Herd immunity is an indirect approach to protecting a population from an infectious disease when a large number of people become immune to it, either by becoming infected or through a vaccine.
The British government initially announced that this would be the approach they would take in order to protect the population. What they failed to mention was that ‘it could need as much as 70% or more’ of the population to become infected in order to reach the desired immunity level — avoiding the very obvious fact that many people who become infected may not survive, particularly the elderly or people of all ages with underlying health conditions.
Taking this as an official government strategy sends a message to these people that they are disposable; that it is something that they can’t prevent. This is one way of washing one’s hands of any responsibility for needless death.
Britain’s response on the whole has been very lackadaisical in its concern for public health. Other countries have taken a much more proactive response and are experiencing more positive outcomes. Take for instance, Hong Kong and Singapore, two cities that:
‘quickly set up systems to try to identify and treat every case in their territory. Hong Kong developed diagnostic tests and rapidly deployed them to labs at every major hospital in the city … Both Hong Kong and Singapore continue to find a few new cases each week, but they’ve avoided the explosive outbreaks that have occurred elsewhere’.
Inevitably some people will contract the virus, recover and consequently become immune to that particular strain. This is simply the nature of the disease and a way for the government to justify their current strategy as the intended outcome.
Herd immunity is also a more commonly used phrase used to describe a majority of people who have been vaccinated against a disease as an effective way of drastically slowing its spread. With COVID-19 there is no vaccination at present, it is therefore reckless and irresponsible of the government to have initially taken this approach. As the situation has developed and cases escalated they appear to have taken note, resulting in the closure of all schools, pubs, restaurants and cafes as of last Friday.
The initial slow response however, as well as the original suggestion that it may be a positive thing for people to contract the disease with the assumption that they will recover, may have contributed to the fact that many people have been ignoring critical advice which could now reflect in a rapidly growing number of cases of the virus, so far reaching 5800.
The government’s first response to this outbreak should have been to find the resources and invest in testing. Not only would this be a far more effective way of finding out who needs treatment but it would also have been a better way of managing the country’s present anxiety. Suggesting that people should be allowed to become infected caused many to become paranoid, thinking that they already contracted the virus. Worse still, it meant that many symptomless people continued about their daily lives unknowingly transmitting the disease.
If the government’s first line of response had been to test the population rather than allow them to continue socially interacting, then we may have come further in our attempt to flatten the curve.
‘The UK is not currently doing any mass surveillance testing or actively tracing people who have come into contact with known cases’.
Fortunately, the government has began to step away from their herd immunity strategy and are taking more direct action with, ‘plans to increase this (testing) to 10,000 a day initially, with a goal of reaching 25000 tests a day within four weeks’.
But is it too little too late?
We have reached a stage where many people are currently self-isolating and therefore unable to go to work. With the closure of schools and businesses across the UK, this government must ensure that their financial support is completely comprehensive. If people are unable to work then many will be unable to pay key bills. They simply cannot expect that people will remain at home for the sake of reducing the spread of infection, if that means losing their homes, jobs or not being able to feed their children. The response must continue to be twofold as the health and financial implications of this virus are tightly linked.
On Friday the Chancellor announced an ‘unprecedented’ financial support package covering 80 per cent of wages in an aim to secure people’s jobs and protect the most vulnerable in our society. This will be beneficial, but the livelihood of millions still hangs in a tremulous balance as business employers weigh their options.
The herd immunity approach has now all but gone given the fast-paced nature of this emergency. The question is, has it done minimum or maximum damage? Or neither? The coming weeks and months will tell us.