Nafeez Ahmed reports on Home Office private advice suggesting a ‘zombie herd immunity’ policy risking hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Leaked recordings of a Home Office conference call on Tuesday, exclusively obtained by Byline Times, reveal that the Government has all but given up in its fight against the Coronavirus and is intent on simply finding “a method of managing it within the population”.
The recordings show Home Office Deputy Science Advisor Rupert Shute stating repeatedly that the Government believes “we will all get” COVID-19 eventually. The call further implied that the Government now considers hundreds of thousands of deaths unavoidable over a long-term period consisting of multiple peaks of the disease.
While urging the importance of reducing the burden on the NHS by staying at home, Shute downplayed the risk of people contracting the virus at work.
He said: “It’s perfectly okay to carry on around your business. And it’s vitally important that you do as there’s a whole bunch of supply chains and the economy that needs to continue running… So carrying on with your normal work is not putting you in harms way anymore so than staying at home or going out shopping. So I keep coming back to this point that we are all going to get this at some point. And it’s about making sure that we have a really strong NHS there to support us when we do get sick.”
The policy being communicated by the Home Office privately among Government staffers is at odds with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s statement at a press conference three weeks ago that the next 12 weeks could “turn the tide of this disease”.
Selective transcripts of the recordings were published by BBC News and widely reported across the British press from there. But the BBC News story focused primarily on fears that the Home Office’s insistence on staff showing up to work for Her Majesty’s Passport Office would put them at heightened danger of contracting COVID-19.
While valid, this angle failed to cover the leak’s wider revelations regarding the Government’s broader strategy. A fuller analysis of leaked recordings obtained by Byline Times reveals that the Government remains committed to the idea that the vast majority of the UK population will contract COVID-19, making a minimum number of deaths inevitable, albeit over a longer period of time.
Using the Government’s own lowest estimate of a fatality rate at around 0.5%, this confirms that it has resigned itself to the expectation that some 264,000 Britons will inevitably die in ensuing months and years from the disease.
The recordings provide a sobering insight into how the scientific advice feeding into Government policy is evolving – without, however, being meaningfully communicated to the British public or being subjected to external scientific scrutiny.
During the Home Office call, Rupert Shute spent significant time explaining what he described as the “scientific advice that sits behind the Government guidance”, which he said unmasks “the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in globally”.
The strategy sounds almost indistinguishable from the previous ‘herd immunity’ approach which the Government has attempted to distance itself from.
Reflecting on the “reality of the situation”, he said that “we will all be exposed to it at some point”. According to the “current modelling we are working on, 80% will get it – of that, a large portion won’t notice that they have it. Another substantial portion will have very, very mild symptoms. And a small portion will have a very significant reaction”.
Shute repeatedly insisted that “we can’t hide away from it forever, but we can manage the way in which we are exposed”.
The Home Office refused to provide any further clarification on the modelling the Government was using to justify this projection.
UK Government strategy, he confirmed, is not attempting to contain the spread of the virus, but simply to slow down “the rate at which we get this virus [which] has direct impact on the NHS. It’s vitally important that we don’t get it at the same time. But that does not mean we won’t still get it at some point… We’ve got to keep functioning our lives, go out for food and medication, and go out for work”.
Shute’s comments indicate that the Government’s strategy remains at odds with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. On 11 March, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called on governments to continue working to stop the spread of COVID-19: “Let me be clear: describing this as a pandemic does not mean that countries should give up. The idea that countries should shift from containment to mitigation is wrong and dangerous.”
In contrast, the leaked Home Office recordings reveal Shute speaking at length on the idea that COVID-19 is here to stay. This may well be the case, but epidemiologists and public health experts have argued that it is still too early to simply admit defeat.
Zombie Herd Immunity?
Meanwhile, New Zealand Government science advisors are aiming to “squash” COVID-19 after just two weeks of lockdown. Their strategy is consistent with the approach explained to me by former WHO director Anthony Costello, who has argued that an eight-week suppression strategy even now could begin to bring the spread of the virus “under control”.
“The evidence base is now very much heading in the direction that COVID-19 is something that humanity is going to have to learn to live with, and to manage it,” said Shute. “It’s certainly not something we’re going to be able to squash and eliminate. The current interventions are to see within [indecipherable] a few weeks whether we can find a method of managing it within the population. That is just a managing of it, that is not an elimination of it.”
The strategy sounds almost indistinguishable from the previous ‘herd immunity’ approach which the UK Government has attempted to distance itself from. Shute warned that he expected the virus would likely not disappear for “many months and many years” and that, as a result, while waiting for a vaccine, we would inevitably see repeated resurgences of the virus.
