Still Taking it On The Chin: UK'S Continuing Obsession With Herd Immunity


Author: Paul Dodenhoff
Published: 2020/05/29 - Updated: 2021/08/23
Contents: Summary - Introduction - Main - Related

Synopsis: Whether the plan was always to allow the disease to spread uncontrolled through UK population or not, the UK's approach was distinctly out-of-sync with the rest of Europe. Unsurprisingly, in spite of its appalling statistics, this is a government that still thinks it has done a good job in handling the crisis. But should we be too surprised? Boris Johnson is a man who is reported to have a legendary belief in himself and perhaps that clouded his judgement.


The number of UK deaths during the coronavirus pandemic that are over and above normal levels are now up to around 60,000, according to official figures released recently. As it stands, the UK's excess deaths figure are amongst the highest recorded in Europe. The UK also has the second highest death toll in the world, judged on official statistics. If that is indeed the case, it backs up assertions that the UK government has largely failed in protecting its citizens from the virus, particularly its poorest and it's most vulnerable.

Main Digest

For example, 88% of deaths in the UK due to Covid-19 have occurred in the over-65 category. Research has also shown that ethnicity, deprivation, pre-existing health conditions and occupation all contribute to an individual's risk of dying from the coronavirus. So, as with everything else in the UK over the last 40 years or more, Britain's most vulnerable and those at the bottom end of the socio-economic ladder are far more likely to die from coronavirus than those who are not. According to media reports, the UK government even rubber stamped the transfer of around 15,000 elderly patients from hospitals and into UK care homes in order to create extra capacity for other coronavirus patients. Some of these elderly patients having already tested positive for coronavirus themselves and with the vast majority not even tested at all. A number of care home managers have since come forward to complain about the strategy and to highlight how they resisted immense pressure from the authorities to take in such patients. Now you don't need to be a genius to work out the folly of putting elderly patients with suspected coronavirus and those not even tested for coronavirus into a home with other vulnerable people who were supposed to be 'shielded' from it. Yet, here's a government that couldn't work that one out for themselves.

Unsurprisingly, in spite of its appalling statistics, this is a government that still thinks it has done a good job in handling the crisis. On his first day back at work after recovering from the coronavirus, Boris Johnson gushingly announced that "many people will be looking at our apparent success". Seriously? Many people here are actually looking at the government and thinking it should be charged with criminal negligence. Take a look at the news internationally and the UK is hardly being held up as a shining example of how to do things, with regular attacks on its 'complacency' and 'calamitous' response to the crisis. In many instances we are also being laughed at for our stupidity.

However, Boris Johnson's upbeat messages may be more than simple bravado, but symptomatic of a failed political elite who have been complacent over decades, serially incompetent and out of touch with reality. On his return to work, Mr Johnson was clearly desperate to give us some good news in order to divert our minds away from the daily media storm over a lack of PCR test kits or PPE, and the rising death toll in our care homes. So desperate, that he told us that we were now over the peak of this crisis and could start to think about reopening our economy. Good news indeed. The only problem being that we arguably weren't over the peak of this thing at that particular point. At least not according to government's own statistics and certainly not according to Dr Andrea Ammon, director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, who told a European parliamentary committee at the time:

"There are four countries where we see no substantial changes in the last 14 days: Poland, Romania, Sweden, and the UK.....all the others we really see this substantial decrease."

There certainly needed to be a change in infections rates before any 'good' news could be issued and we hadn't seen such a change at that stage. Then again, Boris Johnson is a man on a mission, a man willing to bend the truth in order to not only paint himself out as being a leader of merit, but the UK as a key leader in this crisis. And you can't be a key player when you are visibly lagging behind other comparable countries who seem to handling this crisis so much better. So, here we have a government that was not only reluctant to take measures in order to protect Brits from the virus, but now bends the truth in order to get us all back to some kind of normality. Arguably before it is apparently safe to do so. Indeed, Boris Johnson was recorded recently as saying that he wanted Britain pretty much back to 'normal' by July.

