Herd immunity was never government policy during the Covid pandemic and it was a major communications failure that some people thought at the start of the pandemic, Professor Sir Chris Whitty told the inquiry Covid.
In his testimony, Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said opting for herd immunity was “inconceivable” and would have caused “an extraordinarily high loss of life” without necessarily achieving its goal.
Whitty said that around March 2020 he attempted to prevent ministers and others from publicly discussing the idea, given that the concept was complex and nuanced: “Frankly, there has been a lot of chatter from people who, at best, half-understood the problems. »
Herd immunity was generally understood at the time to mean allowing the virus to pass unchecked through the population, with enough people catching it and then gaining immunity so that at some point, infection rates infection slow down.
Arguing that no one in government supported the idea, Whitty said the problem was that ministers were discussing it as a possible natural evolution of the pandemic due to a “confused understanding of some documents based on modeling who did not advocate it as an objective.” “.
Whitty said: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone officially, or anyone in their right mind, set that as their goal. I think some people have tried to explain it as, “This is what would happen over time,” I think, frankly, to no avail.
“I think if we were to look back on our miscommunications along the way, and there have been many, this is clearly one of those where I think we didn’t help the public by having a debate that I think, quite rightly, it has upset and confused a lot of people.
Whitty did not identify who he said had been unhelpful in discussing the idea, but then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson was among those who did so at the time.
Whitty said he sent WhatsApps to a group including Johnson, then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock and officials, urging them not to speak publicly about herd immunity given its complexity and the risk of being misunderstood .
The idea of herd immunity – also used as a modeling term to look at the impact of different waves of a virus – as a way to quickly eliminate Covid was absurd, Whitty said. He said that even after the very devastating first wave of Covid, only about 20% of people had been infected.
Using herd immunity as a policy also relied on the permanent nature of post-infection immunity, which was not the case for Covid, Whitty said, and also on the questionable practicality and morals of asking elderly and clinically vulnerable people to self-isolate for extended periods.
Asked about the scientists and others who supported the plan in the so-called Great Barrington Declaration, Whitty said, “I think they were just wrong, period.” I thought it was flawed on several levels.
However, he added, some in the government took the idea of modeling and “used it in a somewhat confusing way”, and some talked about it as an idea “without having thought it through” .
He said: “It was clearly a ridiculous and dangerous policy objective, and a lot of what was said (about it) could have led to considerable confusion, and that is what happened. »