is split on the government's reopening of the economy.

Last week, Sir Mark Walport, who was chief scientific adviser between 2013 and 2017, said he understood the government's decision to ease lockdown further.

"The economy is as critical for health as anything else," he said, adding it's been a "fine balancing act all along".

"There are health harms from a damaged economy, from people being out of work, so one has got to balance managing the coronavirus pandemic and controlling it, but also keeping the economy going," he said.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Ridge the vast majority of people who went out on Saturday did the right thing, but added: "Of course we'll take action when we need to when... if the minority break the rules."

"You've seen for instance in Leicester but also in other places that we don't shirk from bringing in more drastic measures if that is what's needed to control the virus."

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