Could speeding up the UK’s Covid-19 infections end the pandemic quicker?

UCL professor says removing restrictions is best way to ‘reduce serious illness and death’

Covid jab sign
(Image credit: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)

The best way to bring about the end of the pandemic is to speed up the rate of Covid-19 infections in the UK, according to a leading epidemiologist from University College London.

“Up to now it made sense to slow Covid down and to reduce transmission to ensure most people got the best protection,” Professor Irene Petersen wrote in a much-retweeted Twitter thread. But, she continued, it’s time to change strategy. “If we want to reduce serious illness and death from Covid we should seek to speed the epidemic up.”

Petersen went on to state that the UK needs to reach a level where 95% of the population have immunity either from a Covid vaccine or by recovering from the virus. “As we have never been better protected by the vaccines than we are now it is time to let go of the remaining Covid restrictions,” she said.

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Petersen stated that this “might mean the number of cases might increase for a short while” but that it is likely that we will then see cases “crashing as there won’t be many susceptible individuals left”.

“It is important that we get to this stage before the boosters wane too much,” she continued.

Plans to drop all regulations

Petersen’s intervention corresponds with Boris Johnson’s recently announced plan to drop all remaining Covid regulations – including the requirement to isolate after testing positive – in under two weeks, bringing the date forward from 24 March.

“We should recognise that most of us are likely to get exposed to Omicron sooner or later,” wrote Petersen. “We should therefore remove legal requirements for isolation at a time where the 3x vaxxed have the most protection. This is likely to speed up the epidemic.”

‘Beyond dangerous and reckless’

Both Petersen and the PM’s proposals to ditch remaining restrictions have been criticised by other experts. “There is no way dropping self-isolation can be described as sensible public health policy,” Aris Katzourakis, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Oxford, told Reuters.

Petersen’s Twitter thread also came in for criticism, with one user describing her proposed strategy as “beyond dangerous and reckless” and another saying it “borders on criminal insanity”.

The notion of “speeding up” the number of infections has also been slammed by clinically vulnerable or immunosuppressed groups. Gemma Peters, the chief executive of Blood Cancer UK, told The Guardian that cutting all Covid regulations would create “anxiety and anger” for those with suppressed immune systems.

According to the paper, new figures suggest that people with blood cancer are now accounting for a higher proportion of Covid deaths than at any point in the pandemic.

“Ministers need to ensure the public know that there are 500,000 people in the UK for whom the vaccine is less effective and therefore are not as ‘free’ as everyone else,” Peters added.

And on social media, one user responded to Petersen’s theory with: “Are you including condolences to the families of transplant [patients], those with [blood] cancers and those on immunosuppressant [medication]? Because, otherwise, I’d think you simply don’t give a damn about them.”

However, evidence suggests that the strategy could work. Denmark, which recently lifted all Covid restrictions, has seen a rise in infections, but not hospitalisations and deaths, particularly among fully vaccinated and boosted individuals.

New Covid strain could be more lethal

Experts have warned No. 10 against removing all restrictions on 24 February, saying it is wrong to assume that future variants will be milder than Omicron.

“People seem to think there has been a linear evolution of the virus from Alpha to Beta to Delta to Omicron,” virologist Lawrence Young of Warwick University told The Observer. “A new one could turn out to be even more pathogenic than the Delta variant, for example.”

The government’s most senior health advisers Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance are also under pressure to hold a press conference to explain the evidence that has backed up the PM’s decision to bring the end of restrictions forward by a month.

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