Coronavirus: UK population told that ‘herd immunity’ is the only way to cope with crisis

The UK has not introduced strict social distancing measures like the EU

People commute across London Bridge, in London, with Tower Bridge in background Friday, March 13, 2020. For most people, the new COVID-19 coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The UK’s plan to combat coronavirus is to slow the disease but not to stop its spread, a response that clearly diverges from that carried out by many of its European counterparts and badly-hit countries like China and South Korea.

The British government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance told BBC radio on Friday that the new measures were a "big intervention" and that the thinking behind it was to try and prevent Covid-19 coming back more aggressively in the autumn.

“If you suppress something very hard and then if you release those measures, it bounces back,” he said.

“Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, not to suppress it completely. Because most people, the vast majority of people, will get a mild illness to build up some kind of herd immunity as well so that more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission. At the same time, we protect those who are most vulnerable from it.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday advised those with a persistent cough or a fever to self-isolate for seven days, told schools to cancel trips abroad and urged people over 70 not to go on cruises.

But the government has stopped short of imposing strict social distancing measures seen in France and Italy, where the whole country has been put on lockdown, because it does not want the population to tire of them.

Sir Patrick said cancelling major sporting events such as Saturday’s Six Nations fixture in Cardiff, which will attract a crowd of up to 75,000, would not stop the spread of the virus.

"The most likely place you are going to get an infection from is a family member or friend in a small space, not in a big space," he said.

“It’s eye-catching to stop those [events] but it’s not to say we would not do it in the future.”

Around 60 per cent of the UK population will need to contract the virus, which has been declared a pandemic, to get “herd immunity” from future outbreaks, Sir Patrick said.

He told Sky News said he believed the virus would come back “year on year” like a seasonal flu and it was necessary for the population to develop resistance to the disease.

"Communities will become immune to it and that's going to be an important part of controlling this longer term,” Sir Patrick said. "About 60% is the sort of figure you need to get herd immunity."

The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases rose in the UK to 590 on Thursday and 10 people have died with the virus.

However, health officials believe the actual number of cases could be around between 5,000 and 10,000.

The UK has been criticised for its approach, which is aiming to delay the infection rate peak for up to three months.


Former health minister Jeremy Hunt said it was "surprising and concerning" that large gatherings of people had not been banned.

"You would have thought that every single thing we do in that four weeks would be designed to slow the spread of people catching the virus," he said, adding that he was concerned external visits to care homes were still going ahead.

All professional football leagues in England including the Premier League have suspended matches until April 3.

Jimmy Whitworth, a professor of international public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said he expected tougher measures would soon be introduced by the government.

“I am surprised that stronger measures haven’t been introduced at this stage,” he told The Guardian. “But I anticipate that they will come in the next week or two.”

Former minister Rory Stewart criticised the government’s “herd immunity” approach, which he said was a “judgement call” and not a “factual call”.

“I think this is too pessimistic, it is too defeatist. I think we should be taking the approach taken in China and South Korea, which has reduced the number of cases. At the very least that bides you more time in order to prepare,” he told Sky News.