Wednesday 18 March 2020

Lockdown might last a year or even more

An unusually empty Piccadilly Circus in central London
Piccadilly Circus

Immediately after Boris Johnson, on scientific advice, had gone from being laid-back and British about the killer virus to ordering everyone who could do so to keep away from everyone else, Professor Neil Fergusson, England's leading epidemiologist, explained the reasons to a press conference of science journalists. He told them that he hoped for only 20,000 coronavirus deaths in the UK, rather than a possible 260,000. He said that, were no measures taken at all, between 400,000 and 550,000 people would die.

The change in strategy had been necessitated by new data. Whereas the new social-distancing measures had been temporary, now they would need to continue until a vaccine or treatment was found, which could take a year or more. 

New data has caused this change but, in any case, the British Government's Chief Medical Officer, whose modest but authoritative manner at press confidences is universally admired, had been giving the government and country culpably bad advice. 

He, you recall, said that large numbers, even a majority of the British population would be infected and this would provide the population with herd immunity, meaning the virus would not come back each year.

Saloni Dattani, a PhD student in psychiatric genetics at King's College London, writes this in Unherd:

Finally, there is a lack of evidence that lasting herd immunity to COVID-19 was possible in humans when acquired by infection, and that recovered cases would be prevented from reinfection. “Typically coronaviruses don’t make long-lasting antibody responses,” tweeted Brian Ferguson, an immunologist at Cambridge University, adding, “if this is a deliberate approach it’s not scientifically based and irresponsible.”

The Government’s chief medical advisor claimed that part of the reason he believed cases in China had declined was because 20% of the Wuhan population had been infected by the virus and had acquired herd immunity and because a large proportion of cases were asymptomatic. 

But as mentioned previously, evidence from researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine estimated that 94.8% of the Wuhan population were still susceptible to infection at the end of January (i.e. had not been infected by the virus) and that “there was evidence that the majority of cases were symptomatic.” Daniel Falush, a statistical geneticist at the University of Bath, tweeted that these claims were contradictory, adding that “unfortunately, tragically, this error is driving UK policy right now.”

...The evidence was not conflicted, it was clear: the Government’s strategy of delaying the peak and inducing herd immunity was unscientific, unfeasible and dangerous. It is hugely unfortunate that the Government delayed aggressive social distancing measures, which will have already caused avoidable deaths and suffering, but it is encouraging that they quickly reconsidered many of their initial plans — for the damage must be mitigated swiftly. Countries around the world considering the British strategy should seriously reconsider. Containment is possible. Containment is necessary. Containment must be the goal.


  1. now they would need to continue until a vaccine or treatment was found, which could take a year or more.

    The vaccine idea is like the herd immunity idea. It's largely wishful thinking. How many successful vaccines have been developed in the past for other coronaviruses? Isn't the answer - none?

    It might be possible. It might take a year. It might take ten years.

    Once again Britain has chosen the time-honoured British approach to crises - a vague hope that they'll somehow muddle through. Maybe the boffins will come up with something. Terribly clever chaps, those boffins.

  2. N N Taleb on BBC Radio 4 on why this is not a Black Swan.

  3. Yes, experts can get it badly wrong as they did re Foot & Mouth, 'man made climate change', TB, and Grenfell Tower ('stay put').