(CN) — While mainland Europe is shutting down schools and imposing strict quarantines, the United Kingdom has taken a different — many say dangerous — approach to combating the coronavirus pandemic: Its government experts say the virus will be defeated only once most of the population gets infected and builds up immunity to it.
It’s called “herd immunity” and it’s sparked an emotional debate in the U.K. over the approach taken by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who warned last week that many more people will die from the virus.
“I must level with you, level with the British public,” Johnson said as he and his experts explained the government’s approach. “Many families, many more families, are going to lose loved ones before their time.”
Unlike countries in Asia and mainland Europe, the U.K. has opted against imposing a government-enforced quarantine and shutting down schools, businesses and travel even as the number of deaths linked to the novel coronavirus climbs. By Monday, the U.K. reported 35 deaths and 1,391 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
On Monday, after much criticism, Johnson pulled back a bit and advised people to work from home and avoid going to pubs and other places where people congregate. His government also told people who feel sick to stay home for a fortnight and he advised those more vulnerable to the virus, such as people older than 70 and people who’ve had health problems, to stay indoors. But schools remained open Monday and all the new measures are voluntary.
The U.K.’s go-it-alone approach seems to represent a deeper shift taking place since the country left the EU. Increasingly, the U.K. is eager to demonstrate its newfound independence.
To achieve so-called herd immunity, 70% or more of the population needs to get ill and build up antibodies to the new virus, according to Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser.
On a recent Channel 4 television program, government experts explained the approach.
“Well, herd immunity is the situation where you get so many people in the population to develop an immunity to a disease that there is no opportunity for the disease to actually become established and spread to lots of people,” said Nick Phin, deputy director of the National Infection Service.
“Normally we do that with a vaccine,” he said. “You can do that naturally, of course, if a disease that’s not been introduced before affects a large number of people, and that’s really how herd immunity in the U.K. would develop.”
The Channel 4 news presenter then Phin if the government was “turning vulnerable members into guinea pigs?”
Phin dismissed that suggestion and said the strategy was “following the science” and trying to delay as much as possible a crush of people needing emergency care.
Government experts say it is too late to hope for the virus to be contained.
John Edmunds, an infectious disease expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a government adviser, said containing the virus would mean tracking down every person with the sickness around the world and isolating them.
He said that would be “incredibly difficult” to do for a “mild disease” such as COVID-19, which scientists say is not a lethal danger to the majority of people.
“When the genie is out of the bottle, the virus is all around the world and spreading, the only other way that the epidemic is going to come to a stop is achieving herd immunity,” Edmunds told Channel 4.
He said many people were likely to die after being infected, but that “there’s no way out of that.”
He added that the problem with placing people under lockdown, as many countries in Europe are doing, is that once people are told to go back to their normal lives they are again at risk of infection.
“We’re trying to stage it as best we can,” he said about the number of seriously sick people who will need hospitalization.
Others call the U.K.’s strategy a serious mistake.
Richard Horton, editor of the medical journal The Lancet, warned that the U.K. was “playing roulette with the public.” He said quarantines and shutting borders are urgently needed because there are so many unknowns about the virus.
Horton said it remains uncertain if the virus will mutate, and thereby make people who’ve already caught the disease vulnerable again, and whether it may become more lethal for younger and middle-aged people than scientists suggest.
The U.K. has diverged from European and Asian countries in another area too: It hasn’t rigorously tracked down people who may be sick with the virus or tested people who have come into contact with those sickened by the virus. This is known as contact tracing.
“Our key message is: Test, test, test,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus, director-general of the World Health Organization, at a news conference Monday.
He equated not testing to being blindfolded. “They cannot fight this pandemic blindfolded,” he said. “All countries should be able to test all suspected cases.”
Ghebreysus urged countries to contain the virus by imposing quarantines, stopping the movement of people, isolating the sick and tracking down others who may be infected.
On Monday, at a news conference with the prime minister, Chris Whitty, chief medical officer in England, said the U.K. will increase the number of people tested.
Horton, the Lancet editor, said Tuesday that the U.K.’s change in strategy was infuriating.
“I can’t help but feel angry that it has taken almost two months for politicians and even ‘experts’ to understand the scale of the danger from SARS-CoV-2,” he said on Twitter, using a scientific designation for the new virus. “Those dangers were clear from the very beginning.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.