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Telling public to use their judgment on hugs after 17 May is 'reckless', says scientist

·4-min read
District nurse embracing worried with senior woman during home visit. They are standing in living room.
The government has said people in England can hug loved ones from next week. (Getty)

Telling the public to use their own judgment on hugging as England’s coronavirus lockdown eases is “reckless”, a scientist has warned.

Prime minister Boris Johnson confirmed on Monday that people will be able to hug loved ones, eat and drink inside pubs and restaurants and go on holiday from next week. 

Pupils in secondary school classrooms will no longer be required to wear face masks.

The move to the next stage of lockdown on 17 May came as zero COVID-19 deaths were recorded in England in the latest 24-hour period.

But Christina Pagel, a mathematician and professor of operational research at University College London, and a member of the unofficial Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), criticised the government’s messaging.

She tweeted: “Given what we are seeing here, telling people to use judgement [sic] about hugs and stopping masks in schools is frankly reckless.”

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Johnson announced the government's easing of England’s lockdown in a Downing Street press conference on Monday.

“This unlocking amounts to a very considerable step on the road map to normality and I am confident that we will be able to go further,” he said.

Watch: Boris Johnson urges people to only hug 'if appropriate'

As part of the 17 May changes, people will be given the choice whether to remain two metres from family or friends, meaning they can once again hug and shake hands. Number 10 said this "is a matter for personal judgment".

Johnson said: “This doesn’t mean that we can suddenly throw caution to the winds. We all know that close contacts such as hugging is a direct way of transmitting this disease.

“So I urge you to think about the vulnerability of your loved ones.”

But a number of scientists criticised the government’s decision to permit hugging from next week.

Alice Roberts, professor of public engagement in science at the University of Birmingham, tweeted: “Hugging with caution. What an idiotic oxymoron.”

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And Dr Zubaida Haque, former interim director of the Runnymede Trust and an Independent Sage member, tweeted: “I cannot tell you how angry it makes me that the government have abdicated all responsibility for managing this pandemic to the public.”

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People in Scotland will also be able to hug loved ones again from next Monday, subject to restrictions.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Tuesday that social distancing during meetings indoors or in private gardens will be dropped.

“I actually feel a wee bit emotional saying this, from Monday, as long as you stay within permitted limits, you can hug your loved ones again,” she said.

Prof Pagel also warned that the spread of the Indian COVID-19 variant in the UK is "not looking good at all".

The variant, known as B1.617.2, first detected in India, has increased sharply in the UK in the past two weeks, particularly in London and the North West.

Prof Pagel warned that recent data shows transmission of the India variant is “incredibly concerning”.

She tweeted: "It's not looking good at all. Ignoring problems when they're "small" has been one of the most damaging things this whole pandemic.”

She cited research by the Sanger Institute, which showed the Indian variant went from 1% to 11% of coronavirus cases in England in the two weeks up to 1 May.

Up to 5 May, 520 confirmed or probable cases of the Indian strain had been identified in the UK, an increase of 318 in a week.

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said on Monday the Indian variant “has gone up very sharply”, and warned it was possibly more transmissible than the Kent variant which swept across the UK in the winter.

However, he added: “At this point in time our view is that it is less likely to be able to escape vaccination than some of the other variants.”

On Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified the Indian strain as a “variant of global concern”.

The WHO said preliminary studies show it spreads more easily than other variants and is in more than 30 countries.

Watch: Indoor pints and hugs with family confirmed in lockdown easing

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