He said: “We’re in this for the long haul. Talk for the moment is around a peak and managing the current outbreak. This doesn’t mean that isn’t going to be second, third, fourth, fifth or even more peaks as we go into many months and many years. In the absence of a vaccine there is nothing to stop this virus… Life is never going to be normal again. How far away from normal is yet to be worked out and fathomed… We’re going to have to get used to a different way of living with this at home and at work.”
Balancing Deaths and Bad Science
In this context, Shute also claimed that current social distancing measures were already killing people.
“So we need to find ways where we can still function as a society,” he said. “And we are acutely aware that the measures which are in place at the moment aren’t without their side-effects… There’s been other forms of death that are starting to increase as a direct result of these measures. We have to balance two different approaches – do nothing and a lot of people will die; do something and some people might die. So this is a really hard tension to deal with there.”
However, the Home Office was unable to provide any data to substantiate Shute’s assertion that the lockdown was already causing “some” deaths in the UK.
The Home Office was unable to provide any data to substantiate Shute’s assertion that the lockdown was already causing “some” deaths in the UK.
Shute provided scientifically incorrect advice on the length of time that COVID-19 can survive on surfaces. Referring to “various international research projects looking at survival on hard surfaces and clothing”, Shute said that “so far it’s showing that it doesn’t hang around very long at all. So you’re talking about 24-48 hours. You then need to have a transmission path from that into your system. And that’s where washing your hands becomes a key and strong part of it.”
But widely publicised scientific studies show that COVID-19 can in fact survive on hard, shiny surfaces like plastic and steel for up to 72 hours, up to four days on glass and paper money, and as much as seven days on the outside of a surgical mask.
Making It Up As You Go Along
Shute went on to say that the Coronavirus is “pretty uniformly spread now across the country”.
“There are a few areas where it’s peaking a little bit more, but it’s not really that much difference,” he said. “It’s pretty much uniform across the country… And that’s why we have the advice of trying to slow down the spread, but not stopping the spread. It’s not possible to stop the spread.”
In reality, the Government is not in a position to confirm the true extent and distribution of the spread of the virus across the country, because it has not ramped up mass community testing. According to ex-WHO chief Costello, without mass testing in communities, it is impossible to really know where and how the virus is spreading. And this is what makes it impossible to contain.
When I asked the Home Office how Shute could be so certain of the true spread of the virus in the absence of mass testing, a spokesperson simply ignored the question.
Workers at Risk to Keep the Economy ‘Running’
During the call, Shute insisted that Home Office staff should be willing to go back to work. But his attempt to provide reassurance that the risks are minimal were self-contradictory.
On the one hand, he said: “If you have a vulnerable person in your house and you yourself are not vulnerable and you’re going out to work… the vulnerable person… is one step further away from going out and doing that themselves. It might feel that you’re putting that vulnerable person at risk by you going out. Statistically you are helping them an awful lot by them not having to go out of the house.”
But he then noted that, if a person in the household then ends up contracting COVID-19, causing the whole household to go into the 14-day quarantine period, “that does mean that that vulnerable person in that household will more than likely contract COVID-19”. He overlooked the obvious implication that a person going out to work would invariably put a vulnerable member of their own household at higher risk.
Shute then made clear that he considers it vitally important that people continue to go to work to keep the economy moving and that this is equivalent in risk to staying at home or shopping – because, he insisted, we are all ultimately doomed to get the Coronavirus.
“There’s no distinction between critical and non-critical work,” he said. “Because the test is: can you do it at home? If you can’t do it at home, then you carry on with your work. All manner of professions and trades fit into that catch-all. It’s perfectly okay to carry on around your business. And it’s vitally important that you do as there’s a whole bunch of supply chains and the economy that needs to continue running… So carrying on with your normal work is not putting you in harm’s way anymore so than staying at home or going out shopping. So I keep coming back to this point that we are all going to get this at some point. And it’s about making sure that we have a really strong NHS there to support us when we do get sick.”
I put to the Home Office that Rupert Shute appeared to be voicing a clear preference for people to work and put themselves at risk of contracting COVID-19 – all to keep the economy going, with the main justification that people will eventually get it anyway, so there is no point trying too hard to avoid getting it.
While appreciating that any government would need to account for the impacts on the economy of long-term social distancing measures, the Government’s fatalistic refusal to consider a pathway of trying to “squash” the virus appears to have locked itself into an avoidable trajectory bound to kill both the economy and many vulnerable people.
Unfortunately, the Home Office spokesperson I dealt with had no answers at all to any of my questions about Shute’s description of the Government’s scientific assumptions about COVID-19. Instead, I was provided an irrelevant statement about how HMPO is “fully adhering to public health advice across all of its offices and adopting social distancing measures to keep both its staff and customers safe”.
The statement added: “It was made clear in the meeting that the Government’s priority is slowing the spread of Coronavirus and we all have a part to play in order to protect the NHS and save lives.”
The statement was prefaced by the following caveat: “We’re not going into detail on the contents of a leaked call.”