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SAGEGATE – Part Two: How Herd Immunity was Imposed on Government’s Science Advisory Group On Dominic Cummings’ Watch

Nafeez Ahmed investigates how the adoption of the outlandish policy, which would have led to half a million deaths, coincided with the presence of Boris Johnson’s controversial chief advisor

SAGEGATE: Part TwoHerd Immunity was Imposed on Government’s Science Advisory Group On Dominic Cummings’ Watch

Nafeez Ahmed investigates how the adoption of the outlandish policy, which would have led to half a million deaths, coincided with the presence of Boris Johnson’s controversial chief advisor

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The minutes of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) not only confirm that the Government did not at any time give serious consideration to the possibility of suppressing the Coronavirus, they throw new light on its fascination with the idea of  ‘herd immunity’.

Herd immunity occurs when a sufficiently large number of people in a population have obtained immunity, preventing a virus from being transmitted onward. Usually, it is achieved purely as a result of vaccination, but in some cases scientists agree that it can build up naturally over time.

The SAGE minutes which I have delved into provide compelling circumstantial evidence that, contrary to official denials, herd immunity was a central Government strategy – even though SAGE scientists were not able to offer any scientific justification for it at all.

Asymptomatic Infections – Looking for Herd Immunity

On 13 February, the same day that the Government wanted to consider the impact of school closures on “the wider economy”, SAGE minutes reveal that it decided to establish another sub-group, SPI-B (Scientific Pandemic Influenza – Behaviour), “to provide behavioural science advice via SAGE throughout this incident”.

A cross-section of behavioural scientists at SPI-B would later advise the Government to use herd immunity as a way to justify an emerging policy of ‘shielding’ the elderly and vulnerable, while allowing the rest of the population to get infected with the Coronavirus.

Until mid-March, the SAGE documents confirm that the Government continued to expect that the virus would achieve “sustained transmission” in the UK, while simultaneously refusing to implement any measures that might prevent that from happening. 

On 18 February, for instance, the SAGE minutes conclude: “When there is sustained transmission in the UK, contact tracing will no longer be useful.”

The Government was not trying to prevent people getting infected and dying, but to keep this at a level which would not collapse the healthcare system. 

The Government also displayed a particular interest in understanding the scale of asymptomatic cases in the UK – which was of direct relevance to the herd immunity strategy.

While it is easier to track the number of people showing symptoms, if more people had become infected without showing symptoms, this would suggest a wider degree of transmission – giving an indication of progress in achieving herd immunity. Accordingly, the SAGE minutes called for efforts to “better understand asymptomatic cases” through more “comprehensive swabbing of returning global travellers”.

By 27 February, in a meeting attended by Dominic Cummings’ Downing Street advisor Ben Warner, SAGE updated its assumptions for a reasonable worst-case scenario. It said: “80% of the UK population may become infected, with an overall 1% fatality rate in those infected.” It also added that: “Only a proportion of those infected will experience symptoms”. 

Though seemingly innocuous, this is a crucial observation because the Government appeared to believe that a much larger number of people were asymptomatically infected, consistent with the hope that its strategy was potentially heading towards achieving herd immunity.

But it also seemed to have accepted that doing so would come at a huge cost. The Government’s working assumptions indicated an expectation that as many as 500,000 people could die with COVID-19.

Just a week earlier, Government figures produced by the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) had advanced an even worse figure of up to potentially 1.3 million fatalities. Those figures, updated by SAGE on 27 February, showed that the Government estimated that some 37% of people infected would be asymptomatic. 

Despite the Government’s own figures suggesting it was on a path to a colossal scale of death, social distancing measures were not implemented until weeks later when the Government realised that NHS capacity would be overwhelmed. The Government was not trying to prevent people getting infected and dying, but to keep this at a level which would not collapse the healthcare system. 

Two Months of Herd Immunity Thinking

In early April, Byline Times obtained leaked recordings of a confidential Home Office call showing Rupert Shute, Deputy Chief Science Advisor, telling staff that “we will all be exposed to it [COVID-19] 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,” he said. “Another substantial portion will have very, very mild symptoms. And a small portion will have a very significant reaction.”

What SAGE was describing as a ‘reasonable worst case scenario’ was being actively pursued by the Government as a strategy two months after it was first discussed in February.