However, nothing as actually changed concerning the virus. It still circulates, it still hospitalises hundreds of Brits daily and it still won't be contained until a vaccine is developed and distributed. With the UK having one of the world's worst per capita death tolls from coronavirus, according to Oxford University researchers and based on data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, you think Boris Johnson would be calming down a little and less inclined to be so gung-ho with the lives of British people. But no sign of that. While lockdown has certainly had a positive effect on slowing down the spread of the virus in the UK, 1,600 new cases were announced on the 25th May. On the same day, a hospital in Somerset actually stopped accepting new patients after a high number had tested positive for coronavirus. And more than 4,000 new cases were announced right across the UK just 24 hours later. As lockdown measures are removed, we will undoubtedly see those infection rates quickly increase again. If the UK is indeed moving at too quick a pace, then there is a very good chance we will be hit by a second wave of this crisis.

Of course, it's hard to see any country actually getting back to any kind of 'normal' while this rather vicious virus freely circulates. Exiting lockdown is therefore a problem all nations are grabbling with. However, Boris Johnson appeared for the first time in front of the Liaison Committee this week, a group whose primary purpose is to hold the prime minister to account on a number of issues. Like his handling of this crisis, his performance in front of the committee left a lot to be desired. Instead of honesty, we had bluster and empty promises. Instead of clarity, we had confusion and an avoidance in actually answering questions. Wilting under the forensic grilling, the PM's primarily response was that we should all simply move on and move forward. In short, let's forget what's happened so far because the UK is a world-leader on coronavirus and a world-beater, blah-de-blah-de-blah.

Of course, lockdown in the UK is going to be eased in carefully and gradually or so the political rhetoric from Boris goes. Where people still need to socially distance, shops still to limit the numbers of customers they serve at any one time and businesses making sure that they are 'Covid secure' for the return of its workers. In reality, the science tells us that the virus is easily passed around by coughing, sneezing, talking and even by breathing. It has been found in air-vents and air conditioning. While the virus has also found in faeces and urine. All of which has implications for workers who work closely with others, particularly indoors and particularly those who need to work in teams in order to complete tasks and who may also need to share work equipment, toilet or restaurant facilities. Even with the best of intentions, no employer can make any work-area 100% Covid secure, even if they supplied PPE to all their workers and kept their building hyper-clean. And not all employers will be willing to bend over backwards for their employees, particularly in a culture were the rights of British workers have been continually eroded for decades. And if British workers can't be kept safe, neither will customers.

Of course, this is our new normal, where Brits are now being asked to use common-sense in both handling the crisis and in order to manage our own safety concerning the coronavirus. 'Stay Alert' is the new message. However, personal safety still very much depends upon the actions of others and many of us are not convinced that Brits can actually display such a level of alertness nor common sense. Therefore, for those of us who fall into the vulnerable category, be it by age or disability, arguably there will be no quick return to any kind of normality. Most will certainly have to self-isolate as much as possible and still limit contact with friends and families - or at least socially distance in a way we haven't before. While still being dependent upon others for essential shopping and still wearing the 'advisable' face-covering if we do venture out. At least until the virus risk is negligible.

Of course, this is the same situation other countries are faced with. But it sure won't fill you with heaps of confidence if your leader's name happens to be Trump, Bolsonaro or indeed, Johnson. For many of us, the British government's actions over the past months have been almost impossible to take in. Not only the high death toll but an abject failure to plan, to organise and a basic failure in honesty. First failing to join a European Union purchasing scheme in order to bulk-buy medical ventilators and then blaming the EU for the failure, because we didn't get 'the email'. Repeated failure over PCR testing, often blaming it on a shortage of chemicals needed, while producers in the UK argue that they were never even asked to produce more. Culminating with an attempt to remedy shortages of PPE by making a huge purchase of PPE from Turkey, announcing the day it was arriving to a fanfare of trumpets - even before the order was even placed. And then it arrived, it was deemed by medics to be completely unusable.

