You are currently browsing the daily archive for May 28, 2021.

Early in March 2020, my far better half and I were optimistic that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his government and his advisers would not be too proscriptive about coronavirus restrictions.

In the end, they were, but the following timeline shows how quickly their thinking on herd immunity changed.

In light of Dominic Cummings’s testimony to the Science and Technology Select Committee on Wednesday, May 26, and his lengthy Twitter thread prepared beforehand (continuing afterwards), I offer a short and a long version of what happened.

Short version

The Government denies that natural herd immunity — catching the virus — was ever government policy.

Yet, here is Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, at a coronavirus briefing on Thursday, March 12, 2020:

It seems that Cummings might have advised the government to backtrack and deny it was policy, however briefly:

As Cummings said on Wednesday, once he received numbers from an NHS specialist/mathematician who extrapolated scenarios on what could happen, the Government changed tack:

Long version

I haven’t missed a single coronavirus briefing since they started in March 2020. As regular readers will know, I have been deep-diving into the pandemic since then.

February 2020

Lessons From The Crisis has an excellent article on how the herd immunity plan unfolded and changed. ‘It’s bizarre that this needs saying, but *of course* the UK had a Herd Immunity plan’ is well worth reading.

It includes a capture of SAGE minutes from February 4, 2020, advocating that policies for influenza be followed. The article summarises this as follows (emphases in the original):

On the 4th of February, at the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’s fourth Covid meeting, influenza planning, with its assertions that spread was “inevitable”and halting the virus “a waste of resources” was adopted as the official recommendation- tragically this was about ten days before Chinese covid cases peaked, never return to their early 2020 levels …

The scientific consensus presented to ministers was: mass infection of the population was inevitable, a vaccine would not be available in time, so the only choices were about how to manage the mass infection of the population until the country had accumulated enough cases to get to herd immunity

The alternative being attempted by governments elsewhere, trying to stop the disease from infecting the population, was regarded as folly; the UK government’s scientific advisors were certain that countries attempting suppression would fail …

March 2020

In his testimony on Wednesday, Cummings claimed he broke rank with the Government on Wednesday, March 11:

Publicly, however, he was still on board with the Government plan:

Vallance gave his aforementioned briefing on herd immunity on March 12. This is what appeared afterwards:

This is a summary of an interview Vallance gave to Sky News the next day (full video here):

The Independent quoted a BBC interview with him on March 13:

Sir Patrick told the BBC that the advice the government is following for tackling coronavirus is not looking to “suppress” the disease entirely but to help create a “herd immunity in the UK” while protecting the most vulnerable from it.

Asked if there is a fear that clamping down too hard on its spread could see it return, Sir Patrick said: “That is exactly the risk you would expect from previous epidemics.

“If you suppress something very, very hard, when you release those measures it bounces back and it bounces back at the wrong time.

“Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it.

“Those are the key things we need to do.”

That same day, SAGE’s Professor John Edmunds also advocated natural herd immunity in this Channel 4 interview:

Nigel Farage was outraged by the policy:

The Lessons From The Crisis article says that the turning point happened almost immediately:

Partly in response to this outrage, the government changed course; Boris Johnson swapped strategies and began locking down the country just 3 days after the herd immunity plan became public, with new priorities built around suppressing the virus with blunt instruments such as lockdowns to buy time for building countermeasures- testing and tracing capacity, vaccines, treatments.

That is not to give Nigel Farage single-handed credit. The media also helped a lot, especially with frequent footage of what was happening in northern Italy at the time.

On Monday, March 16, Prof Neil Ferguson released his (spurious) numbers from Imperial College London, which changed the Government’s policy. 

UnHerd reported on it the following day — ‘Why the Government changed tack on Covid-19’:

The Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, and the government’s science adviser Dr David Halpern indicated that the government’s strategy was to allow the virus to pass through the population, to allow individuals to “acquire herd immunity” at a delayed speed, while vulnerable groups were “cocooned.” This strategy, however, was subsequently contradicted by health secretary Matt Hancock, who insisted that “herd immunity is not our goal or policy”.

