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25 May 2021updated 21 Sep 2021 4:54am

Dominic Cummings is right: the UK did pursue “herd immunity”

The reason Boris Johnson’s administration did so little to stop the spread of Covid-19 is it believed transmission was inevitable.

By Harry Lambert

Dominic Cummings is right, in his intemperate way. On Sunday Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser argued that when Covid-19 struck the UK last spring, “‘herd immunity by Sep[tember]’ was *literally the official plan [of the government] in all docs/graphs/meetings* until it was ditched”.

Cummings is referring to the notion that the UK population could acquire herd immunity to Covid through mass infection (and mass mortality). This approach, Cummings added, “wasn’t ‘a secret strategy’, it was THE OFFICIAL PUBLIC EXPLAINED ON TV/RADIO STRATEGY”. David Halpern, a member of the government’s scientific advisory group Sage, explained this herd immunity plan on 11 March, Cummings noted.

On the UK’s initially flawed Covid strategy, Cummings is correct. As we pointed out last March, official Whitehall plans dating back to 2005 clearly show that “if a pandemic such as Covid-19 struck, the UK intended only to mitigate rather than suppress the impact” of the disease. It is plain from the government’s actions and pronouncements last spring that this is what happened when coronavirus hit.

As Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, put it on 15 March last year: “Our aim is to try to reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely.”

Herd immunity, Vallance added, would be achieved partly through the extensive spread of mild Covid across the UK; 60 per cent, or around 40 million people, he implied, would likely contract the disease in the UK. Or, as Halpern put it, “herd immunity” would be “achieved” through Covid infecting much of the population (other than those deemed vulnerable, who would be “cocooned” during the peak of the pandemic).

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It is not news that the government initially believed the spread of Covid to be inevitable. Early lockdown measures last March were, as some observed at the time, bewilderingly weak; the Atlantic described the government’s “delay in calling for stronger measures” as “perplexing”. But they were only perplexing if you assume the UK wished to do everything to limit the spread of Covid last spring.

In reality, the UK had no such aim, because – as one COBR document shared by Cummings shows – the government’s models suggested that severe suppression of the disease would simply lead to a delayed peak of almost equal severity later in the year, thereby prolonging the pandemic for no great gain (and adding strain to the NHS when the peak hit in winter).

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[see also: Dominic Cummings has been playing Boris Johnson for far longer than he realises]

As Graham Medley, a leading member of the UK government’s modelling team, told the Atlantic in March: “My problem with many countries’ strategies is that they haven’t thought beyond the next month.” The UK government deliberately implemented interventions last March that were insufficient to suppress the spread of Covid because it considered short-term suppression to be pointless in the long run.

That plan rested on a series of false assumptions, from the supposed unwillingness of the British public to brook lockdowns to the government’s erroneous judgement that the country would accept the national trauma of 259,000 Covid deaths (as was forecast in the initial “mitigation” plan). Cummings made this point at the weekend and is sure to emphasise it in his appearance tomorrow (26 May) before the Commons select committees on health and science. The government denies this initial herd immunity plan was official policy.

The public inquiry into the Covid crisis, which is unlikely to conclude before 2025, will reveal the extent to which the government’s early assumptions – that the pandemic would hit hard and pass quickly – were wrong. As Chris Whitty, the UK’s chief medical officer, put it on 5 March 2020 before the House of Commons health select committee: “One of the things which is clear, if you model out the epidemic, is we will get 50 per cent of all the cases over a three-week period and 95 per cent of the cases over a nine-week period, if it follows the trajectory we think it’s likely to.

So brief a window of infection implied an intensity of impact. Whitty conceded to parliament at that time: “The NHS will have huge pressure on it for a relatively short period of time.”

Over the weekend, Cummings went further. In fact, he argued, the government’s initial plan would have left “100s of 1000s [of people] choking to death + no NHS for *anybody* for months + [the] dead [left] unburied”.

As he continues his attack on the Johnson administration, the precise target of Cummings’s ire is unclear. As ever, he sees the crisis as a vindication of his world-view: that the many prongs of British government (or “Whitehall”, as he likes to term it) are entirely unfit to cope with crises.

He may be right, but the origins of Whitehall’s initial failures over Covid to date are many and varied. Successive pandemic plans that failed to anticipate how the public would react to such an emergency have been approved by every recent UK prime minister from Tony Blair to Theresa May. The assumptions underlying those plans were never tested and resolved by politicians and officials. When the pandemic hit, the UK government consulted an off-the-shelf strategy that was entirely unfit for purpose – and then failed to adapt quickly to correct its flaws.

In 2011 one academic paper – co-written by Roy Anderson, a leading colleague of professor Neil Ferguson at Imperial College London – outlined the rationale behind delaying strong interventions in a pandemic, in language that closely mirrored the UK government’s own. “A more effective intervention put in place early in the epidemic will lead to the smallest epidemic size and peak prevalence, but the longest epidemic duration,” it stated, adding that “delay will result in higher peak prevalence, but it will also result in a considerably shorter epidemic. This may be a desirable outcome in economic terms.” 

A brief, intense impact was perceived as desirable, not by Anderson or his fellow authors, but for policymakers in a future pandemic. When I spoke to one of the authors last March, they warned that “we [the UK] need to be really clear about what the objective is [in a future pandemic]”. Many pandemic planners, both here and in the US, assumed that brevity would be essential. This was not the case. Minimising mortality soon proved far more important.

The crucial question now is what other flawed plans lie in wait on the shelves of Whitehall. If Cummings hadn’t self-immolated while atop Johnson’s government, he could be leading the taskforce charged with examining every untested plan. Instead he is out in the cold, where he will remain.

[see also: Podcast: Should Boris Johnson be worried about Dominic Cummings’s Covid claims?]