‘Herd immunity’ plan sparks fear and fury

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged all Brits to work from home where possible and to avoid eating out, after the government's controversial plan to tackle the coronavirus with "herd immunity" sparked fear and fury.

More than 1,500 cases of coronavirus have now been confirmed across the UK and 53 people have died, making it one of the top 10 worst outbreaks in Europe.

But the government has been slow to implement the same kind of tough social distancing measures its European neighbours, including Italy, Spain and France, have adopted, such as a ban on mass gatherings and shutting down restaurants, museums and all non-essential shops.

On Friday, the government's chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, told BBC Radio 4 that one of "the key things we need to do" is to "build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission".

 

Herd immunity is when a large proportion of the population - particularly younger and healthier people - catch the virus, recover, and build up their immunity in order to help protect older, more vulnerable citizens from contracting the disease.

Boris Johnson has faced criticism for his country's light touch approach to tackling the coronavirus outbreak. Picture: Glyn KIRK / AFP
Boris Johnson has faced criticism for his country's light touch approach to tackling the coronavirus outbreak. Picture: Glyn KIRK / AFP

But more than 200 scientists then wrote an open letter to the government urging it to reconsider the "risky" plan, saying it could cost lives and put unnecessary stress on the National Health Service (NHS).

"Going for herd immunity at this point does not seem a viable option, as this will put NHS at an even stronger level of stress, risking many more lives than necessary," the letter said.

"By putting in place social distancing measures now, the growth can be slowed down dramatically, and thousands of lives can be spared. We consider the social distancing measures taken as of today as insufficient, and we believe that additional and more restricted measures should be taken immediately, as it is already happening in other countries across the world."

'I THOUGHT IT WAS SATIRE'

Epidemiologist William Hanage, who researches and teaches the evolution of infectious diseases at Harvard's Chan School of Public Health, said when he heard about the UK government's herd immunity plan, he thought it was a joke.

"My colleagues here in the US, even as they are reeling from the stumbling response of the Donald Trump administration to the crisis, assumed that reports of the UK policy were satire - an example of the wry humour for which the country is famed. But they are all too real," he wrote in The Guardian on Sunday.

He likened the strategy to ignoring a house fire.

"Your house is on fire, and the people whom you have trusted with your care are not trying to put it out," he said.

"Even though they knew it was coming, and could see what happened to the neighbours as they were overwhelmed with terrifying speed, the UK government has inexplicably chosen to encourage the flames, in the misguided notion that somehow they will be able to control them."


School teachers and parents also reacted with fury on social media, threatening to walk off the job and keep their children at home, with the government yet to officially shutter schools and nurseries.

On Monday morning, #COVID-19Walkout was trending on Twitter as residents decided to take matters into their own hands.

"I don't want to stay at home, but I'm doing what is right for my family's health. This is a serious issue and the government isn't taking it like that. Do what's best for you. Please shut schools before it's too late," one wrote.

"Please! My mum is a teacher in her 60s, coming home to my dad in his 70s. As much as Boris finds them disposable, they're the only family I've got and they deserve a damn sight more than being written off to balance his books," another wrote.

GOVERNMENT ADVISES AGAINST PUBS, THEATRES

On Monday afternoon, Mr Johnson then announced all British citizens should work from home where possible and avoid going to pubs, clubs, theatres and other social venues to help stop the spread of the virus. But no official ban will be imposed just yet, he said.

"It looks as though we are approaching the fast growth part of the upward curve," he explained, after chairing another emergency COBR meeting.

The UK government will also no longer "support" mass gatherings and has advised people over the age of 70 to isolate themselves for 12 weeks.

"Now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel," Mr Johnson said.

Mr Vallance added that the government would consider closing schools, but only at "the right stage" of the outbreak.

Hotels and private hospitals may also be requisitioned so they can be turned into emergency treatment centres, according to an ITV report. The UK military could also be placed on standby to act where needed.

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Mr Johnson is preparing to review the government's approach to the virus. Picture: JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP
Mr Johnson is preparing to review the government's approach to the virus. Picture: JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP


The new, ramped up measures come as Downing Street says it now plans to address the media every day to explain the government's next steps and ensure people are informed.

"The Prime Minister and this Government are committed to keeping the public informed every step of the way about what we're doing to fight the spread of coronavirus, when we're doing it and why we're doing it," a spokesman said on Monday.

"At all times we will be led by the science to bring forward the right responses at the right time to this global pandemic."

The manufacturing industry has also been urged to ramp up production of essential medical equipment for the NHS, such as ventilators.

"We are going to need a massive community response," health minister Matt Hancock told the BBC . "Every single person in this country is going to be affected."

In Australia, all non-essential organised mass gatherings of more than 500 people were banned from Monday.

UK retailers are appealing to consumers to come to their senses and ensure that the country will not run out of food. Picture: JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP
UK retailers are appealing to consumers to come to their senses and ensure that the country will not run out of food. Picture: JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP

 

EUROPE RAMPS UP LOCKDOWN

In France, President Emmanuel Macron was also expected to address the nation on Monday night after holding a meeting with his prime minister, top military adviser, intelligence co-ordinator and ministers of health and foreign affairs.

It comes after more than 900 new cases were confirmed on Sunday, pushing the country's total above 5,000, with hundreds in critical care.

The government ordered all restaurants, cafes, cinemas and non-essential shops to close over the weekend to halt the spread of the virus, but Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said people were still ignoring the official advice.

"The first measures that we took, curbing public gatherings, were imperfectly applied," he said. "The best way to slow the epidemic is staying away from other people … We must absolutely limit our movements."

France's government closed all restaurants, bars and other establishments on Sunday to limit the spread of the new coronavirus. Picture: AP/Michel Euler
France's government closed all restaurants, bars and other establishments on Sunday to limit the spread of the new coronavirus. Picture: AP/Michel Euler


In Spain, nearly 170 million people have been ordered to remain inside their homes as the country follows Italy in quarantining its entire population.

Its number of deaths doubled on Sunday to 292, while more than 2,000 new cases were also registered, bringing its total to 7,843.

"From now we enter into a new phase," Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said, warning that infections could reach 10,000 within days.

"We won't hesitate in doing what we need … to beat the virus. We are putting health first."

Meanwhile in China, imported cases have now outnumbered domestic infections for three straight days, prompting widespread criticism on social media of both Europe and the United States' response.

"Can't let our previous efforts go to waste!" one user said.

One popular hashtag with 820 million views condemned the UK's "herd immunity" strategy as allowing the virus to spread slowly, with some saying it meant "surrender".

China's death toll from the virus now stands at 3,213 after 14 more fatalities were reported on Monday, while fewer than 10,000 people are currently still infected, down from tens of thousands in recent weeks.

- With wires

The 'herd immunity' plan has sparked outrage. Picture: AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth
The 'herd immunity' plan has sparked outrage. Picture: AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth
Residents are also worried about product shortages as people stockpile household products. Picture: JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP
Residents are also worried about product shortages as people stockpile household products. Picture: JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP
The PM has urged people to avoid unnecessary travel. Picture: Glyn KIRK / AFP
The PM has urged people to avoid unnecessary travel. Picture: Glyn KIRK / AFP

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