Struggle emerging between those who believe we must learn to live with the virus and those who seek to keep restrictions in place
By Sarah Knapton, Science Editor25 January 2021 • 7:05pm
Who would have thought such a tiny DNA change could cause so many problems?
The Kent Covid variant has not only swept through Britain, causing virus cases to rocket, it has also exposed deep divides in scientists advising the Government.
At a Downing Street press conference on Friday, Boris Johnson, flanked by Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, warned that the mutated virus may increase the Covid death rate by 30 per cent.
According to the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), while the old strain killed around one per cent of those infected, the new variant kills 1.3 per cent.
Yet behind the scenes there were grumblings from Government scientific advisers that the data was not yet strong enough to justify such an announcement. Concerns that the results were “low confidence” had been ignored, they claimed, and some were worried the data was being hijacked to stifle debate about lifting restrictions.
The way the press was informed about the new data was also very odd. A background briefing between science journalists and senior Government scientists was cancelled at the last minute, and the new death rates were instead given to political reporters.
It was unclear why, because there were no policy implications arising from the news – but it was hard not to suspect that the Government did not want science specialists scrutinising the data too closely.
In fact, by the time the Department of Health sent out the Nervtag briefing note it was far too late for journalists to quiz officials on the data at the afternoon press conference.
A quick glance through the note showed how uncertain the results were. The paper concluded there was a a “realistic possibility” of the Kent variant being more deadly, which translates at between 40 and 50 per cent probability of it actually being true.
Government sources told The Telegraph that Downing Street was “desperate” to get the results out – possibly to prevent a weekend of wild abandon – after new data showed cases were noticeably down and the ‘R’ rate was now between 0.8 and one.
To be fair, Sir Patrick attempted to downplay the new mortality rate, warning there was “a lot of uncertainty” about the figures. He admitted there was “a range of data” on the new variant, some of which suggested no increase in mortality at all and “no real evidence of an increase in mortality” among those in hospital with the strain.
But what happened on Friday is a good example of the rift that is growing in Sage and its sub-groups. A major struggle is emerging between those who believe we must learn to live with the virus, accepting a certain level of cases and deaths each year, as we do with flu, and those who seek to keep harsh restrictions in place to try and eliminate it.
There are fears that those on the elimination side may try to use the virus as an excuse to keep other diseases down, insisting on bringing back mask-wearing in the winter, for example, to lower flu cases even if coronavirus is under control.
Those on the toleration side claim they are often shouted down by stronger voices.
It is understood that Prof Whitty, in particular, is growing increasingly concerned about the collateral damage from extensive lockdowns. He has spoken regularly about his fears about the indirect effect of the pandemic response.
Speaking at a recent health select committee meeting, he indicated that society must determine what was an acceptable level of risk, at which point “we can largely do away with certainly the most onerous things that we have to deal with”.
A response from Dr Susan Hopkins, the strategic response director at Public Health England (PHE) about how reliable the new data is was also fairly lukewarm.
“There is evidence from some but not all data sources which suggests that the variant of concern which was first detected in the UK may lead to a higher risk of death than the non-variant,” she said. “Evidence on this variant is still emerging and more work is under way to fully understand how it behaves.”
A background note from PHE warned that there were “important limitations to the data” and said it was possible that “we are not seeing the full picture”. Crucially, PHE concluded that it could not say with certainty that there was any greater risk, and that the overall risk of death remains low “both for the new variant and the older variant”.
This divide between the scientists will only increase as we get close to a lockdown release decision. It is important that those who feel they are being silenced now speak up so that the public can hear both sides of the argument.