UK rejects ‘herd immunity’ stand, looks at lockdowns

After jettisoning the controversial “herd immunity’”strategy to deal with coronavirus, which was based on the hope that young people would fall ill so they gain immunity against the disease, the Boris Johnson government has moved to “suppression” after British and international expert opinion warned that it would lead to mass deaths.

As the government upgraded its response to the crisis and Johnson began daily briefings in Downing Street this week, it was publicly stated that the government expected 60% to 80% of the population to be infected by the virus, as part of the herd immunity approach.

At 80%, it would have mean 54 million people and at a 1% death rate, 540,000 deaths. As criticism mounted and the scale of the challenge dawned, health secretary Matt Hancock denied that herd immunity was government policy.

The Johnson government initially abandoned lockdowns, social isolation and other public health measures put in place elsewhere in Europe to contain Covid-19, going by the logic that young people will get a mild version of the disease and become immune to the virus, thus building “herd immunity” that would reduce transmission if the disease resurges in the winter.

Experts believe the herd immunity mistake has cost the United Kingdom valuable time. The shift to suppression came after modelling by Imperial College experts suggested that it could cut the death toll to 20,000 – an outcome, the chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance said, “would be a good outcome”.

According to Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, the UK has lost seven weeks. He reminded the government that the journal had highlighted the dangers of the virus as early as January 24: “This crisis was entirely preventable”, he said.

The new policy of suppression is expected to lead to a lockdown of London in the near future, as the capital reported nearly 1,000 cases, with boroughs in central London such as Westminster, Southwark, Kensington and Chelsea topping the list of most cases.

London’s lockdown involves shutting down large parts of the Tube network and other transport modes. Johnson admitted on Wednesday that new measures would be needed to deal with the challenge that has had ramifications across public life.

London mayor Sadiq Khan urged Londoners to only use public transport for essential journeys: “People should not be travelling, by any means, unless they really, really have to”.

“Londoners should be avoiding social interaction unless absolutely necessary, and that means they should be avoiding using the transport network unless absolutely necessary … ensuring the capital’s critical workers can move around the city will be crucial.”

Questions have been raised over Johnson’s ability to lead the response to the virus challenge, with doctors and others insisting that contrary to claims by the government, they are not being tested for the coronavirus, which not only puts their health but also medical services at risk.