31st May 2020 – As the government lockdown eases are we sleep-walking into a second wave of infection? 

A Blog by Dr David J Flavell PhD FRCPath & Dr Sopsamorn (Bee) Flavell BSc PhD
Scientific Directors of Leukaemia Busters

31st May 2020

Grave Concerns

Relevant previous blogs

A collective national sigh of relief went up last week as the UK government in England announced an easing of the lockdown that will allow people some freedom to meet and for facilities to re-open. But will this sigh of relief turn into a sigh of regret in the months ahead?  There are concerns that the easing of lockdown may be driven by political and economic imperatives rather than by science as the government claim.

A very dangerous moment

Already there are at least seven dissenters on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) expressing their concern that the easing of some of the existing lockdown measures in England on the 1st June is premature when there are still an estimated 8,000 new cases every day and risks a second big wave that may prove worse than the first as reported in The Guardian article on Friday.  Even Professor Jonathan Van-Tam at the No 10 briefing last week admitted how easing lockdown restrictions was a “very dangerous moment”.

Are we confident in the government’s strategy?

Our own knowledge of infectious disease transmission and epidemic modelling is limited but this much we do know, predicting what is actually going to happen when dealing with a new virus such as SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19, is notoriously imprecise. When scientists who are members of SAGE and who are expert in this field begin to express their concerns, then we should all be concerned and ask ourselves the question are we confident in the government’s motives or judgement on this matter in the light of other scientific voices we are hearing and the past failures of the government in the earlier phase of this health crisis? (see the Timeline of Failure).

Is it a gamble?

In the final analysis, there is little doubt in our mind that the government are taking a huge gamble in a bid to salvage the UK economy and get the country back to work. It’s a gamble that could easily backfire. To achieve this ambition they are putting a great deal of reliance on a new NHS test and trace system to keep the lid on further large scale outbreaks of COVID-19 in the community, a system that went live only last week.

We know from reports that the system is far from ready for the enormous task it faces and needs further evaluation and tweaking before it is fit for purpose. Add to this the additional complication of infected individuals who are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic  who spread infection unwittingly whilst walking around in the community hidden from view (see the blog Carriers).

These individuals will never be picked up by any testing system because they have no cause to present themselves for testing which would therefore confound the effectiveness of any test and trace system. These are the individuals we should worry about and the only way to deal with this problem is to introduce compulsory face mask use for everyone in public places until we know that things are truly under control (see the blog “Mask Up”).

The government seems to be rushing ahead prematurely in opening the flood gates before having the full capability it needs to contain and control further outbreaks. Why not wait another week or two until the wrinkles have been ironed out of the test and trace system and introduce face mask use alongside other social distancing and hygiene measures before lockdown restrictions are eased? Why take the risk for the sake of a little extra time?

We would not want to have to write about this again in a month or two and have to say “We told you so”. We sincerely hope for all our sakes that our fears are unfounded, something that only time will tell.

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