An open letter signed by 240 scientists says: “By putting in place social distancing measures now, the growth can be slowed down dramatically, and thousands of lives can be spared. We consider the social distancing measures taken as of today as insufficient, and we believe that additional and more restrictive measures should be taken immediately, as is already happening in other countries across the world.”
The Covid-19 epidemic will affect millions of people in the next few weeks unless its growth is constrained, say the signatories, who include leading professors in fields from maths to medicine: “This will most probably put the NHS at serious risk of not being able to cope with the flow of patients needing intensive care.”
Ten more people in the UK have died in the past 24 hours after testing positive for coronavirus, bringing the total number of deaths to 21. There are 1,140 confirmed cases of the disease. Other European countries have acted more swiftly than the UK to restrict travel and stop public gatherings.
Another open letter, signed by more than 200 UK psychologists and social scientists, says government thinking is too influenced by the idea of “social fatigue” — the idea that, if implemented too early, measures limiting social contact will be undermined just when they are most needed. This is because people will be fed up with the restrictions and will revert to normal behaviour.
The letter, signed by many leading figures in UK behavioural science, concludes: “If behavioural fatigue truly represents a key factor in the government’s decision to delay high-visibility interventions, we urge the government to share an adequate evidence base in support of that decision. If one is lacking, we urge the government to reconsider these decisions.”
Separately the British Society for Immunology — the main professional body in the field — has “voiced significant questions” about the government’s coronavirus strategy. In a third open letter Professor Arne Akbar, the society’s president, says: “The UK’s public health strategy differs from many other countries, with an aim to build ‘herd immunity’ to protect the population. Within the immunology community, we have significant questions about this strategy.
Prof Akbar urged the government to enhance social distancing measures and “release their modelling data to allow scrutiny from the scientific community to better predict the course of this outbreak. We have a small window of opportunity to protect our nation, to learn about this new emerging virus and to deal with this unprecedented threat to global health,” he concluded.
A Downing Street spokesperson responded: “As the epidemic progresses we will be instituting our next planned interventions soon. We also confirmed we will publish the modelling and data considered by SAGE. We continue to be guided by the advice of CMO and CSA.”
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn, the UK Labour leader, has called on Boris Johnson to introduce emergency measures to protect low-paid workers effected by the outbreak.
In a letter to Mr Johnson, Mr Corbyn said emergency legislation should include full sick pay and lost earnings protection “from day one for all”, rent deferrals and mortgage holidays, as well as income protection.