Today
Fri 17 September 2021

Sir David King speaks to Byline Times about herd immunity, private sector outsourcing, the vaccine roll-out, and future threats

The Government could have saved more than 100,000 lives during the Coronavirus pandemic, the UK’s former chief scientist has told Byline Times.

Sir David King, who served as the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor from 2000 to 2007, estimates that two-thirds of the estimated 150,000 deaths during the COVID-19 crisis could have been prevented, if the Government had implemented a strong, early lockdown during the first wave of the disease, alongside a more effective test, trace and isolate strategy.

“The [vaccine] roll-out has been understood literally as a lifesaver by the Government,” King told Byline Times. “It is a lifesaver.” However, other “lifesavers” have been missed by the Government. “How many deaths could have been avoided with quick action on find, test, trace, isolate and support, but also going into lockdown when it all became too desperate?… In excess of 100,000.”

Sir David places particular emphasis on the early months of the pandemic – from January to April – as the source of the UK’s high death toll.

“You’ve got to get ahead of a pandemic,” he said – pointing out that Chinese scientists published a definitive report on COVID-19, its transmission and its effect on humans, on 23 January 2020 – a full two months before Boris Johnson’s Government implemented the first nationwide lockdown.

“If this was the advice of a scientist or a scientists’ group, they must have been thinking in terms of herd immunity,” he added, referring to the idea that a disease should be allowed to spread among non-vulnerable members of a population – in theory allowing them to gain resistance.

Sir David pointed out that Atletico Madrid fans were allowed to attend a Champions League match at Anfield on 11 March last year, despite the Spanish Government banning these same fans from attending football matches in their own country, and said that the UK Government should have implemented a lockdown on 5 March, not 23 March.

“I’m over 80, and I really don’t like myself being written-off as of no value to society, because really that’s what it seems we’re saying if we’re going for herd immunity,” he said, while noting that thousands of people are now suffering from debilitating ‘Long COVID’, whereby they retain symptoms of the disease months after contracting it.

“I think the whole notion of herd immunity was wrong… I’m just stunned, because there seems to be no rational understanding of how to manage an epidemic,” Sir David added.

Watch highlights of Sir David King’s interview on Byline TV

The Government’s second crucial misstep, he said, has been its lack of clarity over the ‘Test and Trace’ programme. The UK’s testing system lagged far behind other countries at the outset of the pandemic – that much is well known – but a more fundamental problem with the system, Sir David contended, is its lack of isolation support.

“I never heard a minister of Government saying the whole point of testing is to isolate people,” he said. “You have to encourage people to go into isolation” – or the system simply doesn’t function, Sir David said. Indeed, relatively little financial support has been offered to those who are required to self-isolate and the Government’s own scientific advisors have suggested that less than 20% of people are fully isolating when they are asked to.

The UK’s response to the pandemic – in particular – the Test and Trace operation, has relied heavily on private sector outsourcing. Test and Trace alone has been allocated a budget of £37 billion this year, much of which has and will be spent on private contractors. This has been the wrong approach, believes the former chief scientist:

“The public health service is the best way to handle a pandemic. You don’t handle it by pumping taxpayers’ money into the private sector without any competition. The question has to be: the companies that received the funds from Government – were these companies the experts in healthcare? I’m going to suggest that actually none of them knew anything about healthcare. They had to get consultants in, at great expense, to give them any knowledge or information about healthcare.

“If we had pumped public money into improving the ability of our health service to respond, I’m pretty confident we would have got a much, much better result.”

This has been epitomised in the case of the vaccine roll-out, Sir David said, which has seen the UK take a global lead: “If you look at the success of the roll-out of vaccination, how has that happened in contrast to the test, trace and isolate system? It’s that we’re running it through the public health system; we’re running it through local authorities, hospitals and general practices.”

Sir David did not express a great deal of warmth towards his successor, Sir Patrick Vallance, claiming that the current Chief Scientific Advisor has not fully adhered to the principle of scientific transparency during the pandemic – albeit under difficult circumstances.

Sir David helped to set up and now chairs a group called ‘Independent SAGE’ – a forum for experts to give transparent advice to politicians and the public about the pandemic. He did this because of a lack of openness, especially during the early stages of the outbreak, from the Government’s official body of scientific advisors.

Yet, one feat that Vallance deserves recognition for, Sir David believes, is the vaccine roll-out – which has allowed the Chief Scientific Advisor to marshal all of his knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry as a former GlaxoSmithKline executive.


Judgement Day

The Prime Minister yesterday confirmed that a public inquiry will be held into the Government’s handling of the pandemic, due to begin in Spring 2022. It is a move Sir David believes should have been initiated months ago.

“We should have had a public inquiry much, much earlier to help the Government – to correct any errors that it might have made in controlling this disease,” he told Byline Times. “It would have been better in the summer of last year.”

And, while the UK celebrates the ongoing relaxation of social distancing restrictions, he is at pains to stress that the pandemic is far from over – both at home and abroad.

“The problem is we don’t know the efficacy of this vaccine programme against the new variants,” he said. “The biggest fright for me came from Chile, because Chile was the third-best vaccinated country in the world per 100,000 people, and Chile is now in their worst wave – and the reason is because the new variant in Brazil has come over to Chile… It looks as though many people who were vaccinated in Chile have gone down with the disease. My worry is our leaky borders.”

Sir David believes that the UK is “in a good place” given the mass roll-out of vaccines to vulnerable groups – but headaches are once again mounting for the Government.

According to the World Health Organisation, the UK now has the highest number of B.1.617 variant cases outside its country of origin, India. The Prime Minister said that his Government is “anxious” about the Indian variant and is “ruling nothing out” when considering its response.

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