Raj Bhopal, emeritus professor of public health at Edinburgh University, insisted that coronavirus is “not an infection we should be panicking about”, as he argued that other conditions such as the flu pose more of a danger to the younger generation.
Covid-19 has claimed more than 4000 lives since March but Prof Bhopal has argued in a paper for the journal Public Health in Practice that the worst effect of the virus is confined to old people who should be the focus of lockdown measures.
The herd immunity approach, whereby enough people are immune to the infection through previous exposure that it will no longer significantly spread among the rest of the population, has been rejected by ministers.
Prof Bhopal said he preferred the term “population immunity”.
He said: “If about 40 to 50 per cent of the population has some level of immunity from this virus, we would actually clear the virus over time from the population.
“How are we going to reach that number? We can reach it through immunisation but currently we don’t have a vaccine. The best estimates are we will have a partially effective vaccine, perhaps by next summer. It’s a long time to wait, especially for low and middle income countries.
“So the other way to get it (immunisation) is by allowing some people to get the infection. Now we know that this disease is very serious in people over 70.”
It is also known to have a more serious impact on people with immune disorders, the public health expert said, such as type 2 diabetes.
But he added: “This is a very, very rare cause of death in people under 25, especially women and girls.
“So I’m not sure why we’re asking them to undergo lockdown with the severe restrictions on their lifestyles.
“They’re doing it for the older people like myself who are at higher risk. So my view is that we should be allowing young people to get on with their lives, their careers, while we make special efforts to look after the older people.
“That’s the essence of my argument. Those who have got the most to lose should be allowed to get on with their lives; those who have got the least to lose should be protected.”
Prof Bhopal insists he does not advocate allowing the virus to “rip through the community”, adding that this would be “catastrophic”.
But he added: “Once you’ve got this disease under some degree of control with an R number, reproduction number of one, then, while maintaining social distancing and some very reasonable action that we all have to take, we can actually begin to be a bit more relaxed about the people who are not at much risk.”
There were 61 deaths from coronavirus in people under 19 until the end of June but there were more than twice that from influenza and ten times that from road traffic accidents.
Data is being compiled for a paper, Prof Bopha added, where Covid “outcomes” are compared with other conditions in the community.
“You see that actually this is not an infection that we need to be panicking about.
“We have to put things into perspective.”
Prof Bhopal added: “Under- 30s, especially in women, are at very little risk from this infection, certainly not of death.
“That’s my argument. That doesn’t mean to say there will never be a death – there will be. But there’s deaths from influenza, there’s deaths from road traffic accidents. We have to see this in perspective.”