You really couldn't have witnessed a more shambolic performance from any government. And for those watching the chaos from outside, many have been similarly aghast at a strategy for combating COVID-19 that was not just visibly lazy but ludicrously chaotic. While the rest of Europe burned with coronavirus, Boris Johnson appeared to act like a modern day Emperor Nero, fiddled with his hair and did nothing until the horse had well and truly bolted from the stable. Something made even more stark when Johnson worryingly bragged about shaking hands with coronavirus patients or rolled up to be interviewed on Breakfast TV seemingly suggesting that Brits could simply handle this crisis by taking it - "on the chin".

But should we be too surprised? Boris Johnson is a man who is reported to have a legendary belief in himself and perhaps that clouded his judgement. He obviously saw no need to take the measures other European countries had been taking. So, did Boris think that these countries had simply overreacted or merely that the virus wasn't as serious as the scientists were apparently saying? Whether the plan was always to allow the disease to spread uncontrolled through the UK population or not, as we 'herd immunity' theorists still argue, the UK's approach was distinctly out-of-sync with the rest of Europe. Trace the timeline of events in the UK and nothing really happened of note until the 23rd of March. Lockdown being announced on the 24th March. A rather confused strategy that first began on the 16th March when Mr Johnson simply advised Brits to avoid pubs and restaurants - despite actually being unwilling to close them down. A move that was argued to be motivated only after the London Imperial College study had been made public, and one estimating that he UK's death toll could be between 250,000 and 500,000 if no action was taken. In short, Johnson's initial instincts were to do nothing, yet the evidence was suggesting that those instincts were completely wrong.

Certainly, we can argue that government was complacent in not heeding the warnings from China, Italy, France and Spain. Particularly now, considering the high level of infections the UK has suffered, together with its overall death toll. But was it just simple complacency? It was evident from the start of this crisis that the people who tended to suffer the worse from the coronavirus were those at the bottom end of the socio-economic ladder, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. Social groups who have not been very high up on the Conservative political agenda for many years. None of these groups are valued as being 'productive' members of the herd.

Despite the denials of 'herd immunity', we had certainly witnessed Boris and various other government officials popping up on TV, apparently outlining such a plan. One that was simply to allow the virus to spread slowly through society relatively unchecked. While protecting the vulnerable by 'shielding' them. But at the same time, surely knowing that it was almost impossible for the UK to shield its most vulnerable while there was a chronic shortage of PCR testing and medical PPE. Key items in the fight against the coronavirus. I know for a fact that some vulnerable people actually contacted Covid-19 while in hospital for other treatments. By the 15th May, around 12,000 elderly people are reported to have died in UK care-homes due to the Coronavirus. Of course, any political comments about herd immunity are now argued to have simply been taken out of context and that there was no herd immunity plan at all. We all simply got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

Yet, as I said earlier, trace the time-line of government action and everything only seemed to happen after the 23rd of March. What happened before that date is largely shrouded in mystery, except for reports that Boris Johnson regularly avoided emergency meetings concerning the pandemic. Apparently too preoccupied with Brexit and his own private life. Whatever the true story, there was always an uncomfortable air surrounding government that certainly stank of an unwillingness to take the situation seriously. And it still leaves an unpalatable taste in the mouth to suggest that any British government would simply gamble on a strategy that was willing to put more lives at risk than any other European government was prepared to do. After all, it was the government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance who argued early on that if they kept the death toll down to below 20,000, then that would be seen as a good result. Not such a success then, judged by their own standards.