The quick reversals did not end there, as a ban was announced on mass gatherings just a day after the government’s initial claims that it was not the right time for such measures. On Saturday, the government briefed select journalists on “wartime measures” to quarantine the elderly at home or in care homes, away from any contact with the rest of the population; earlier than such measures were expected to be announced.

Finally, it was revealed yesterday afternoon that the Prime Minister had decided to dramatically step up countermeasures, and switch entirely to a strategy of containment as a result of advice from an expert response team at Imperial College London, which concluded that the strategy of delay would likely cause “hundreds of thousands” of avoidable deaths.

The initial plans — to establish herd immunity based on research on social fatigue and assumptions that effective vaccines would not be developed — contradicted the guidance from the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the wealth of evidence in the fields of epidemiology, behavioural science and immunology, so it is unsurprising that countless experts have already questioned and criticised the strategy, including epidemiologists, immunologists, and behavioural scientists.

On Saturday, March 21, Alex Wickham from Buzzfeed summarised a tense and confused week inside No. 10, and the road to lockdown (emphases mine):

While the scientific debate was raging last week between experts, officials, and ministers in face-to-face meetings and over emails and text messages, Johnson’s government was publicly insisting that the scientific advice showed the UK did not yet have to bring in more stringent measures to fight the virus.

Political aides tacitly criticised other countries who had taken more dramatic steps, claiming Britain was being “guided by the science” rather than politics.

Towards the end of last week, some ministers and political aides at the top of the government were still arguing that the original strategy of home isolation of suspect cases — but no real restrictions on wider society — was correct, despite almost every other European country taking a much tougher approach, and increasing alarm among SAGE experts.

The thought of months or even a year of social distancing was simply not feasible, some in Johnson’s team still thought at that point. They continued to privately defend the controversial “herd immunity” approach outlined to the media by Vallance, even as other aides scrambled to claim the UK had never considered it to be policy.

And there was fury behind the scenes among members of Johnson’s team at the likes of Rory Stewart and Jeremy Hunt, who had been publicly saying the government had got it wrong.

But data from Italy — presented to the government before it was published by experts at Imperial College on Monday — changed all that. Their report confirmed the earlier fears of the epidemiologists who had been calling for more drastic action.

On Monday, March 23 — the day Prime Minister Boris Johnson took away every Briton’s civil liberties in five minutes by announcing the first lockdown — Byline Times posted a must-read article, ‘COVID-19 SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Part Three — Behavioural Scientists told Government to use “Herd Immunity” to Justify Business-As-Usual’.

SPI-B is our behavioural, or ‘nudge’, unit and is part of SAGE. Dr David Halpern, a SAGE member, runs the unit. This was allegedly their role in the herd immunity discussions:

A SPI-B document dated 4 March, which rejected the need for school closures, went on to refer to the medical concept of immunity. In a discussion about how the public might be confused about the disparity between the Government’s approach of “not applying widescale social isolation at the same time as recommending isolation to at-risk groups”, the document acknowledges disagreement within the SPI-B.

The document explains: “One view is that explaining that members of the community are building some immunity will make this acceptable. Another view is that recommending isolation to only one section of society risks causing discontent.”

The idea of immunity does not come up elsewhere in the SAGE corpus. But, Professor Chris Whitty, the Government’s Chief Medical Advisor, claimed that 20% of the population of Wuhan, China, had contracted the Coronavirus and acquired herd immunity. He believed that this explained why new cases had begun to fall in China

This flatly contradicted data from China showing that, by end of January, after the crisis had peaked, just under 95% of the Wuhan population remained uninfected by the virus. This was, therefore, nothing to do with herd immunity, but a result of China’s emergency containment response. 

