Peter Jukes finds more evidence that the origin of the disastrous concept can be traced back to the Prime Minister’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings and his US links.
The Health Secretary Matt Hancock has finally put a stake through the heart of what dominated UK Government policy on the COVID-19 pandemic for at least two months – the aspiration towards ‘herd immunity’.
As has been explained extensively in these pages, herd immunity is an immunological concept which has never been discussed or deployed in public health programmes in the absence of a vaccine for 50 years.(A vaccine for the Coronavirus is at least a year away by all estimates).
Hancock, one of the first to dismiss the idea of herd immunity within days of it being announced as Government policy on 12 March, explained the massive flaw in the reasoning on Friday.
“In a typical coronavirus, one of the six existing coronaviruses, immunity lasts a minimum of a year, and for some diseases can last up to a lifetime,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “But we don’t know that yet. Because this disease is only four months old, it’s impossible to know how long that will last. So, that is a really important scientific question that we don’t yet know the answer to.”
So here you have it: not only was ‘herd immunity’ a novel, untried concept in the absence of a vaccine, the underlying science over ‘natural’ immunity was not there. We just do not know how long antibodies against the Coronavirus persist. Yet, this very concept was used to justify delay for many weeks.
UK Herd Immunity Approach ‘Very Catastrophic’ – Says Trump
This is not just a technical or scientific point. The concept of ‘taking it on the chin’ and letting the virus run wild was at the heart of Government policy for more than two months. The Financial Times reported on Friday that Government insiders believed Downing Street “wasted a lot of time” by previously accepting that Britons should be exposed to COVID-19 in order to gain “herd immunity”.
The knock-on impact of this time-wasting is a shortage of ventilators for critical care, a lack of personal protective equipment for frontline medical staff, and the absence of a rigorous testing regime to track and combat the virus – all three of which are potentially catastrophic failings that can probably be traced back to the early days of the pandemic. For many weeks, according to the Imperial College model, the Government firmly believed that they could 60% of the UK’s population to become infected.
Even US President Donald Trump has taken to mocking the British policy. “A lot of people were saying ‘let’s just ride it out’,” he told a press conference on Tuesday. “They were looking at that concept in the UK, remember? They were very much looking at it. All of a sudden they went hard the other way because they started seeing things that weren’t good… Now Boris has tested positive and I hear – I hope – he’s going to be fine. But in the UK they were looking at that.”
Trump, who had been following a very similar policy himself for the past two months, doesn’t mention the phrase ‘herd immunity’ though he was clearly referring to it when he said “they have a name for it”. “It would have been very catastrophic I think if that had happened,” he added.
Meanwhile, both Britain and the US have COVID-19 fatalities rising on a steeper curve than Italy at the same stage of the pandemic – and with the advantage of at least two weeks preparation. Is there more in both countries’ laissez faire attitude to the pandemic in the early days than a shared ideological opposition to Government intervention?
Enter: Dominic Cummings
There is a well established transatlantic alliance between key figures in Boris Johnson’s Government and the team around Donald Trump.
I’ve documented some of the key meetings and connections around Steve Bannon, Robert Mercer and the Young Britons Foundation. DeSmog has exposed the many financial connections between US corporations, right-wing foundations and the network of opaquely funded think tanks and lobby groups in the UK, particularly those associated with Matthew Elliott and his ‘Tufton Street’ network. Elliott was reported to be advising the Johnson administration and, of course, was a key figure in the successful Vote Leave Brexit campaign, whose members now dominate the British Government.
This network of think tanks and lobbyists have successfully derailed climate change legislation and many of the same claims of ‘hoax’ and excessive intervention have been deployed over COVID-19.
The Prime Minister’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings was a pivotal figure in the ‘herd immunity’ strategy according to Byline Times sources close to the COBRA emergency committee, and an extensive account of the last few weeks by Tim Shipman in the Sunday Times. Though Number 10 has denied that Cummings said anything approaching “protect the economy and if some pensioners die, too bad”, there is no denying the multiple reports that Cummings was the main figure driving herd immunity.
So where did Cummings and his team come up with the novel if disastrous concept?
The comparison with Trump’s policy is more than just coincidental. According to the Imperial College team tasked by the UK Government to come up with strategies for the pandemic, they were sharing data with the US. One of the key proponents of the laissez faire attitude that informed the Trump administration was Richard A. Epstein, a senior fellow of the Hoover Institute and a New York University professor who wrote an influential paper on 16 March called Coronavirus Perspective in which he said that “progressives think they can run everyone’s lives through central planning” and claimed that only 500 people would die from the virus, which he then revised to 5,000. (As of Friday, the US has recorded 6,095 fatalities).
In a revealing and fractious interview with Isaac Chotiner of the New Yorker, Epstein not only confessed to the flimsy evidence for his figures and modelling, he also made the baseless claim that the Coronavirus was evolving into different less virulent strains. Throughout the interview, Epstein boasted of 40 years knowledge of “evolutionary theory” suggesting some kind of co-evolutionary “adaptation” was happening between humans and SARS-CoV-2 which would solve the problem without much intervention. (There is no evidence for this in such a short timescale). Epstein belongs to a group of libertarian thinkers who are often described as ‘evolutionary economists’.
Cummings is clearly an admirer of Epstein and been influenced by his thinking. In 2004, while running his short-lived libertarian think tank the New Frontiers Foundation, Cummings invited Epstein to London to give a lecture on the EU constitution. Epstein wrote a follow-up essay, for which Cummings wrote the preface, the next year.
In 2013, in his 237 page-long paper Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities, Cummings expressed his own fascination with evolutionary ideas in economics and developed the notion that computer science and ‘genetic algorithms’ could combat “bioterrorism or pandemics” using “artificial immune systems” and “agent based models”. Cummings directly quotes another New York University professor, Joshua M. Epstein, and his 2009 paper Modelling to Contain Pandemics which discusses the “classical epidemic modelling” of the 1920s which revealed “the threshold nature of epidemics and explained ‘herd immunity’, where the immunity of a subpopulation can stifle outbreaks, protecting the entire herd.”
Given his seven year interest in this, it is hard to avoid the evidence that Cummings is the source of the herd immunity error. Meanwhile, the emphasis on data modelling at the expense of public health interventions matches an ideological antipathy to socialised healthcare clearly shared across the Atlantic. Richard Epstein’s misleading estimate about COVID-19 fatality rates was echoed by former MEP Daniel Hannan, a close colleague of Cummings, in the pages of the Daily Telegraph in the UK a few days later when he claimed that modelling only projected 5,700 deaths. Hannan has co-authored books calling for the dismantling of Britain’s National Health Service and described it as a “60 year old mistake” on Fox News.
Beyond the ideology and the neo-Darwinian basis of the their modelling, what else was shared during the early days of the pandemic to explain the reckless negligence of both the British and American Governments? Only an eventual public inquiry will suffice if we are to find out.