The ‘trials’ being carried out in the UK on thousands of people entering crowded indoor venues without masks and social distancing are unethical.

First published in May 2021.

The ‘trials’ being carried out in the UK on thousands of people entering crowded indoor venues without masks and social distancing are unethical.

Don’t just listen to me, listen to Professor Paul Monks, the study lead, who himself accepts that people are “guinea pigs”. Professor Monks, leading the trial, is also the CSA (Chief Scientific Adviser) of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

YouTube/BBC 5 Live

This trial deliberately exposes thousands of people to possible risk of COVID-19, which has no cure, stripping away measures like masks and distancing that we know protect.

He claims this trial is to make people safer. How does putting people in an indoor crowded, poorly ventilated environment, where people are shouting, without distance or masks make things safer? He claims learning from this is crucial, but we already know these measures protect.

We have real-world data on where this was done. The choir practice in Washington that led to between 50-85% of people within the room infected, 3 hospitalised, and 2 dead, with one index case only. We know SARS-CoV-2 superspreads in these conditions.

High SARS-CoV-2 attack rate following exposure at a choir practice in Washington, March 2020.

Professor Monks says that the ‘trial’ minimises risk to people. It certainly doesn’t. We don’t need to do a trial to figure out that these environments put people at risk. We know this. Why on earth would we ever expose lots of people without mitigations (masks and distance) that we know work?

The trial requires people to have a negative LFD test prior to entering. These tests are inaccurate and the MHRA recently suggested that government use of tests was “stretching” the limits of what they were authorised for as they were not authorised as green light tests.

How is putting people in the very conditions that encourage spread in the midst of a pandemic while suspending protective measures ethical? Using ‘red light’ tests as ‘green light’ tests? Would we conduct a trial of seatbelts among racers? If we did, would this be ethical?

As I say in the interview on BBC Radio 5 Live, I cannot believe this was approved by an ethics committee. It looks like trials conducted within the PHE framework are often approved by a different ethics governance framework called the Research Ethics and Governance Group (REGG). Until recently, they didn’t require ethics approval at all.

Public health research ethics. | University of York

It will be important to understand how and who approved this study.

Any trial needs to have insurance and liability arrangements made and mentioned in the information sheet prior to consenting. It is unclear how this works in this trial, and if the information is being provided to participants.

The trial only consents those who enter the venue, but the wider community is also at risk as one of the callers to the Nolan Show astutely points out.

Who is liable if one of the people at the venue develop Long-COVID, or if one of their contacts or household members gets ill?

Professor Monks says young people aren’t at much risk from COVID-19. This is not true. 1 in 5 young people go on to develop persistent symptoms for 5 weeks or more. Half of these have symptoms for much longer. We now have almost half a million people in the UK with symptoms for more than 6 months.

Prevalence of ongoing symptoms following coronavirus (COVID-19) infection in the UK: 1 April 2021. | ONS

The majority of these people were young and healthy at baseline. Just like many people attending these events. Given the age group, most are unvaccinated. Notably, even clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) people are allowed to participate in the event, despite being deemed to be at risk.

So, if you are a journalist or scientists suggesting that this is somehow ethical, I would urge you to look at the process most researchers go through to get ethics approval, and a basic principle is not to suspend protections that are known to work – suspending which could put them at risk.

Also, the trial requires people to have PCR tests within 5 days of the event. This would not pick up many infections that occurred at the event. Given the general level of drop-out with test, trace and isolate, would we even be able to accurately ascribe infections to the event?   

  • PS. Testing afterwards is encouraged but not compulsory.
  • PS2. If there are no cases found to have been transmitted at the event, will they say events are safe to go ahead regardless of community levels?

Going Further:

Dr Deepti Gurdasani, Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology, Statistical Genetics, Machine Learning, Queen Mary University of London.


[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 3 May 2021 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected, and published with the author’s consent. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Screenshot from CGTN. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)

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