The UK Government, it seemed, had made a gamble: one that Dr Brian Ferguson, Director of Immunology at Cambridge University, described as “not scientifically based and irresponsible” because typically “Coronaviruses don’t make long-lasting antibody responses”.

Whether or not it was a specific goal of the Government, its network of behavioural science advisors had fielded herd immunity as a way of justifying to the public why the Government was not taking early action – despite having no scientific evidence behind the idea

Social media discussions on herd immunity began to appear:

On Tuesday, March 24, Byline Times posted another must-read article, ‘The Coronavirus Crisis: Oxford Model Touting “Herd Immunity” was Promoted by PR Agency Tied to Ministry of Defence and Nudge Unit’.

Excerpts follow:

On 24 March, the Financial Times claimed that as much as half of the British population may have already been infected by the novel Coronavirus, according to a new model by Oxford University’s Evolutionary Ecology of Infectious Disease group

The conclusion, according to the FT’s science editor Clive Cookson, suggested that the country “had already acquired substantial herd immunity through the unrecognised spread of COVID-19 over more than two months”. If true, this would vindicate the Government’s “unofficial herd immunity strategy – allowing controlled spread of infection,” he stated.

Although numerous epidemiologists and scientists had questioned the validity of the Oxford model – which had not been peer-reviewed – it was promoted to the press by a PR agency with ties to the Government, raising questions about how and why this model was published and disseminated at this time.

The draft paper, which was originally posted to Dropbox, included a disclaimer noting that its content was “not final” and could be “updated any time”. The disclaimer also contained a contact point for journalists: “Contact for press enquiries: Cairbre Sugrue, cairbre@sugruecomms.com.”

Dr Lewis Mackenzie, a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Discovery Fellow, commented: “Why on earth has this been sent to the media via a third party PR company instead of the Oxford University press team? Seems very irresponsible to encourage reporting on this topic before the scientific community had a chance to comment and peer-review it.”

When asked why its own press team did not release the study, Oxford University said: “All Oxford academics have freedom of expression regarding their areas of specialism, including communication through the media. It is therefore not uncommon for academics to make their own arrangements for contacting the press. The university cannot comment on individual arrangements that it is not party to.”

Caibre Sugrue is the founding director of Sugrue Communications, a technology PR agency. He is also a non-executive advisory board member of 100%Open, an innovation consultancy – which has worked for several British Government agencies, including the UK Ministry of Defence’s Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and a leading charity which co-owns the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) or ‘nudge unit’.

This seems to be the first appearance of Prof Sunetra Gupta, later of The Barrington Declaration (a libertarian approach to coronavirus self-isolation), who works at Oxford University:

The original FT piece had claimed that, if substantial herd immunity had been achieved, restrictions could be removed sooner than expected. The article added: “Although some experts have shed doubt on the strength and length of the human immune response to the virus, Prof Gupta said the emerging evidence made her confident that humanity would build up herd immunity against COVID-19.

I contacted Professor Sun[e]tra Gupta, one of the co-authors of the study, to find out what this emerging evidence is. She did not respond to a request for comment. However, the model was reported worldwide and some commentators in both the US and UK used it to suggest that strong social distancing measures may be unnecessary

Scientists are divided on the prospects for achieving herd immunity, but most agree that, while achieving it may be possible at some point, it is not clear how long it would last. In any case, whether or not it is achievable, the immediate focus should be on minimising fatalities.

By the end of the month, confusion among journalists reigned:

April 2020

In April, it appeared that dealing with coronavirus was becoming highly complex. Author Ian Leslie tweeted a considered an explanation from a Financial Times reader:

May 2020

Two months later, Sir Patrick Vallance denied that natural herd immunity was ever a plan:

Prof John Edmunds gave Channel 4 another interview, wherein he appeared to backtrack on his previous claims about herd immunity. The first video is from his March interview and the second from May:

I’ll have more on the UK’s approach to herd immunity next week.

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