Exactly who said what about herd immunity and when, despite government's denials

Dominic Cummings will give evidence to MPs on Wednesday and there are two words he wants to focus on: “herd immunity”.

Downing Street has “decided to lie” for 14 months and pretend there wasn’t a herd immunity strategy at the start of the pandemic, Boris Johnson ’s former top advisor has claimed.

Branding his ex-colleagues “very foolish” and accusing them of “appalling ethics”, he tweeted: “The right line wd have been what PM knows is true: our original plan was wrong & we changed when we realised.

“Lots of hacks have lost their minds. Herd immunity wasn’t ‘a secret strategy’, it was THE OFFICIAL PUBLIC EXPLAINED ON TV/RADIO STRATEGY!”

In one sense Dominic Cummings is completely right.

Senior figures did use the phrase “herd immunity” a few times, including on national TV.

Dominic Cummings walking out of No10 with a box of paperwork last year
Dominic Cummings walking out of No10 with a box of paperwork last year

More to the point, it was generally a feature of the UK’s initial plan to deal with the pandemic – delaying a peak of infections and spreading it out over the summer, without a lockdown, then waiting for it to gradually ebb away as more people became immune.

What’s also obvious is that the UK did make a massive handbrake turn on its “delay the virus” approach after advisors said it could lead to at least 250,000 deaths.

Boris Johnson’s official spokesman admitted today: “Our approach from the start was to delay and suppress the curve of the virus.

“That was the initial approach, and then as the situation progressed and more data became available, we took the decision to move to a national lockdown.”

Yet the PM’s spokesman added: “Herd immunity was never a priority for the government or policy for the government.”

And asked to admit herd immunity was initially the government’s policy, Cabinet minister Priti Patel said on Sunday: “Not at all, no. Absolutely not.”

So in the debate over herd immunity, who’s right?

It may come down to whether you think herd immunity was the goal of the government, or it was a part of the wider strategy the government was following, up until the lockdown U-turn.

The latter is certainly true; the former is what the government so aggressively deny.

Meanwhile, those watching Dominic Cummings from 9.30am on Wednesday will question his motives. He left No10 in a storm of personal infighting and has since cast himself as being right all along.

When he tweeted that lockdowns could have been avoided “if we’d had the right preparations + competent people in charge”, it begged the obvious question – what about you, Dominic?

So to cut through the spin and bluster, we give you exactly what the key figures said about herd immunity – and when.

3 March 2020: Plan is to ‘delay’ inevitable peak

Boris Johnson launches the government’s coronavirus “action plan” – and it contains no option to totally suppress the virus.

Instead the plan is to first “delay” and then “mitigate” what is then seen as an inevitable peak of Covid-19 in the UK.

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Extraordinarily, the UK remains in the “contain” stage for nine days after this system is launched and events like the Cheltenham Festival and Liverpool/Madrid match go ahead.

The delay phase would have involved cancelling large gatherings and closing schools but not sending Brits into full lockdown.

The final ‘mitigate’ phase would have involved things like delaying non-urgent care in the NHS.

But essentially, the plan revolved around the virus reaching a peak and then ebbing away once enough people had immunity.

5 March: The ‘take it on the chin’ comments

Boris Johnson makes his now-infamous comments about taking coronavirus ‘on the chin’.

Contrary to some suggestions, he wasn’t promoting this as government policy – but it does show there was some element of that thinking being discussed within government.

The PM emphasised that most sufferers would only get a “mild” illness – and was asked by ITV’s This Morning if his plan was to “delay it into perhaps the summer when it’s a little bit quieter”.

He replied: “Well it’s a very, very important question, and that’s where a lot of the debate has been.

“And one of the theories is that perhaps you could sort of take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without really taking as many draconian measures.

Boris Johnson leaned in for an ill-advised selfie with the hosts of This Morning
Boris Johnson leaned in for an ill-advised selfie with the hosts of This Morning

“I think we need to strike a balance, I think it is very important, we’ve got a fantastic NHS, we will give them all the support that they need, we will make sure that they have all preparations, all the kit that they need for us to get through it.

“But I think it would be better if we take all the measures that we can now to stop the peak of the disease being as difficult for the NHS as it might be, I think there are things that we may be able to do.”

9 March: Delaying the peak is still the plan

Boris Johnson uses a No10 press conference to make clear he still wants to “delay” a Covid peak rather than suppress it as much as possible.

He said: “We remain in the Contain phase of the outbreak, but watching what is happening around the world, our scientists think containment is extremely unlikely to work on its own, and that is why we are making extensive preparations for a move to the delay phase.

“We are preparing various actions to slow the spread of this disease in order to reduce the strain it places on the NHS. The more we can delay the peak of the spread to the summer, the better the NHS will be able to manage.”

10 March: Grim worst-case scenario

SAGE considers a worst-case scenario document which models a single, nine-week wave in which 80% of all Brits get infected and 2.2% of Covid sufferers in their 60s, 5.9% in their 70s and 8.8% over-80 die.

