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Prof Hugh Pennington: We have not seen evidence to support claim new Covid variant is more transmissible

Professor Hugh Pennington.
Professor Hugh Pennington.

A leading north-east microbiologist has called into question the reason behind the cancellation of eased coronavirus restrictions during the festive period.

Professor Hugh Pennington says the scrapping of the four nations-agreed five-day Christmas bubble is a necessary move, but suggests claims the new variant is pushing the virus out of control to be questionable.

The Aberdeen University professor said: “The big issue with the variant is that it’s no nastier than the first one that came in March.

“It doesn’t kill people more readily or make them any more unwell but it’s said to be more transmissible. However, that’s what we’re being told. We have not seen any evidence to back that claim up.

“We haven’t seen any data that shows the increase in England is down to the new variant rather than people just not behaving themselves. Politicians won’t want to say that.

“If this virus has mutated to become more transmissible that would be a scientific novelty.

“It could be a coincidence with it getting commoner as the infection rate goes up.”

He said the only way to be sure, ahead of waiting on retrospective studies, would be to find out if the variant is more transmissible by checking what the infected dose is of one person to compare.

Mr Pennington added: “Is it more transmissible because you only have to breathe in a smaller dose of it? Or does somebody infected with it breathe out more virus?

“That’s what they need to find out.”

The only other way to find out if people were more susceptible to this variant was through a volunteer study where you’d “pump the virus” into a room full of people…” and that’s unethical”, he added.

“It’s very hard to prove whether something is more transmissible or less. I’m not saying it’s not possible… but I would like to see more evidence.”

‘It’s a political catastrophe’

He suggested the discovery of the latest variant came at a “helpful” time for politicians.

“One cynical way of looking at it is that the mutation has come in very handy to cancel Christmas,” Mr Pennington added. “Earlier in the week the prime minister said that would be inhumane.

It’s a political catastrophe and it was entirely predictable in that we knew a five-day break was going to lead to more cases and more deaths and us paying a heavy price in January.

“The politicians knew the bubble was a bad decision and now the variant has come in and it has come as a very handy reason for cancelling those Christmas plans.

“This way it was all the virus’ fault rather than them having to reverse a bad political decision.

“I’m wary of the virus being used in this way particularly since we haven’t seen any evidence to this transmissibility claim.”

The three-week lockdown beginning on Boxing Day has also come in for criticism, with Mr Pennington having long claimed the “draconian” lockdown measures were not the answer.

Instead he’s again calling for improvements in the test and protect tracking system across Scotland and for “proper incentives” to encourage people to self-isolate properly if asked to.

“The test and protect system is not working very well, in fact it’s hardly working at all,” he added. “When it gets to a certain number of cases it’s overwhelmed.

“The only real way that we can control this virus is by self-isolation and people doing that properly.

“The whole system is defective and that’s one of the reasons the virus has taken off here and one of the big reasons we are not in control of it.

“All we are doing is responding with draconian measures that will slow it rather than stop it.

“Self-isolation is the only way we can stop the virus getting about. Until we get very good at that kind of policy and massively improve the contact tracing who knows when lockdowns will be eased.”

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