Coronavirus: Health Secretary Matt Hancock attacks 'flawed goal' of herd immunity

Tuesday 13th October 2020 20:46 BST

Speaking during a debate on the government's new three-tier COVID-19 restrictions, Matt Hancock said he wanted to confront the argument for adopting such an approach "head on".

"If we let this virus continue unchecked, the loss of life would be simply too great to contemplate," he told MPs.

Herd immunity is the resistance to a contagious disease within a population because enough people have become immune, making it harder for it to spread.

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Mr Hancock's remarks come after the release of the so-called Great Barrington declaration.

Signed by leading experts from the universities of Oxford, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Cambridge, Sussex and York, it suggests herd immunity as a way forward.

But it counts homeopaths, therapists and fake names among its "medical" signatories, leading to accusations that it falsely represents scientific support for the controversial position.

Mr Hancock joined the chorus of criticism of the declaration, saying it is "underpinned by two central claims" that are "emphatically false".

"First, it says that if enough people get COVID, we will reach herd immunity. This is not true," the health secretary said.

"Many infectious diseases never reach herd immunity, like measles and malaria and Aids and flu, and with increasing evidence of reinfection, we should have no confidence that we would ever reach herd immunity to COVID even if everyone caught it.

"Herd immunity is a flawed goal without a vaccine, even if we could get to it, which we can't.

"The second central claim is that we can segregate the old and the vulnerable on our way to herd immunity.

"This is simply not possible."

Mr Hancock added: "We are not the kind of country that abandons our vulnerable or just locks them up."

Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said in response to Mr Hancock's comments that herd immunity will be critical in the long term to end the pandemic.

Professor Woolhouse said: "Going forward, we would expect more people to be exposed at some stage or another and that immunity would be important, whether natural or through a vaccine.

"Herd immunity is the way this thing ends, one way or another, it is critical to what happens to COVID-19 in the long term.

"Whether he (Mr Hancock) calls it a goal or not, it will end with herd immunity."

Sir Patrick Vallance, England's chief scientific adviser, mentioned herd immunity when discussing the government's approach in early March.

But Number 10 has denied that this was ever the government's official strategy for fighting coronavirus.

MPs are voting on the government's new COVID-19 measures, which will see areas given "medium", "high" and "very high" alert levels.

The move, which is expected to be given the green light by MPs and come into force on Wednesday, is aimed at simplifying the range of different restrictions already in place.

There has been anger among some local leaders, with claims that Westminster has imposed restrictions without adequate consultation and questions about the efficacy of the measures.

Tier 1, "medium", will cover a significant part of England and includes the current national restrictions such as the "rule of six" and the 10pm curfew for pubs, bars and restaurants.

Tier 2, "high", will see people prevented from socialising with other households indoors, although support bubbles will still be permitted.

In these areas, the rule of six will continue to apply outdoors in public spaces, as well as private gardens.

The "very high" alert level (Tier 3) will see people banned from socialising with other households both indoors and in private gardens, while bars and pubs will be closed unless they can operate as restaurants.

Alcohol could be served in pubs operating as restaurants in these areas, but only as part of a meal.

Residents will also be advised against travelling in and out of these areas, while it will be up to local politicians as to whether other leisure venues such as gyms and casinos should also close.

Mr Hancock told the Commons "we do not rule out" further restrictions in hospitality, leisure, entertainment and personal care sectors.

He said that ministers had decided to "restrict socialising because that way we reduce the transmission with the least damage to education and the economy".

Labour's shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said a "clear plan" was needed from Boris Johnson.

"Our constituents will ask is history repeating itself? Because if these tiers don't work, then what? Tier 4? Tier 5? What's the plan?

"Well, there isn't one. We had whack-a-mole, a fairground game but it was never a strategy.

"It was just a soundbite from the circus ring showman. We've had exaggerated claims, complaints when challenged, a lack of transparency with the public but now further action and a clear plan is needed."

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