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Media ‘liking controversy’ blamed for rising interest in herd immunity strategy

Scientific community not split, insists panel

09 October, 2020 — By Richard Osley

Professor Stephen Reicher speaking at an Independent SAGE Q&A 

SCIENTISTS and professors who set up a panel to scrutinise government coronavirus strategy have warned that the media is fuelling a growing interest in herd immunity infection ideas.

In an online conference today (Friday), members of the independent SAGE [scientific advisory group for emergencies] warned that support and opposition for measures like lockdown were wrongly being presented as two equal, competing sides in the debate over how to tackle the Covid crisis.

Stephen Reicher, professor of Social Psychology at the University of St Andrews, said of the promotion of herd immunity theory: “The real problem, I think, is in the way in which it’s been represented and the way in which it’s been boosted by the media. The media, I think, are tired of hearing the same old thing, even if it’s true, and they quite like controversy – so quite like to set it up as two equals.

“But it’s a little bit like saying that the world of music is split because two people come up and say ‘Jedward are the greatest musical act of the 21st century’. Science is not split. There are not two camps.”

He said that “every significant organisation rejects the herd immunity point of view”,  adding: “There are one or two people who are saying ‘lock up a quarter of the population and send out three quarters of the population to their doom’ when you don’t know the effects of this disease. It’s not surprising it’s a minority position. It’s a position that is rejected by virtually every scientific organisation.”

Herd immunity is one theory pushed by lockdown sceptics and follows the idea that once somebody has recovered from Covid-19 they may have developed antibodies to protect against reinfection. As the coronavirus passes through the community, they think, it could fizzle out as it runs out of people to infect.

Toby Young is a ‘lockdown sceptic’

Supporters of this idea say younger, less vulnerable people could be let out to restart normal life on the assumption that they will not suffer serious illness, while those who are more at risk could be shielded at home.

As the weeks have gone, some newspaper columnists have been publishing arguments against tight restrictions which they fear will wreck the economy for years to come, while Toby Young, the writer who went to William Ellis School as boy, has run a Lockdown Sceptics daily blog. This week, a group of scientists met in the United States to pass the so-called ‘Barrington Declaration’, which urges governments around the world to change their strategy and avoid further lockdowns.

Critics to this alternative, however, say there is no proof that immunity lasts after infection, that young people can suffer the worst of the coronavirus too and that it is impossible to protect more vulnerable groups from catching it.

And the independent SAGE today (Friday) made no bones about how it thought this view was dangerous and should not be presented as widely-held opinion in the scientific world and in medical fields.

Professor Susan Michie,  Professor of Health Psychology at UCL, said: ‘We’re in a situation where, sadly, the trust of the population in the government to handle the pandemic has never been lower. I think it’s plummeted to somewhere under 30 per cent now. In the absence of trusted leadership, there are real problems in terms of adhering to guidance, and in terms of groups accepting different types of conspiracy theories or false ways of looking at things.”

Professor Susan Michie

Prof Michie, who lives in Kentish Town added: “Compared to politicians, scientists do have much higher trust in the population  and so within these absolutely desperate situations – where we are talking about the life and death of thousands of people –  for the media to present this as an equilibrium, as a kind of even handed scientific debate, is undermining the trust in scientific leadership in this country.”

Members of the group say that more restrictions are needed immediately due to an increased number of cases of the coronavirus across the country and fears that hospitals will be inundated with patients within weeks. They say that people who lose their incomes due to health restrictions should be supported financially by the government.

Anthony Costello, a former direction at the World Health Organisation, told today’s meeting:  “It’s being portrayed as libertarianism versus lockdown, and that’s a nonsense. Germany and Italy are keeping things really damped down. Compare that with the US, which is basically a ‘take it on the chin’ policy and where you’re getting masses of cases, masses of deaths. It doesn’t need to be this way.

He added: “The reason we’re in trouble is we didn’t set up a proper find, test and trace, isolate programme back in March. We had a chance to reform it in August when all the evidence pointed to the fact that it wasn’t working through this privatised, centralised system. We didn’t do that – and hence as we start to open up, you get surging cases.”

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