Even while canceling mass gatherings, the U.K. is still aiming for deliberate ‘herd immunity’
By Katherine Dunn and Jeremy Kahn
The U.K. will cancel mass gatherings beginning next weekend, The Guardian newspaper reported Friday night, after a wave of high-profile cancellations and pressure from the public and scientific community appeared to force the government’s hand.
The announcement came after British institutions, from football’s Premier League to the Queen, moved to cancel games and official engagements, despite official government policy that cancellations would do little to stem infections and would cause too large a disruption on public life.
It also followed statements from both well-known scientists and politicians criticizing Boris Johnson’s government’s strategy for fighting coronavirus, which takes a markedly different approach than most European governments and, despite Friday’s announcement, remains in place.
At the heart of that outcry: a policy to push for “herd immunity” to the virus, which would involve allowing at least 40 million Britons to become infected in the hopes of building up a long-term, society-wide resistance to the disease.
“Our aim is to try and reduce the peak [of the infections], broaden the peak, not suppress it completely,” Patrick Vallance, chief scientific advisor to the U.K. government, told BBC Radio 4’s Today program on Friday. “Also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission.”
For herd immunity to kick in, the U.K. government said that about 60% of the population would need to contract the virus. At that point, the rate of transmissions drops enough to protect the remaining 40% of the population from contracting the virus. But the strategy is also based around trying to manage which people are in that 60%—in an ideal scenario, the government would want only those most likely to experience a mild illness to get infected. (The government has previously said, that in a worst case scenario, 80% of the population might eventually contract the virus, above the German government’s estimate of 70%.)