The document estimates 21% of all workers would be in isolation or sick at the same time during peak weeks.

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11 March: No10 expert says herd immunity is a goal

SAGE member Dr David Halpern, chief executive of the government-owned Behavioural Insights Team, gives the most explicit endorsement of “herd immunity” to date in a BBC interview.

He said: “There’s going to be a point, assuming the epidemic flows and grows as it will do, where you want to cocoon, to protect those at-risk groups so they don’t catch the disease.

“By the time they come out of their cocooning, herd immunity has been achieved in the rest of the population.”

This is despite Cummings claiming that, by this point, there were already warnings circling about the effect of such a strategy.

He’s tweeted: “In week of 9/3, No10 was made aware by various people that the official plan wd lead to catastrophe.

“It was then replaced by Plan B. But how ‘herd immunity by Sep’ cd have been the plan until that week is a fundamental issue in the whole disaster.”

12 March: The ‘most surreal day of the pandemic’

Dominic Cummings has since said this fateful Thursday was his “most surreal day of 18 months in government”.

As the UK finally moved into the “delay” phase, Cummings claims it was being argued privately that Boris Johnson should explain the herd immunity policy following David Halpern’s interview.

Cummings also claims it was argued that isolating people at home should be delayed because “we’re not ready”.

In a jaw-dropping press conference that evening, Boris Johnson said: “It’s going to spread further and I must level with you, level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”

Boris Johnson, alongside Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty (left) and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance (right), during the March 12 press conference
Boris Johnson, alongside Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty (left) and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance (right), during the March 12 press conference

Yet the PM still didn’t opt for a full-throated attack on the virus, saying: “This is now not just to attempt to contain the disease as far as possible, but to delay its spread and thereby minimise the suffering… We can act to stretch the peak of the disease over a longer period so that our society is better able to cope.”

Herd immunity was by now firmly in the spotlight.

ITV’s Robert Peston wrote a blog that day claiming: “The strategy of the British government in minimising the impact of Covid-19 is to allow the virus to pass through the entire population so that we acquire herd immunity”.

And Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance told a No10 press conference: “It’s not to stop everybody getting it – you can’t do that.

“It’s not possible to stop everybody getting it and it’s also actually not desirable because you want some immunity in the population. And we need to have immunity to protect ourselves from this in the future.”

13 March: ‘Our aim is… to build up some kind of herd immunity’

Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance told an interviewer: “Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it. Those are the key things we need to do.”

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In a separate interview on Sky News he said “probably about 60% or so” of people would need to contract Covid in order for there to be herd immunity.

He said: “It is the case of course that if you completely locked down absolutely everything, probably for a period of four months or more, then you would suppress this virus.

“All the evidence from previous epidemics suggests when you do that, then you release it, it all comes back again.

“So the other part of this is to make sure we don’t end up with a sudden peak again in the winter which is even larger which causes even more problems.

“So we want to suppress it, not get rid of it completely which you can’t do anyway, not suppress it so we get the second peak, and also allow enough of us who are going to get mild illness to become immune to this to help with the whole population response which would protect everybody.”

March 14: ‘Herd immunity is NOT the goal’

Matt Hancock insists herd immunity is not the government’s aim, writing: “That is a scientific concept, not a goal or a strategy.”

March 16: Modelling predicts at least 250,000 deaths

SAGE scientists gather to examine crucial modelling from experts at Imperial College London and other institutions.

The modelling suggests that if no action is taken to tackle the virus, some 510,000 people will die – and even with “mitigations”, a bit like the strategy the government plans, it would be 250,000.

It adds suppression is “the only viable strategy at the current time”, because the alternative would exceed the demand for hospital and intensive care beds eight times over.

It says: “In the UK, this conclusion has only been reached in the last few days, with the refinement of estimates of likely ICU demand due to COVID-19 based on experience in Italy and the UK.

“Previous planning estimates assumed half the demand now estimated.”

Bizarrely, claims Cummings, some government documents produced around this time added the 250K-odd death toll into the mitigations strategy – but still called it the “optimal” plan.

23 March: Lockdown

In the days between March 16 and March 23 Boris Johnson executed a full-blown U-turn – too slowly, many argue.

The narrative was quickly established that herd immunity was never a goal of the government, despite the move into lockdown being a drastic departure from the previous scheme.

Cummings tweets of this now: “Another reason we ditched Plan A was it became clear the official system had given ~no thought to all the second order effects of 250k dying, almost all without ICU care.

“True deaths wd clearly be much >250k cos there would be *no NHS for anybody for months*.”

He added: “It became clear neither Hancock/CABOFF understood herd immunity effects: 100s of 1000s choking to death + no NHS for *anybody* for months + dead unburied + econ implosion; so we moved to Plan B: suppression + Manhattan Project for drugs/vaccines + test&trace etc.”



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