Is this really the end of our Covid nightmare In Britain ? Some scientists fear a third wave next winter, while others believe things are even better than Boris admits but zero Covid will probably never happen

Scientists are not usually the most confrontational bunch. But in the past few weeks the normally staid and uncontroversial world of epidemiology – a branch of medicine that involves working out how diseases spread and what can be done to control them – has erupted into all-out war.

Personal insults have been traded and deeply polarised views have led to the academic equivalent of a stand-off. Senior scientists have been accused of bullying and ‘tearing down’ colleagues who they disagree with, and the public spats are becoming ever more heated.

So what is it that has so divided the nation’s top experts? The answer is a crucial issue that has implications for us all – the route out of lockdown.

On one side are those who back the Government’s roadmap – the implication that we will learn to live with the virus and accept a certain number of hospitalisations and deaths, like with seasonal flu, as a trade-off for regaining our freedom.

The Covid vaccines would ‘take some of the heavy load’ and mean that infections did not inevitably mean hospitalisations and deaths, Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said last week

But there’s an alternative view that is becoming increasingly prominent, with a growing band of scientists advocating a strategy known as Zero Covid – near elimination of the virus from Britain. 

It is, they point out, what China, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand have achieved. And, as proof, they point to how normal life is in those countries right now.

For months their citizens have been free to socialise, go to theatres and attend packed festivals, rock concerts and nightclubs – often without a mask in sight. And it could be like this in Britain, say those who back Zero Covid. In this scenario, society would be opened up only when new Covid cases were vanishingly low and almost every person in the country had been vaccinated.

They warn that hopes of somehow keeping a highly infectious virus circulating at a low level are misplaced and any attempt to do so is likely to end in a third, horrific wave. And this – nightmarishly – would mean no other option but another lockdown to avoid the NHS being overwhelmed.

Last week, Boris Johnson poured cold water on such assertions, dismissing Zero Covid as ‘not credible’. But Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health and an adviser to the Scottish government, insists it is a possibility and one we should seriously consider.

Earlier this month, Prof Sridhar wrote online that Covid could end up ‘more like measles than flu… eliminated largely in rich countries with continual flare-ups requiring outbreak response’. Her words triggered an extraordinary backlash from other academics.

In a further post, Prof Sridhar hit out at academics with ‘large egos’ who felt ‘a need to tear each other down and show how smart they are, at the expense of others. I’ve ignored it and blocked – life’s too short for that kind of behaviour’.

Those on the other side of the debate argue that eradicating the virus is impossible, even with the vaccine, without many more months of total lockdown. And even then there would doubtless be pockets in society where the virus could silently hide, only to spring up again when we thought it was safe.

There is little middle ground and it’s fair to say tensions are running high in the scientific community.

But the stakes are high as the UK continues to battle against one of the highest Covid death and infection rates in the world. So can either side claim to have the answer?

First, there is one view that is almost universally agreed by scientists: more infections, and sadly more deaths, are inevitable if we follow our current path.

As Martin Hibberd, Professor of Emerging Infectious Disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, says: ‘Every scenario to open up society leads to a rise in transmission.’

The virus is still in circulation, with just under 10,000 new cases a day at present. The crucial questions, however, are not if another wave will hit, but when – and how serious will it be?

Those on the other side of the debate argue that eradicating the virus is impossible, even with the vaccine, without many more months of total lockdown. And even then there would doubtless be pockets in society where the virus could silently hide, only to spring up again when we thought it was safe.

There is little middle ground and it’s fair to say tensions are running high in the scientific community.

But the stakes are high as the UK continues to battle against one of the highest Covid death and infection rates in the world. So can either side claim to have the answer?

First, there is one view that is almost universally agreed by scientists: more infections, and sadly more deaths, are inevitable if we follow our current path.

As Martin Hibberd, Professor of Emerging Infectious Disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, says: ‘Every scenario to open up society leads to a rise in transmission.’

The virus is still in circulation, with just under 10,000 new cases a day at present. The crucial questions, however, are not if another wave will hit, but when – and how serious will it be?

Those on the other side of the debate argue that eradicating the virus is impossible, even with the vaccine, without many more months of total lockdown. And even then there would doubtless be pockets in society where the virus could silently hide, only to spring up again when we thought it was safe.

There is little middle ground and it’s fair to say tensions are running high in the scientific community.

But the stakes are high as the UK continues to battle against one of the highest Covid death and infection rates in the world. So can either side claim to have the answer?

First, there is one view that is almost universally agreed by scientists: more infections, and sadly more deaths, are inevitable if we follow our current path.

As Martin Hibberd, Professor of Emerging Infectious Disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, says: ‘Every scenario to open up society leads to a rise in transmission.’

The virus is still in circulation, with just under 10,000 new cases a day at present. The crucial questions, however, are not if another wave will hit, but when – and how serious will it be?

The Government asked its scientific advisers to look at different scenarios for lifting the lockdown. They clearly showed that lifting restrictions in late April would lead to a huge wave of infections and nearly 90,000 people in hospital with Covid by July – more than four times the peak in April last year.

The advisers have proven to be uncannily accurate in their forecasting at previous stages in the pandemic, which is perhaps why the Government has ignored bullish calls from some MPs to ‘take the brakes off’.

Other scenarios presented by the advisers did not rely on dates. Instead, they looked at what would happen if lifting restrictions was tied to the numbers of people vaccinated. These forecasts are what our current roadmap is based on – and produced the least-worrying outlook, keeping hospitalisations below a peak of 20,000 in July.

Critically, though, the actual picture might be much more optimistic than the advisers thought. Studies published last week found that the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines were more effective after a single dose than was initially expected. And both are good at stopping people with no symptoms spreading the virus, which wasn’t known just a few weeks ago.

But risk expert James Ward said this alone was ‘enough to flatten the third wave’. He has calculated that based on the Government’s plans, we could be looking at 12,500 hospitalisations a week, peaking in late October. 

By comparison, there were roughly 30,000 Covid hospitalisations a week at the peak of the second wave in January. The NHS could easily cope and, despite mask-wearing and social distancing still being observed, society could be almost normal.

So that’s the ‘good’ news. But for those who back Zero Covid, this is simply a policy of tolerable deaths, which they say is not just ethically wrong but avoidable.

Both side, doubtless, know there are problems that cannot be ignored. First, enough people need to take the vaccines for them to do their job. And no vaccination programme is perfect. By the time hair salons, gyms and pubs open up again – scheduled for the middle of April – the vast majority of adults under 50 will still not have had a jab.

About 20 per cent of the population are under the age of 18, and the vaccine is not licensed for use in children. While they are not likely to get ill with the virus, teens, in particular, can spread Covid. And the vaccines will not prevent illness in about ten to 15 per cent of people.

A further proportion – estimated to be a further 20 per cent at present – may refuse the jab.

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