MANY of us were at a loss to understand how allowing coronavirus-infected people to enter Britain from locked-down regions of Italy, without restriction, would contribute to the containment of the illness. We were even more confused to hear that the UK government’s relaxed approach compared with other countries was justified by ‘the science’, which, we were told, says that acting too early can make an epidemic worse.
But all is now clear – and we have it from the mouth of the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance. The policy is to allow the virus to spread in a measured way until around 60 per cent of the population catch it, so that ‘herd immunity’ can be developed, thus protecting the rest of the population and insuring against future outbreaks. This is what ‘the science’ is telling the government, who are acting on ‘the best scientific advice’ – including, it seems, the advice of the Cabinet Office’s ‘behavioural insights team’ under Dr David Halpern, which believes that the current epidemic can be controlled through handwashing.
This would all be fine, except that we see the rest of the world apparently taking quite different scientific advice: namely, adopting the most stringent measures to contain the virus – either to stop it spreading altogether, or to slow the spread until a vaccine can be developed. So, for example, in Taiwan, which adopted strict border controls and mandatory quarantine, there have been only 50 cases among 24million people, despite its proximity to China.
Is ‘the science’, we wonder, different in China, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore (which appear to have the virus under control), or in France, Italy, Spain, America and all those other countries which acted later but have now declared states of emergency and closed their schools? Is ‘the science’ differentat the World Health Organisation, whose director general has criticised the UK, arguing that the ‘herd immunity’ approach is ‘wrong and dangerous’ because we do not know whether immunity from coronavirus is even possible – a view apparently shared by a growing number of specialists in the UK, including Martin Hibberd, professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at Edinburgh University, who argue we should be taking stringent measures now?
Or is it that the government and their advisers have chosen their science very carefully, so that it just happens to coincide with the least possible economic cost and inconvenience, with the elderly and infirm, the ‘bed-blockers’ who are such a burden on the hard-pressed NHS, regarded as expendable, as so much collateral damage. Naturally, Boris Johnson put it more delicately and spoke of families ‘losing loved ones before their time’. But the chilling intent was clear enough.