Geraint Davies MP argues that the Government is still trying to ‘manage’ COVID-19 under ‘herd immunity’ rather than eliminating it as other countries have done.
The plan for ‘immunity passport’, allowing those who have contracted the Coronavirus to go back to work on the untested assumption that they are neither infectious nor are at risk from re-infection, should cause us all alarm.
This seems to be the latest evidence that the government is still singing off the herd immunity hymn sheet originally promoted by the Prime Minister’s ‘Behavioural Insights Team’ and Dominic Cummings — putting profit above public health.
A subpopulation of workers with antibodies alongside an uninfected at-risk population is not an exit strategy at all.
Of course, this has driven the government to water down its fifth test for when lockdown measures should be relaxed. Now, rather than seeking not to “risk a second peak of infections”, the government seems content in “avoiding a second peak of infections that overwhelms the NHS”.
It shows that the government’s short-sighted focus is on managed infection instead of getting rid of the virus at the consequence of huge and avoidable risks to our public health and economy. The UK government is buying 50 million antibody testing kits to find who has had the Coronavirus. That’s half a billion pounds to measure the level of UK ‘herd immunity’ so the government can create a list to start to dish out these passports.
Herd immunity is at best untested social science, with scathing reviews from experts. The British Society of Immunology has said: “we don’t yet know if this novel virus will induce long-term immunity in those affected as other related viruses do not”. Equally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has not found evidence of immunity for those who have recovered from the Coronavirus, with some being re-infected and infectious.
In fact, for herd immunity to ‘work’ it would require sixty to eighty per cent of the population to be infected causing many tens of thousands of deaths. The health care required for each the Coronavirus case means that the available NHS workforce cannot manage multiple peaks despite the new Nightingale hospitals. So, the plan lacks both compassion and credibility.
Instead, the only way to stop this virus is to drive down its transmission by lockdown, alongside mass testing and tracking, so it can be isolated then removed so restrictions can be eased. This has been successful in countries like Germany and China, allowing a death toll five times less than the UK.
In China virtually everyone stopped work, only one person per household could get the groceries once a week, supermarkets and public transport required mask-wearing to inhibit transmission and to prevent face touching. Anyone entering hospitals, airports and other public place has an instant temperature test.
Compared to the proposal for Immunity Passports, digital ‘green cards’ are issued in China those who are not infectious, not simply to those who have previously been infected. Those discharged from hospital go to requisitioned hotels or offices to prevent household infection. This strategy of testing, tracking and isolating the virus has meant that economic and social life is back with no new cases from inside China. Lockdown has been lifted with precautionary measures still in place.
So, like them, we should follow WHO’s mantra of “trace, test, and treat”. UK should not delay, as it did in adopting the WHO’s 14-day quarantine in place of 7 days which allowed the disease to spread. That means mass testing for who has the virus now, including temperature testing — which instantly filters out the great majority of infectious people in a shared space.
One month into lockdown and people are understandably restless, but until lockdown goes side by side with mass testing to identify who is infectious, we cannot create a sustainable exit strategy. A subpopulation of workers with antibodies alongside an uninfected at-risk population is not an exit strategy at all.
We must focus on what works to drive out the virus to save lives and banish the false prophet of herd immunity forever. We can then all live safely, complete with face masks and social distancing, in the ‘new normal’ until the vaccine arrives and lifts this deadly curse once and for all.
Geraint Davies is the Labour Member of Parliament for Swansea West