“We have a plan, based on the expertise of world-leading scientists. Herd immunity is not a part of it,” Matthew Hancock writes in today’s Sunday Telegraph.
Meanwhile, Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, is telling Sky News: “We think this virus is likely to be one that comes year on year, becomes like a seasonal virus. Communities will become immune to it and that’s going to be an important part of controlling this longer term. About 60 per cent is the sort of figure you need to get herd immunity.”
What is going on?
The answer lies in the Health Secretary’s next sentence: “[Herd immunity] is a scientific concept, not a goal or a strategy.” Our readers will grasp at once that this is, with all due respect to Hancock, playing with the meaning of words. Something may not be a government goal but none the less be a government intention. When push comes to shove, he and Sir Patrick are singing from the same hymn book.
The latter isn’t setting out that intention for the first time this morning, by the way. He did so last Thursday in no less public a venue than the Prime Minister’s press conference. It was the introduction of this concept into the Government’s briefing about the Coronavius that gave rise to the controversy about its strategy – which in international terms is an outlier: most other governments are slapping down restrictions faster.
So if the herd immunity isn’t the Government’s “goal”, what is?
The Health Secretary goes on to write that “our goal is to protect life from this virus, our strategy is to protect the most vulnerable and protect the NHS [our italics] through contain, delay, research and mitigate”. Those italicised words are the heart of the matter. The Government’s main aim is to “squash the sombrero”, as the Prime Minister puts it – or to put it in more neutral terms, “flatten the peak”.
If the numbers needing hospital treatment this spring are lower than they otherwise would have been, the NHS may not be overwhelmed – with staff forced, in effect, to choose who will be saved and who will die.
The planned speeding-up of restrictions briefed to this morning’s paper may therefore not be a response to pressure – or panic, if you like. Rather, they most likely to reflect a recognition that the virus is spreading faster than calculated. Hence the need to accelerate the planned shutdown, and try to keep the hospitals from being swamped.
At home, Ministers now need to move fast to protect “the most vulnerable”. That means more public information and clearer guidance on isolating older family members; care home visit constrictions; home help by health visitors and other staff; getting the right equipment to hospitals speedily, and so on.
Abroad, Johnson must, in addition to his awesome domestic responsibilites, attempt to help lead – in the effective absence of an American response – what must be an international response to an international crisis. We believe he can better do so operating in concert with Emmanuel Macron. There are signs today he may be doing just that.
We’ve compared the metaphorical battle with the Coronavirus to a real one – a war, if you like. The difference between the Government’s response and that of many others is that they have conducted a faster and more extensive retreat: in other words, wider and more draconian restrictions.
With imperfect information about the virus’s prevalence, nature and scope, Johnson is striving to time Britain’s own withdrawal in such a way as to help flatten that peak, minimise any “second wave’ and above all keep the hospitals from being overwhelmed.
He may or may not be successful compared to what would otherwise have been the case. But one cannot weigh from experience what is against what might have been. One cannot know a counter-factual. We repeat that the immediate future is going to feel very bad indeed – whatever the Government does, and whether it’s right or wrong.