Professor Simon Harvey explains why he and over 100 UK scientists have signed a letter warning about plans to ease easing lockdown.
“We have experienced pandemics regularly and have been lucky that we haven’t had one for a long time.” I, and many others, have been saying words to this effect for years in the lectures where we have taught students about infectious disease. Sentences like this are usually followed by discussion of previous pandemics, of epidemics that didn’t become pandemics, of the conditions that favour disease spread, and of what can be done to stop the development of that spread.
In January 2020 I started teaching our Human Disease module. On January 29 I delivered the first session to our second year Human Biology students. This was the day before the World Health Organisation declared the new coronavirus disease, that would come to be called Covid-19, a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. I’d been following the news about the disease for a while by this point, and over the first few weeks of Human Disease we used some of the early preprints of SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19 research as springboards for discussing a range of topics related to infectious disease.
We all know what happened next. The situation worsened, a pandemic was declared and the country eventually locked down. This meant the later parts of the Human Disease module, like all our teaching in that semester, ended up being delivered online. What started as a situation that might have become the next SARS or MERS – devastating diseases, but ones limited in their global impact – had become something much worse.
Practically, this meant that the module that had initially used SARS-CoV-2 / Covid-19 as an interesting case study, ended up with one of the final bits of content dealing with the disease in a much more immediate way. At this stage it had become about trying to point students towards the science that would help them, and their families, stay safe.
The last in-person session of Human Disease sticks in my mind. We were worried about how bad the situation was going to get. We knew a lockdown was coming, and we were frustrated by the delay in the UK’s response to the pandemic. Months later and the national situation is far from ideal, with continued community transmission, the highest total number of deaths in Europe, and with most estimates of the reproduction number of the virus placing it only just below 1.
This is why I am one of the 105 UK scientists that signed the recent open letter warning against plans to ease lockdown measures.
Yes, lockdown does bring many challenges, but these can be dealt with if we have the will to do so. It is a matter of choice the extent to which we rebuild the world as it was, or if we seek to make a better one. One thing should however be clear, damage to the economy can be fixed, but no amount of money can bring back even a single person who dies in this pandemic.
Simon Harvey is Professor of Evolutionary Biology in the School of Human and Life Sciences.