Scientists question UK COVID strategy as infections soar

Scientific experts have said the UK is not  effectively “living” with COVID as infection rates significantly increased this month.

Figures from the Office of National Statistics warned that infections in the UK had increased by 1 million in a week. The latest suggest about one in every 16 people is infected, as Omicron variant BA.2 continues to spread.

The number testing positive was put at just under 4.3 million people, up from 3.3 million the week before. The figures for the week showed infections in England were 6.4%, up from 4.9% last week – approximately one in 16 people.

Wales was up to the same rate of 6.4%, up from 4.1% last week. The figure was 9% in Scotland up from 7.15% last week, equating approximately one in 11 people.

Only Northern Ireland saw a fall to 5.9%, down from 7.1% last week.

The figures were grim news for the UK and experts warned things may only get worse.

Dr Stephen Griffin, associate professor in the School of Medicine, University of Leeds, said the UK government’s plans were badly backfiring.

“The recent ONS survey confirms that the combination of the BA2 Omicron sub-variant and the relaxation of restrictions is causing a massive resurgence of infection across the UK,” he explained. “Hospitalisations are almost back to the peak seen in January, deaths are again increasing and, worryingly, the age-related spread of infections is extending to include older groups. The widespread disruption in schools is unacceptable, as is the risk to clinically vulnerable people and the associated increase in long COVID that will follow. As ever, the most disadvantaged groups will suffer most.”

Griffin continued: “Blinding ourselves to this level of harm does not constitute living with a virus infection, quite the opposite. Public health has seemingly dropped dramatically on the list of this government’s priorities, to the detriment of the UK population as a whole. The frustration at the lack of mitigations that could so easily curtail this surge is tangible for many; without sufficient vaccination, ventilation, masking, isolation and testing, we will continue to “live with” disruption, disease and sadly, death, as a result. If the government continues to ignore advice from (now foolishly disbanded) SAGE, independent SAGE, and WHO, we as a nation will sadly reap what they have sown.”

His concern was echoed by professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, and professor of Structural Biology, University of Oxford.

“Today’s ONS release covering the period to 19 March tend to support my view that the BA.2 strain of omicron will find and infect those susceptible to infection. The ONS data have proven to be the most reliable guide to virus,” he explained. “Politicians at the UK and devolved levels have all decided as a practical matter to let the virus spread through the population. This can be seen in the continuing rise everywhere (except Northern Ireland, but the numbers are uncertain) and across age groups.

“There is no sign yet the virus has peaked in terms of infections.”

Naismith added: “The sheer scale of the infection is now pressuring the health service but the combination of vaccination, improved treatments and the less severe nature of Omicron means for the vast majority of those infected this will not be life threatening.

“This wave will burn out simply by infecting all those who can be infected. Given the clear benefits of vaccination in avoid severe illness, I would advocate getting your first, second or third jab today and for those offered a fourth grab the opportunity.

“The vaccines are a triumph of science. I hope the public will support the investment in science that is necessary for this work to happen in the UK.”

“Social restrictions bought us the time to vaccinate the population. It is political choice whether saving lives of people today was worth the cost,” Naismith continued. “What is dishonest is to pretend that having no severe social restrictions would not have led to much higher death tolls. Anyone in doubt can look at the trajectory we were on in the two most deadly waves and look just how fast the virus can spread without restrictions.

“Whether social restrictions are achieved voluntarily or by law does not matter to the virus, all that matters is how many uninfected people come into contact with an infectious person.”

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