How UK’s ‘Herd Immunity’ Strategy Against COVID-19 Failed

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On 16th of March, the Prime Minister of UK Boris Johnson announced a series of measures indicating an abrupt change in the country’s strategy in its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The country had initially pursued a strategy of ‘mitigation’ which focused on measures such as asking people with coronavirus symptoms to self-isolate for 2 weeks and social distancing of the elderly. The initial estimate was that a vast number of people would suffer a mild illness due to the spread, and that it would result in a kind of ‘herd immunity’, i.e. a sufficiently high proportion of the population developing immunity to the disease.

UK’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, and chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, believed that their plan would flatten the curve of the disease that was going to sweep through the population. Some experts were of the view that herd immunity would kick in once 60% of the population had been infected.

The UK was also trying to avoid the draconian measures implemented by other countries, such as a near total lockdown.

However, since 16th March, people have been told to work from home, and limit all non-essential human contact and travel.

After a report by the Imperial College’s COVID-19 response team, the country was forced to abandon its initial strategy and adopt much stricter measures to ‘suppress’ the disease rather than just mitigate it.

The report projected that the UK’s strategy of mitigation rather than ‘suppression’ would result in the death of 250,000 people, and unbearable pressure on the nation’s healthcare infrastructure. It also said that the coronavirus pandemic was the most serious public health threat seen in a respiratory virus since the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

The scientists at Imperial said that new data from Italy, where the Coronavirus broke out a week or two earlier than in the UK, showed that demand for intensive care units among those being hospitalised was much higher than initially believed.

For the UK, the report recommended the suppression strategy, wherein countries attempt to break the chain of transmission to stop the pandemic in its tracks, the way China has done. This includes lockdowns, forced work from home and a ban on all non-essential businesses and services.

The report also suggested that isolation and social distancing might have to remain in effect until a viable vaccine is produced, which could take as long as 18 months.


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