Herd immunity not possible - and would lead to a new wave, Sage warns government

Jimmy Nsubuga
·3-min read
GRIMSBY, ENGLAND - JUNE 09: District nurse Rebecca McKenzie (R), wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) changes the dressings on the legs of 86-year-old Margaret Ashton (L) to treat her leg ulcers during a home visit on June 9, 2020 in Grimsby, northeast England. (Photo by Daniel Leal-Olivas - Pool/Getty Images)
A nurse changes dressings for an elderly patient at her home (Picture: Getty)

Sage has warned the government herd immunity is not possible and trying to implement the strategy would lead to a new wave of coronavirus.

The science advisory group said “segmenting” (totally isolating) vulnerable people while the virus spread among low-risk groups would not be viable.

Sage argued if high levels of immunity could be achieved within the younger age group, it is almost certain a further epidemic wave in older people would happen once segmentation ended.

In a document sent on 15 October, it added it would not be possible to prevent the virus spreading from younger people to older people and a very large proportion of the population would need to withdraw from daily life for many months, which would have a profound negative effect on them.

Watch: Coronavirus in numbers: UK death toll rises by 224

On Thursday scientists hit out at the government’s refusal to enforce shielding rules for the most vulnerable as COVID cases and deaths continued to rise.

But Sage added it is not yet possible to determine how long immune responses last or how effectively they prevent reinfection so segmentation would not be the wisest policy.

A quarter of COVID-19 hospital admissions have been in those aged 60 or below, along with 7% of deaths.

Sage added an unconstrained epidemic in this age group would have dire consequences for the NHS and is highly likely to create an enormous burden of coronavirus hospitalisations, with both large numbers of COVID-19 deaths and the knock-on result of non-COVID-19 deaths across all age groups.

It argued even if a large proportion of those under 60 became immune to re-infection true herd immunity requires a build-up of protection in all parts of society.

Sage added once the segmentation policy ended, it is almost certain that a further wave of the epidemic would take place.

People wearing protective face masks, shelter from the rain under umbrellas as they walks along Holborn in central London on October 21, 2020, as the government considers further lockdown measures to combat the rise in novel coronavirus COVID-19 cases. - Britain has suffered Europe's worst death toll from coronavirus, with nearly 44,000 deaths within 28 days of a positive test result. After a summer lull, cases are rising again as in other parts of the continent -- and so are deaths, with 241 reported on Tuesday alone. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Sage has advised restrictions for everyone is the best course (Picture: Getty)

Reacting to the Sage document, Prof James Naismith FRS FRSE FMedSci, Director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, and University of Oxford, said: “Millions of people including key workers would have to isolate, the consequences for them and the rest of us would be severe.

“Since multi-generational households would have to be isolated, this would disproportionately burden the non-white population.

He added: “As a scientist, I would strongly advise Government against such a "segment the vulnerable” policy.

“No one likes social restrictions, they are destructive and harmful, however, they are currently the best way to reduce the toll of covid19 in the UK.”

Dr Michael Head, Senior Research Fellow in Global Health, University of Southampton, said: “A key argument by those in favour of herd immunity via this segmentation route is that other groups of patients have less access to healthcare, such as those suffering from cancer or stroke.

“However, as we are seeing in the UK right now, significant COVID-19 community transmission results in large numbers of hospitalised patients, reducing beds available for other patients and placing that huge excess burden on the health service.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) has already called herd immunity ‘scientifically problematic and unethical’.

Watch: Can you catch coronavirus twice?

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