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UK virus strategy is more hands off; building a ‘herd immunity’ is a ‘natural by-product’

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Scientists are challenging the UK government over what they see as weak efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 200 scientists have addressed the government in an open letter urging tougher measures to stem the spread of COVID-19 which, in the UK, has caused a single-day record, with 14 new deaths for a total of 35, according to BBC.

“Under unconstrained growth, this outbreak will affect millions of people in the next few weeks. This will most probably put the NHS at serious risk of not being able to cope with the flow of patients needing intensive care as the number of ICU beds in the UK is not larger than that available in other neighbouring countries with a similar population,” the letter signed by 229 scientists read.

“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 specialists added, in a rebuke of comments made by Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser.

“By putting in place social distancing measures now, the growth can be slowed down dramatically, and thousands of lives can be spared,” the scientists, including geneticists, biologists, and physicists, wrote. “We consider the social distancing measures taken as of today as insufficient, and we believe that additional and more restrictive measures should be taken immediately, as it is already happening in other countries across the world.”

But while other European countries have begun to go on lockdown as the number of confirmed cases and death tolls climb, UK efforts have not been as strict. More than 60,000 people attended a horse race in southwest England on Friday and other events had not been postponed even amid reports of escalating numbers in neighboring countries.

After initially saying it would not have mass testings on the population, the UK government said in a statement that “in the coming weeks, we will be introducing further social distancing measures for older and vulnerable people, asking them to self-isolate regardless of symptoms” adding, however, that “if we introduce this next stage too early, the measures will not protect us at the time of greatest risk but could have a huge social impact.”

Speaking with BBC Radio on Friday, Vallance said 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.”

Anthony Costello, former director of maternal, child, and adolescent health at the World Health Organization, was among many who slammed the proposal.

Amid the immediate backlash, the Department of Health said Vallance’s comments had been misinterpreted.

“Herd immunity is not part of our action plan, but is a natural by-product of an epidemic. Our aims are to save lives, protect the most vulnerable, and relieve pressure on our NHS,” a spokesperson said, according to the BBC “We have now moved out of the contain phase and into delay, and we have experts working round the clock. Every measure that we have or will introduce will be based on the best scientific evidence.”

“What we will do is listen to all the credible scientists and we will look at all the evidence,” Matt Hancock, the UK secretary of state for health and social care, said on Sunday. “Herd immunity is not our goal or policy, it’s a scientific concept.”

Another letter to the government was reportedly penned by behavioral scientists.

Some people, however, questioned the credibility of the letter from the scientists and the “agenda” behind the criticism.

Members of the British public expressed their frustration with the U.K.’s approach so far and took to Twitter to vent, sending #WhereisBoris to begin trending, referring to Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party.

Frieda Powers

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