But I think it is this underlying assumption that there is indeed an 'acceptable' level of deaths that is the most uncomfortable aspect of this crisis. A willingness to trade off lives as simply 'collateral damage' in a fight to keep the economy 'open'. In the UK, we've recently witnessed increasing pressure from Conservative politicians, business groups and from the UK's media aimed at getting our economy moving and our children back to school. Hence the gradual removal of 'lockdown' and a PM determined to return the UK to 'normal' by July at the latest. But let me just add, the recent shift in direction is primarily being taken by England and not the UK as a whole. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all initially rejected Boris Johnson's new strategy and are now doing things at their own pace. Quite a remarkable development in the grand scheme of things. So, while the rest of the UK remained largely at home, England primarily set off on a course to 'normality' on its own, and one that sees more businesses open, more workers crammed onto public transport and more people out on the streets, in the parks and on the beaches. Very few wearing the advisory facemask, which is still not mandatory in the UK. That said, Gateshead council in England recently advised its community to also stay at home, stating that its infection levels, levels of deprivation, population density, poor housing and low incomes mean that their population is particularly susceptible to the virus. Other councils have also now come out to declare that their schools will remain closed. So, another confusing development in the UK's haphazard approach. Not only is the UK split in terms of strategy, but England itself is starting to become increasingly fragmented.

Like the rather haphazard and confused way 'lockdown' was initially introduced by Mr Johnson in March, exiting from this situation also began with a similarly confusing address to the nation. Officially, changes to the UK's 'lockdown' came in on Wednesday 13th May, but were chaotically announced on the Sunday before in a nationwide TV briefing, with Boris Johnson cajoling Brits to go back to work on Monday morning and if possible, to do so by avoiding public transport. Just hours before they would be at work and still three days before the policy papers for the move were even finalised and officially presented to parliament. Clearly, the PM wanted workers back at work on Monday morning but it was also completely at odds with his own government policy and official guidance at the time. As a minimum, Boris Johnson is a man who knowingly addressed the nation at 7pm one night and expected some of his subjects to be at work the next day, just a few hours later - and without using public transport. Is that a clue to the mentality these people are actually operating from?

Reports from the media later reported complaints from government officials that Mr Johnson kept altering the briefing script because he thought the original was too complex and not clear enough. Come Monday, many Brits had indeed heeded this new clearer message from our PM, with commuter's photographed piling onto over crowded trains and buses in London, while cars stacked up in rush-hour traffic in other parts of England. Some kind of gradual easing of lock-down? I don't think so. By Wednesday, the day these changes were supposed to be brought in, I had personally witnessed work-vans stuffed full of workers, clearly unable to socially distance and none wearing PPE. Certainly, many of those workers who did turn up for work on Monday morning won't have been walking into a safe working environment. And all in all, you don't need to be psychic to visualise that very few workers who will go to work from now onwards will indeed be 'Covid-secure' in their workplace. For many, it will simply be a return to business as usual.

Yet, many Brits still obviously love Boris Johnson and tend to see him as a man duly looking out for the national interest, perhaps in a way that no other British leader has done since Winston Churchill. So, it is highly unlikely that whatever Boris Johnson does, that his popularity will alter significantly because of it. Days before lockdown took place, polls were showing that more than 60% of Brits thought that the government was handling the crisis extremely well, reaching a peak of 72% on the 27th March, according to Sky News. That popularly has waned since but still managed to hit a remarkably 47% on the 15th May.

After all that has happened, I in 2 Brits still think Boris has done a good job. So, if Boris and his government have indeed been complacent over many aspects of the coronavirus, how come not all of us can actually see it? Of course, of those who put him in Downing Street last December, many may be inclined not to judge him too harshly, simply because that would be admitting they themselves have made a bad mistake. But a popularity high of 72% clearly signals to me that there is something extremely faulty going on in the heads of British people. A high that was achieved when a lack of testing for the virus, and a lack of PPE that was clearly due to political incompetence and poor planning. In any other walk of life, such inadequacy of planning, such abysmal organisation and such shameful incompetence would not be tolerated without facing calls for the sack. Indeed, if this was sport and the England football team was rated in the bottom three in the world, people would be jumping up and down quickly calling for the manager to be hung from the nearest lamp post - with the UK's tabloids leading the shouting. Not so with politics. Instead, follow comments on social media and the excuses readily roll in concerning the government's handling of the crisis.

