The U.K. ends its creative experiment with herd immunity

By Andrea Widburg

Over the weekend, news broke that the United Kingdom had adopted a wildly different approach from the rest of the world when it comes to coronavirus. While most of the world’s countries were trying to stop or slow the disease until reliable treatments and vaccines are available, Britain planned to create an old-fashioned herd immunity by sequestering vulnerable people but letting everyone else get exposed to the virus.

In an article published here early Monday morning, we suggested that, while this was certainly a creative idea, it was also very risky:

It’s an interesting theory but . . . a risky one.  Misjudge the delicate balance, and you end up with an explosive rate of disease.  Also, viruses mutate, so the coronavirus might grow to become harmful to previously low-risk communities.


[W]hile the U.K. is experimenting with something that theoretically makes sense, the downside risks of trying magically to create a herd are huge.  For that reason, we have reason to be grateful that, within 24 hours of excluding the U.K. from the list of European countries now barred entry to America, Trump reversed course and added the U.K. to the list.

It turns out that, by Monday evening, the British government had come to the same conclusion we did and decided not to experiment with its creative coronavirus policy. According to reports, the primary reason the government reversed itself was that, also on Monday, the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team published a report saying that the proposed British plan could have a disastrous outcome.

The study looked at two different approaches to the virus’s spread: Suppression, which is what America is currently trying, and mitigation, which was what Britain proposed. According to the assumptions fed into the computer, “the resulting mitigated epidemic would still likely result in hundreds of thousands of deaths and health systems (most notably intensive care units) being overwhelmed many times over.”

The Imperial College report reached its conclusions using computer simulations which, as we know, are only as good as the data fed into the program. However, given that the British government was relying solely on a theory that would be enforced by a government body on a population that would never be 100% compliant, it’s a pretty sure thing that wisdom was on the side of the computer simulations, not the theory.

For that reason, by late Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson followed other nations and told British citizens, both young and old, to start practicing social distancing:

In yesterday’s briefing, the measures presented were drastic, advising that all Brits should stay away from pubs, clubs, theatres and cinemas for weeks – and potentially months.

During the first conference, the prime minister also said:

  • Those who can work from home should
    Over 70s, those who are pregnant and anyone with underlying health conditions should try and not leave home
  • People are advised to not visit vulnerable and elderly family and friends – for around 12 weeks
  • If one family member shows symptoms then the entire family should stay home for two weeks
  • The Government is no longer supporting mass public gatherings
  • Schools will remain open for now – but kids with a cough should be sent home

The same Imperial College report, incidentally, says that the American “suppression” plan, which replicates the approach in South Korea, is the better plan even though it may only delay the virus’s outbreak, without actually stopping it. The report basically says that we cannot suppress the disease forever and, at some point, must deal with it.

When fighting a viral foe, though, time is valuable. The longer we can hold off the virus, the longer we can research ways to mitigate its effects on the human body. Also, because the virus seems to be temperature sensitive, if we can suppress it just until the warm months, that may buy us enough time to develop a vaccination before the next flu season.

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