The events that followed those February SAGE meetings over a particular three-day period in early March are pivotal.

The documents show that the Prime Minister’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings played a direct role in the SAGE meetings during which a herd immunity strategy ended up determining the Government’s ‘cocooning’ approach to social distancing.

On 3 March, SAGE finally began discussing the impact of “potential behavioural and social interventions on the spread of a COVID-19 epidemic in the UK”. However, the only tangible measure that was put forward was “social distancing for over-65s”. 

The following day, a group of Government behavioural science advisors called for a strategy focused on isolating only “at-risk groups” while allowing the rest of the population to acquire “immunity”.

The idea of “immunity” was not based on scientific research within SAGE, but was described by members of the SPI-B group as a public messaging strategy to help quell confusion about a Government policy of “not applying wide-scale social isolation at the same time as recommending isolation to at-risk groups… One view is that explaining that members of the community are building some immunity will make this acceptable.”

On 5 March, the SAGE minutes confirm that the Government decided to adopt this approach. The meeting during which this was cemented was attended by Cummings, Warner and David Halpern, head of the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team (known as the ‘nudge unit’).

The minutes show that the attendees agreed on recommending “social isolation (cocooning) for those over 65 or with underlying medical conditions to delay spread, modify the epidemic peak and reduce mortality rates”. Consistent with the SPI-B advice relayed the previous day, the Government was simultaneously advised to avoid other social distancing measures such as banning large public gatherings, limiting social interaction in public spaces and school closures. Instead, it was agreed that the focus would be solely on “cocooning of older and vulnerable patients”, though this would “start later, and would have to continue longer”.

By 10 March, SAGE was warning the Government that the country was just four to five weeks behind the situation in Italy. Despite this, it continued to insist that the Government should not suppress the Coronavirus on the grounds that doing so would make a second wave inevitable. 

The following day, Halpern told BBC News that by the time at-risk groups “come out of their cocooning, [the plan is that] herd immunity’s been achieved in the rest of the population”. 

Throughout this period, no scientific evidence about herd immunity was discussed or ratified by SAGE. 

The End of an Unworkable Idea

It was only later that the Government began to realise that its previous sanguine approach had allowed the Coronavirus to become far more endemic at a far faster rate than previously anticipated – in a way that could overwhelm the NHS. 

A little less than a week on, it was clear that the Government was grappling to keep up with the pace of events and, suddenly, SAGE advice switched to calling for stronger social distancing measures, which had previously been deemed “ineffective”.

“On the basis of accumulating data, including on NHS critical care capacity, the advice from SAGE has changed regarding the speed of implementation of additional interventions,” read the minutes from 16 March. “SAGE advises that there is clear evidence to support additional social distancing measures be introduced as soon as possible.”

It was also clear that SAGE appeared to be particularly confused about the efficacy of these social distancing measures because the Government had not asked the group to model them – until now. 

The minutes noted that “further analysis and modelling” of potential school closures and many other social distancing interventions was required for the Government to make its next decisions.

But this raises an obvious question: why hadn’t this analysis and modelling been done much earlier? These minutes can be read as an inadvertent admission that, until this time, the Government’s scientific understanding of the efficacy of social distancing measures was lacking in substance and inadequate to underpin its policy decisions.

The same applies to the ‘herd immunity’ approach, which appeared to remain of key interest even as the lockdown proceeded.

On 26 March – three days after the lockdown began – SAGE minutes recorded that the Government also “needs to know more about immunology and its implications”. In the same meeting, it was tasked with shifting attention to “future phases of the epidemic” during which the Government would “release current measures safely and advise on long-term issues”. 

It was only by around mid-April that SAGE began to seriously process scientific data on immunity. What it found decisively challenged the idea that ‘herd immunity’ could work as a viable strategy.

A series of meeting minutes from this period show that SAGE belatedly conceded that there was “no evidence pointing to high levels of population immunity in this stage in the pandemic”; that it was unclear how long immunity lasted; and that therefore the idea of opening up the economy via mass distributing of immunity passports for people recovered from the Coronavirus was premature.

By the end of April, SAGE had driven the final nail in the coffin for the herd immunity fantasy. But, instead of a positive change of direction, this led to a dangerous new phase in the Government’s strategy. 

Read Parts One and Three of this investigation here:

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