There is a moment in the third act of a Hitchcock thriller – the big reveal – when the scales fall from the hapless central character’s eyes and they realise the answer they’ve been searching for has been in front of their nose all along. That is how I felt yesterday when I re-watched the speech that Boris Johnson made on 3 February in at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich: a speech in which he mentions coronavirus publicly for one of the first times.
“[T]here is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage,” he says. He then goes on to wax lyrical about the need for “some government somewhere” to make the case for “freedom of exchange” and “take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.” He concludes portentously, “Here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.”
I can tell you, in all humility, that this speech has not aged well.
Little more than two months later, the Coronavirus is ravaging our island nation. It has claimed a possible 20,000 lives and Britain is on track to have the highest deaths rates in Europe. The lockdown has been extended for a further three weeks, shutting down our economy and pushing millions into poverty, fear and uncertainty.
Whilst it is important for all of us to focus our energies on where our nation goes from here, it is also relevant to examine our current direction to ensure that everything possible is being done to minimise suffering and loss of life.
Last month, journalist Alex Andreou reflected that “Britain was given the biggest gift any country could have wished for in the circumstances: a two-month head start.” Is it possible that one the richest nations in the world – with all its resources of talent and expertise – could have squandered this gift?
In answer to this question, the Prime Minister’s Greenwich speech may offer some helpful clues. Indeed, the idea of not going “beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage” may offer some insights into the philosophy that has underpinned the government’s COVID-19 strategy.
The government has always been very clear that they have “been guided entirely by the science”. At every COVID-19 briefing the minister is flanked on either side by a senior medic or scientist. And yet whilst science and medicine strive for certainty, there is often no single unifying truth. Instead, scientists from different fields grapple with numerous theories which are modelled and trialled: tried and tested.
One such theory, is herd immunity.
I happened upon the idea of herd immunity a week earlier than most people after hearing Boris Johnson mention the “take it on the chin” idea on a TV breakfast sofa. “One of the theories,” he told Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughy, “is perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go, and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures. I think we need to strike a balance.”
Rather than challenge him on this seemingly outlandish theory, the interviewers nodded meekly and moved onto their next important question: “Are you excited about becoming a father again?”
At the time, I did not for a moment think that this was a serious strategy but – like the unsuspecting character in that Hitchcock film – I started tugging at the thread. My attempts to draw attention to what I thought was an outrageous statement by the Prime Minister were not taken seriously by the media until a week later, when an “unnamed senior Government source” gave the political editor of ITV News, Robert Peston, the ‘herd immunity’ story.
Herd immunity is a form of indirect protection from infectious disease that occurs when a large percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, whether through previous infections or vaccination. Herd immunity without a vaccine is, by definition, not a preventative measure.
The Peston’s exclusive story published in the Spectator and by ITV said we would need to get familiar with this concept which involved “allowing the virus to pass through the population” – an identical phrase to that used by Boris Johnson on the This Morning sofa.
And yet, four days later, claiming that “the science had changed” the government did a U-turn.
On the evening of 15 March Imperial College’s COVID-19 Response Team released a report based on Italian data. It showed, the herd immunity was at the heart of the modelling which became the core of the Government’s response from the beginning of the year. But it also showed that projections had been radically revised “a few days ago”. The team had dramatically underestimated by several factors the impact on UK healthcare services by using viral pneumonia hospitalisation rates as a baseline. If the “mitigation” strategy were to be continued, the NHS would be rapidly overwhelmed. The country had to move to a “suppression” approach immediately.
The U-turn performed over the weekend clearly caught some ministers off guard. On the morning of 16 March, Transport minister Grant Schapps told Sky News that suggested the response to COVID-19 by other countries - presumably community testing, stopping large public gatherings, closing schools, lockdowns etc - was "populist" & unscientific.
In the month that has followed, Health Secretary, Matt Hancock and Chief Scientific Officer, Patrick Vallance – have repeatedly denied that herd immunity was ever their a strategy. This contradicts Robert Peston’s senior government source as well as numerous others such as David Halpern, the man who reportedly leads the governments Coronavirus response.
Halpern who runs the the government funded Behavioural Insights Team (‘Nudge Unit’) told the BBC on 13 March that “you want to protect the at risk groups from catching the disease so by the time they come out of their cocooning, herd immunity has been achieved.”
Former Heath Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, told the BBC on 26 March that the government “changed their approach from a herd immunity approach to a suppression approach about 10 days ago.”
At the time of the government U-turn I expressed my relief but also my concern that, having focused their planning on the herd immunity strategy, they might not have an alternative strategy. Others such as University College of London professor, Anthony Costello a former director at the World Health Organization, suggested that the government are, to all intents and purposes, still pursuing a herd immunity policy. “Without a programme of community surveillance and contact tracing, the virus will continue to spread” he wrote in the Guardian on 3 April.
Professor Costello has been one of a number of top British scientists who have questioned who have questioned the composition for the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). Remarkably, the government have not published all the names of the SAGE committee. The feeling of among some prominent scientists is that SAGE is too full of behavioural scientists and mathematical modellers to the exclusion of communicable disease experts and public health experts.
“Politicians love modellers because in the absence of certainty they give some level of certainty,” explains Deenan Pillay, professor of Virology at University College London, on a recent edition of the Covid Report. He goes on to argue that SAGE’s modellers did not include testing and contract tracing as one of their first options because of capacity limitations. “We see a circular argument,” he says “The modellers don't include one of the key components of infection control because of political constraints and then the politicians then say 'we are following the science.'"
The questions raised by these leading members of the scientific community, raise deeper questions regarding whether the experts those who supposedly helped guide us into our current situation are competent to get us out of it. Might it not be time to get some other experts around the top table?
One of the things that the Greenwich speech does is appeal to British exceptionalism. The idea of Britain as Clark Kent, pulling off our spectacles and emerging alone from the phone box – a superhero, with super-powers that can save the day. But perhaps what we do not need at this vital moment is comic-book fantasy, but pure, hard science from a diverse group of experts.
Stefan Simanowitz is the founder of Under Covid. This article was first published here by Byline Times