For me, this unwillingness to even mildly criticise the UK's handling of the crisis is arguably tied into some level of false patriotism. We can't possibly criticise our government in a time of national crisis. Because we are supposed to love, show devotion and have a sense of attachment to our homeland -- and by default that includes its leaders. So, if you can't say anything nice, simply don't say anything at all. Which has worrying overtones of fascism. Of course, any comparison of infection rates and death rates across countries are very much dependent upon the level of testing and upon how these things are recorded. Every country may indeed have slightly different ways of recording Covid-19 deaths. But arguably, the real reason why we shouldn't be comparing our handling of the crisis with other countries, is because this crisis has fully and painfully exposed the inadequacies of leadership and the fault-lines of polarisation that have duly existed in British society for many decades.

Any admittance that we may not be as good a country as we tend to think we are, clearly causes some level of cognitive dissonance amongst our population. We are told constantly being told in our schools, by our politicians and by our media that 'Great Britain' is indeed a great nation, a world leader and a pioneer. A nation that the whole world looks at emulating. However, this is a faded Britain that has consistently papered over the cracks of decades of inadequate leadership. A Britain whose basic public infrastructure has seriously been mismanaged, underfunded, dismantled and arguably left largely unprepared for any major public health crisis. And a Britain highly dependent upon a service industry and upon its low-valued, low-paid and disposable workforce. But one that basically runs all of our essential daily services, many of whom may be particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus itself. These low paid and undervalued people are actually the ones pulling us through this crisis. 'Non-essential' workers being generally side-lined at home, some working from home, many still receiving an income of some sort and many simply waiting for the virus to disappear so that they can get back to normal. With the elderly, the sick and disabled people still highly vulnerable to whatever fate and/or government bureaucrats have in store for them.

Despite the bluster and political rhetoric emanating from Boris Johnson, the coronavirus crisis arguably has magnified those cracks, inequalities and deficiencies in British society. Successive British governments have got away with it for many years, blaming poor infrastructure and deteriorating public services on anything but themselves. However, Britain's political mismanagement of the pandemic has not only been clearly visible to the whole world, but astonishingly woeful in comparison to other countries. There is no hiding place from that fact and no amount of enthusiastic arm-waving from Boris Johnson can alter the derision and shorn that has been heaped upon his mishandling of the situation. Even pushing aside the rising death toll, what we have witnessed is a Government wildly promising to massively scale up its PCR testing for the coronavirus when it knowingly didn't have the capacity at the time to meet those promises. Nor did it seem to know how to go about changing that situation. And while medics were desperately running out of PPE and crying out for help, government assured us that it had warehouses full of the stuff, it was simply having problems with the logistics. In reality, the PPE it had stockpiled for such a pandemic had been allowed to become so badly out-of-date that much of it was knowingly unusable. Some was even over-stamped with new dates, much to the horror of medics who were supplied with these items. Now we have been promised 'track & trace', something that clearly would help to contain the virus in future days and arguably something that should have been in place many months ago. As it has been in countries such as South Korea and Germany. Yet, despite the trumpet fanfare concerning this new programme, critics complain that it is still far from ready to be implemented properly. Another one of Boris Johnson's 'world beaters' that we all know instinctively will end up as simply being another huge embarrassment played out on the international stage. What these events symbolise is not only incompetence and complacency, but a political regime that can never actually admit it is getting things badly wrong. The UK simply does not do failure. But if found out, we should all stop talking about it and move on. A serious worry when you have a public health crisis on your hands.

