SAGE scientists considered explaining ‘herd immunity’ to public to explain why government was acting slowly

PUBLISHED: 14:12 05 May 2020 | UPDATED: 14:20 05 May 2020

Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives for a press conference with Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty, (centre), and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, to brief the media on the government's coronavirus action plan, at Downing Street. Photograph: Frank Augstein/PA.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives for a press conference with Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty, (centre), and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, to brief the media on the government's coronavirus action plan, at Downing Street. Photograph: Frank Augstein/PA.

PA Wire/PA Images

Some scientists who sit on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) committee discussed explaining ‘herd immunity’ to the public to explain why it was not imposing social distancing measures faster.

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The advice - published by SAGE after calls for greater transparency - showed some of the experts wanted the government to explain the concept to the public.

The government has denied it was a policy that they were following, with ministers insisting they were instead “following the science”.

But a paper dated March 4, considered by SAGE on March 5, said: “SPI-B (scientific pandemic influenza group on behaviours) have divergent opinions on the impact of not applying widescale social isolation at the same time as recommending isolation to at-risk groups.

“One view is that explaining that members of the community are building some immunity will make this acceptable.


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“Another view is that recommending isolation to only one section of society risks causing discontent.”

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Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance talked about the concept of herd immunity in broadcast interviews on March 13, but the government later said achieving herd immunity was never a policy.

Asked about his comments back in March on herd immunity, Sir Patrick explained to the MPs on Health and Social Care Committee what he meant.

He said: “I should be clear about what I was trying to say, and if I didn’t say this clearly enough then I apologise.

“What I was trying to say was that, in the absence of a therapeutic, the way in which you can stop a community becoming susceptible to this is through immunity and immunity can be obtained by vaccination, or it can be obtained by people who have the infection.”

The Sunday Times reported that Boris Johnson’s key adviser Dominic Cummings had supported the principles behind the strategy until a sharp u-turn in the middle of March, a claim he strenuously denies.

The release of the documents comes one day after SAGE published a list of some of the experts who have been sitting on the group.

The documents will be updated on a regular basis with the latest available evidence provided to SAGE.

Other documents reveal that government advisers were asked to stop shaking hands with people on the day that Boris Johnson boasted he shook the hands of those in hospital.

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