As COVID-19 sweeps across Europe for a second time, governments are ratcheting up the restrictions on our everyday lives.
But the scientists, doctors and members of the public who’ve signed the Great Barrington Declaration argue the controls are doing more harm than good.
There is no doubting the dreadful toll of coronavirus. Since the start of the epidemic, more than 42,000 people have died with COVID-19 in the UK .
But lockdown, and the interventions that have followed, have had their own impact.
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People have been deterred from seeking help for other diseases. The delayed diagnoses of just five common cancers is likely to lead to an extra 3,500 people dying over the next five years.
And almost three quarters of a million jobs have been lost so far, with many more threatened by the end of the furlough scheme.
That can damage mental health and increase the long-term risk of diseases linked to deprivation.
Has the pain been worth it?
COVID-19 is up to 1,000 times less deadly for the young than the old. Yet the whole of society is taking the hit.
The scientists behind the declaration make the pitch for an alternative strategy that they call focused protection.
They want to shield the elderly and those with underlying health conditions and allow the virus to spread through the rest of the population – who carry on with their lives as normal.
Once 50 to 60% of people have been infected, the spread of the virus should slow and the epidemic wane. In theory, it would then be safe for those who have been shielding to re-join society.
On paper, it looks hugely attractive.
The economy saved, tax revenues up, benefits payments down.
But sketching out an idea is the easy bit. Making it work is much harder.
Many other scientists have ripped into the declaration: “wishful thinking”, “dangerous”, “a false premise”, “a very bad idea”.
The thrust of their argument is that it is impossible to fully protect the most vulnerable.
More than 14,000 care home residents died with COVID-19 between April and August, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS).
Tests are fallible. Even regular testing of staff and visitors, as the Barrington scientists suggest, won’t pick up all cases. And once the virus is inside a home it quickly spreads.
Critics have said the only way to protect care homes would be for staff to also shut themselves away from the outside world, and once again deny families access to loved ones in what may be their final months.
They also warn that there’s no guarantee herd immunity is even possible with coronavirus.
Just 8% of the population has antibodies, a long way short of the threshold required.
And immunity falls rapidly after recovery. They point to other coronaviruses that cause the common cold – which we catch regularly.
The reality is that until there is a vaccine in widespread use, there will be winners and losers in whatever governments choose to do.
Sweden has stopped short of a full lockdown. But, as I know being half Swedish, they are culturally very different to the British.
They’re naturally more socially distanced and have a strong sense of social responsibility. But even that hasn’t stopped them enduring a death rate that far exceeds their Scandinavian neighbours, who did lockdown.
The countries with the greatest success in fighting the virus have been aggressive in their approach.
South Korea brought in an intrusive test and trace strategy; New Zealand isolated itself from the rest of the world.
What we need is an effective treatment that significantly reduces the death rate from COVID-19.
That would be a game-changer.
We don’t shut down the economy every winter to protect the elderly against flu. Nor do we incarcerate people in their homes for their own good.
Yet the disease still results in something like 10,000 deaths, even in an average year. We accept that as a society.
There is no sign yet of such a treatment for COVID-19, although survival rates are gradually improving thanks to drugs such as the steroid dexamethasone.
In the meantime, as the Great Barrington debate proves, scientists are split over what to do.
Some say the current restrictions are too much, others say they do too little. But nobody knows for sure.