For me, while the UK's shambolic handling of the coronavirus pandemic is undoubtedly due to incompetence, what is still clearly driving official policy is the belief that the virus still isn't really all that serious for the majority of people who may get it. For a start, the UK's lockdown was not only a highly reluctant one but an extremely lackadaisical one. And seemed primarily driven by a PM who was still in two-minds whether to do anything at all. We also keep hearing that more Brits may have already had this virus than official statistics record, so the old chestnut of 'herd immunity' may not be all that far from political minds. Of course, the argument that more Brits may have already had this virus than official statistics dictate is certainly not in dispute by me. Take a look at public health data for England and you can detect a massive spike in hospital admissions for respiratory viruses from the 12th December 2019 onwards, especially ICU admissions. Something unprecedented compared to previous years covering the same period and something particularly true for the North West of England. An area of the UK that is one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. Anecdotal evidence from patients hospitalised at this time indicate that some have indeed been told since that they had Covid-19. Similarly, France recently reported a patient treated in a hospital near Paris on 27 December for suspected pneumonia, actually had the coronavirus. Similar reports are recorded from all around the world.

In short, coronavirus has been with us far longer than first thought. If that is indeed the case, then more people will undoubtedly have had the virus than official stats pick up. And for me, this is the gamble that politicians like Boris Johnson are basically basing their decisions on and pinning their hopes upon. However, for herd immunity to be achieved around 80% of the UK's population would need to have had the virus. A figure that is unlikely to have been reached as things currently stand. A recent study for government indicated that 1 in 400 people have the coronavirus at present, a study that was undertaken over a two week period. We can contrast that figure with the 3,500 per 1 million of the UK population who have officially tested positive for the virus. Of course, comparisons are difficult but if the 1 in 400 figure is correct, then that still only translates into 2,500 per 1m of the UK's population. Or to put that into herd immunity terms, just 0.2% of the UK's total population. Even if 20 million Brits had already had the virus, that would still only be 30% of the population. A long way short of herd immunity.

Whatever the figure actually is, nobody should argue that the level of herd immunity that may currently exist in the UK population means that the virus is safely contained and that we can therefore all get back to normal. The University of Manchester completed a study recently that estimated that around 25% of the UK may have already had Covid -- 16 million of the UK population. Of course, just because somebody has had the virus does not necessarily mean that they will have immunity or enough immunity not to become ill again from it. But that's the risk the UK is arguably willing to take in order to open up its economy. And that is where we stand at the moment.

Lockdown measures are being eased further from next Monday when groups of up to six people from different households will be able to meet outdoors in England. More children are encouraged to go to school. And more shops will open up. Unfortunately, there is no mechanism that can quickly detect what the impact of such moves may have. If the virus takes up to 2 weeks (or even more) to incubate and then another 2 to 3 weeks to hospitalise a patient, UK hospitals will not be seeing a 'second' wave of the coronavirus until 4 weeks, 5 weeks or 6 weeks into the future. For me, the gamble is still undoubtedly one of herd immunity and based largely on a hope rather than being based upon scientific evidence. Boris Johnson had to introduce 'lockdown' because the NHS was predicted to become overwhelmed if he hadn't. It was forced upon him. Now that the NHS has not been completely destroyed and with other nations opening up their economies, this is a man in a rush to steam full-ahead into a similar unlocking of the UK. But are we ready for it? My view is that we are not and I fully expect our health care system to be completely overwhelmed in a few weeks' time because of it. But let's hope I'm wrong.

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Author Credentials:

British born Paul Dodenhoff, is a regular contributor of UK disability related news and content. Paul has always taken an interest in disability issues, and writes for Disabled-World trying to highlight issues that don't always get a great deal of attention from Britain's popular media. Paul Dodenhoff completed a part-time Open University Bachelor of Science degree in Social Problems, Health and Social Welfare; graduating at the Guild Hall, Preston, United Kingdom. He also gained a part-time Master of Arts degree in Research Methodology in 2003 with the Open University; graduating at the UNESCO headquarters, Paris. Explore Paul's complete biography for comprehensive insights into his background, expertise, and accomplishments.

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Cite This Page (APA): Dodenhoff, P. (2020, May 29 - Last revised: 2021, August 23). Still Taking it On The Chin: UK'S Continuing Obsession With Herd Immunity. Disabled World. Retrieved July 14, 2024 from

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