October 31, 2020

Herd Immunity Strategy is ‘Unethical and Unlikely to be Successful in the UK, warn scientists, as Long Covid Sufferers call for more recognition

Today’s briefing from Independent SAGE saw the advisory group report a slight reduction in infection rates across England and Wales, with the team reporting that instead of doubling every 8 days, as previously modelled, cases in the UK overall were now appearing to double every 12 days, which although a small decrease was good news long term.  However, the scientists noted a significant increase in Scotland, where university students have begun their term, and expressed some concern that we could see a similar pattern in England and Wales as university students settle in.  They also expressed concern at the accuracy of the figures because, as has been widely reported, many people within the UK are unable to access tests at this time and the figures only include confirmed cases.

They said that the figures show UK is still in a “dangerous place” with infection rates increasing every week and hospital admissions rising.

Independent SAGE is a group of scientists who are working together to provide independent scientific advice to the UK government and public on how to minimise deaths and support Britain’s recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. Sir David King, the former chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government, chairs the group and oversees its reports.  Today, the team shared two new reports on why a herd immunity strategy was unlikely to succeed in Britain, and why comparisons with Sweden were misrepresentative.

Herd Immunity ‘unethical’ and likely to be unsuccessful

The committee warns against pursuing ‘herd immunity’ as a strategy in the absence of a vaccine saying it “would not work in the UK” and would be “irresponsible and unethical to try”.

The findings of a white paper said such a strategy risks a significant amount of avoidable death and illness, without protecting the economy, and evidence suggests that the duration of immunity achieved could be less than a year.

Long Covid and Illness in Younger people

The paper noted that if this strategy were adopted, there would be substantial mortality and morbidity even among the ‘non-vulnerable’. It would also increase health and social inequalities, with the most disadvantaged groups, particularly the elderly, deprived and the ethnic minority groups, being disproportionately impacted.

They committee discussed how the current focus on deaths and infection did not take into account the significant number of previously healthy patients across all ages who are reporting significant long term health issues arising from the virus, including heart attacks, debilitating fatigue and organ complications – a phenomenon known as ‘Long Covid’, which could have a long term impact on the economy and on public health, the costs of which are not yet known.

Today’s special guest, Michael Rosen, author and poet, explained that since acquiring COVID-19 many months ago, he has lost the hearing in one ear and has a permanent fog on one of his eyes.   The team also heard from Claire Hastie, who is the founder of the Long Covid Support Group on Facebook.  Since her Covid-19 diagnosis in March, Claire struggles to walk – and explained that many within the group were turned away from hospitals at the height of the pandemic for ‘not being sick enough’, and did not even receive a test for the disease.  Claire told the committee that the group has over 23,000 members, many of them in their twenties who were previously fit and healthy, as well as parents of children, older adults and middle aged members.  The committee heard that sufferers were reporting a wide range of symptoms depending on which organ the disease attacked, and the group expressed concern that there were no guarantees as to what the long term outcome could be, both for affected patients and the additional strain this could place on the UK’s healthcare system.  Claire called for more to be done to recognise the long term complications and to assist sufferers.

Comparisons with Sweden

In another white paper, the authors challenged why Sweden was being used as an example of a country where a population immunity strategy is working, without lockdowns. Sweden’s chief public health expert Anders Tegnell himself previously said “Each country has to reach ‘herd immunity’ in one way or another, and we are going to reach it in a different way”.

The paper’s author said: the idea that Sweden has no restrictions or lockdown is a misconception and secondly the assertion that its strategy is successful is far from clear.  Sweden actually undertook a number of lockdown restrictions, and has one of the highest current per capita death rates for COVID-19 in Europe.   Sweden’s economic contraction is in line with Denmark and Finland which imposed much tighter restrictions, and the authors claim that differences in standard of living, working conditions, school class sizes and levels of trust in the government, make comparisons between the UK and Sweden impossible.