A concept first discussed publicly by the Government itself, the Health Secretary is trying to put the genie back in the bottle – something which must not be allowed when people’s lives are the cost.
“It’s been rubbish from start to finish,” the Health Secretary insisted on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. “My job is to save lives and to tackle this virus the very best we can. We’ve had a clear strategy all the way through which we’ve published… When people write articles about all of this, I just want them to know that they’re talking nonsense. What has been absolutely clear in our response is our strategy is to bend the curve down to make sure the curve is always below NHS capacity.”
Matt Hancock’s response to whether the Government’s initial attempts to follow a ‘herd immunity’ approach to tackling the Coronavirus had cost it valuable time, was a classic exercise in deflection.
Earlier in the week, US President Donald Trump – demonstrating just how special the ‘special relationship’ is – had referred to it as “a concept if you don’t mind death, a lot of death” which “they were looking at in the UK… and all of a sudden they went hard the other way because they started seeing things that weren’t good, so they put themselves in a little bit of a problem. It would have been very catastrophic”.
Asked about why Trump would say this, or why the Government’s own Chief Scientific Advisor had referred to herd immunity if it was never part of the plan, Hancock told Marr that it was a “scientific concept” and not “the goal and strategy of the Government”. Paradoxically, he then also added that “in the future, when we learn all of the lessons that we possibly can, people will no doubt have this debate”.
His main message, though, was that to question the Government about herd immunity now is a “distraction”.
How in all honesty can he say this? How can a concept first put into public discussion by his Government and its advisors now be a tool of distraction being used by others to deflect from the unquestionable priority of saving lives? The point he is trying to dodge is a simple one. It is not about whether mentioning herd immunity now is a distraction, but how making herd immunity a point of focus was a distraction of the Government’s own making – one which cost it vital time and is hastily being buried, even as others call for its resurrection.
‘Catch the Virus in the Least Deadly Way Possible’
Simply put, the theory of ‘herd immunity’ is that a spread of a disease through a community can be resisted if enough of its members become immune to it. The key point, however, is that it is achieved through vaccination, not through the natural spread of the disease itself.
Despite this, the Prime Minister himself referred to it on 5 March, early on in the Government’s response to the impending outbreak of COVID-19 in the UK. When asked about whether delaying the Coronavirus was about ‘flattening the curve’ of the pandemic, he told This Morning: “That’s where a lot of debate has been and one of the theories is that perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures… I think it would be better if we take all the measures that we can now to stop the peak of the disease.”
His comments raised eyebrows. If ‘herd immunity’ was never the “goal and strategy of the Government”, as Matt Hancock insisted this weekend, why did Boris Johnson even mention it to begin with?
This was followed a week later by an article by ITV News’ political editor Robert Peston, in which he wrote that “the strategy of the British Government in minimising the impact of COVID-19 is to allow the virus to pass through the entire population so that we acquire herd immunity”.
Just three days later, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, told Sky News: “We think this virus is likely to be one that comes year on year, becomes like a seasonal virus. Communities will become immune to it and that’s going to be an important part of controlling this longer term. About 60% is the sort of figure you need to get herd immunity.”
60% of the UK population getting the Coronavirus, which has an estimated death rate of 1%, would lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths. If it was not the “goal and strategy of the Government” why was Vallance talking about it – at a time when no social distancing measures had been put in place in the UK and 250,000 people were being allowed to flock over four days to the Cheltenham races?
Although the Government performed a radical volteface from “mitigation” to “suppression” of the virus – after a report by the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team stated that its mitigation approach would lead to 260,000 deaths – the concept is still being advocated, now as a way out of lockdown.
On Saturday, The Times’ front page story declared that ‘Britain May Still Need to Adopt Herd Immunity’ and quoted Graham Medley, a member of the SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) and referred to as the “Government’s Chief Pandemic Modeller”. The newspaper said he had told it that “Britain must consider allowing people to catch the virus in the least deadly way possible rather than letting unemployment, domestic violence and mental ill health mount indefinitely”.
The Daily Mail followed up on running the story and quoted Professor Medley as saying: “This disease is so nasty that we had to suppress it completely. Then we’ve kind of painted ourselves into a corner, because then the question will be what do we do now? In broad terms, are we going to continue to harm children to protect vulnerable people or not? The measures to control cause harm. The principal one is economic, and I don’t mean to the economy generally, I mean to the incomes of people who rely on a continuous stream of money and their children, particularly the school closure aspect.”
No Clear Answers
That saving lives is the immediate priority and the Government should be properly scrutinised when it comes to matters of life and death – including the significance of ‘herd immunity’ to its Coronavirus approach – can both be true. Hancock simply doesn’t wish it to be so.
Writing in The Guardian, Dr Anthony Costello, a former director at the World Health Organisation (WHO), has said that, despite the promise of 100,000 tests a day, Hancock’s Government is still following a de facto herd immunity approach because any one measure alone – such as introducing a lockdown and then, at some point, boosting testing – will not bring the Coronavirus under control.
“I spoke to a senior international epidemic expert, who wished to remain anonymous,” he wrote. “They described the UK’s response as too weak. ‘Finding these viruses is like guerrilla warfare. If you don’t know where the virus is hiding you cannot control it. We must use a bundle of measures to chase it. We must organise teams of friendly community workers to find people with symptoms, test for the virus, isolate and treat them, and trace their contacts’ they said.”
Meanwhile, we should question whether the spread of the virus could have been controlled sooner and the pressures now facing our public services, particularly the NHS, could have been avoided.
If the UK had been less distracted and better prepared when it knew COVID-19 was on its way, it is likely that the shambles of recent days and weeks could have been prevented. Doctors and nurses are still without personal protective equipment, the general public with symptoms has no way of knowing whether they have had the Coronavirus or not with tests and contract tracing lacking, only 30 out of the required 30,000 ventilators have been obtained, and no one can can explain the discrepancy between the Government’s recommendation of isolation for one week with symptoms while the WHO recommends isolation for two weeks after symptoms stop.
There is still very little clarity on any of this.
So Hancock cannot hide behind the shield of ‘distraction’. Yes, his immediate task is ensuring that the NHS can cope with this unprecedented crisis and that lives are saved. But, many questions must be asked of him, Boris Johnson and all of those who advised them about why herd immunity was ever mentioned publicly as having a role to play in tackling this virus – and why they are now so keen to forget it ever happened.