British officials have given mixed signals over what their approach to dealing with the outbreak is, but one of the tactics seems to be the radical and unproven ‘herd immunisation’.
Amid the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, the British government’s approach to the crisis has been subject to severe criticism.
The tactic under the spotlight is the country’s announcement that it would prioritise a response to the pandemic that sought to achieve ‘herd immunity’ among the British population.
Details of the plan were leaked towards the end of last week with government scientific advisors providing further details over the weekend.
British officials say that the disease has spread to a point where it can no longer be contained. They, therefore, believe it would be better if certain demographic groups, such as young people who are not as badly affected by the virus, are infected by it in order to build up immunity against it.
With large parts of the population then immune, the risk of passing the virus onto vulnerable groups decreases - or so in theory.
Herd immunity is a standard feature of disease management and has worked for the control of a whole host of diseases, such as many types of flu and severe illnesses, such as measles.
Those examples, however, cannot be compared to the radical British approach to the novel coronavirus by virtue of the fact that herd immunity to them is a result of vaccines and not direct infection.
The British government’s advisors expect that herd immunity can be achieved at a 60 percent infection rate among the population.
While many researchers are making claims about discovering a vaccine for Covid-19, even one that works would have to go through thorough testing, which could take months.
That is the equivalent of 36 million people eventually getting the disease, in tandem with the severe quarantine measures for the most vulnerable groups, such as those over the age of 70 or those with immunodeficiency disorders.
The deadly coronavirus is prompting many people to change the way they interact socially. Here's how pic.twitter.com/lZmCO4cAVk— TRT World (@trtworld) March 4, 2020
Critics have pointed out that the strategy relies on a number of assumptions about the virus itself and the human behaviour to succeed, with many arguing that it unnecessarily puts people at risk.
The most glaringly obvious risk is the number of people who would die if 60 percent were infected with the virus.
There is no confirmed mortality rate for the virus that is causing the pandemic but the World Health Organization (WHO) has suggested an upper limit of 3.4 percent. Seasonal flu, by contrast, has a death rate of around 0.1 percent.
Birmingham University’s Professor Willem van Schaik told the British state broadcaster, the BBC, that even conservative estimates would put the death toll for coronavirus infections in the tens of thousands.
“The only way to make this work would be to spread out these millions of cases over a relatively long period of time so that the NHS does not get overwhelmed," he said, referring to the British national health service.
With the number of hospitalisations as a result of coronavirus infection expected to be close to eight million by 2021, there will be a massive strain on the British health system to deal with such cases.
The high mortality rate in Italy, for example, is due to the lack of resources and doctors available to treat victims. Medics in the southern Mediterranean state are having to prioritise patients based on their likelihood of surviving.
Another factor that has added to the criticism is the potential for virus mutation and re-infection. Not enough is known about the Covid-19 virus in this regard.
Developing immunity can ensure protection against the same strain of a virus but if it mutates further, as is often the case with flus, such immunity can become somewhat redundant.
While details are sparse, there have been recorded examples of coronavirus patients who got the all-clear, becoming reinfected.
The above concerns, as well as others, have led to a severe rebuke of the UK’s strategy by the WHO.
Speaking to BBC Radio, WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris said there simply was not enough knowledge about the virus to justify the UK strategy.
“We can talk theories, but at the moment we are really facing a situation where we have got to look at action,” she said.
In another rebuke of the UK policy, US officials added the UK to its ban on arrivals from Europe. The country had previously been exempt.
Here’s what life is like inside one of Italy’s coronavirus “red zones” pic.twitter.com/wwfGzxTvVO— TRT World (@trtworld) February 26, 2020
There are signs that ministers within UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cabinet are pushing back against the strategy.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock declared that the ‘herd immunity’ theory would not form the backbone of the country’s response and instead he would be advising in favour of ‘self-isolation’.
“What we will do is listen to all the credible scientists and we will look at all the evidence,” he said.
“Herd immunity is not our goal or policy, it’s a scientific concept.”
Plans to ban mass gatherings and other measures similar to those taken in the rest of the world are expected to be rolled out later this week.
Here is why people are now turning to bidets amid the coronavirus outbreak pic.twitter.com/LTkiy1KrlJ— TRT World (@trtworld) March 14, 2020