Bernard Jenkin MP is Chair of the Liaison Committee, and MP for Harwich and North Essex.
Some suggest that latest renewal of some restrictions to reverse the resurgence of Covid19 is over-reaction or shows the Government to be preoccupied with the wrong risks. And insist that Sweden is the example that we should now follow.
This denies some basic facts of viral spread. If R-number remains above one, then matters will continue to get worse. The timescale may be hard to predict, but eventually hospital beds would fill up and far more people would die or be permanently damaged by the illness. If R is brought below one, life can return to nearer normal again.
People who invoke ‘herd immunity’ must be honest about what they want, and prepared to defend the likely outcomes of this policy.
The Office for National Statistics estimate is that fewer than eight per cent of people in the United Kingdom have coronavirus antibodies. Given the official death toll of around 40,000 people so far, this is in line with what we would expect from a disease with a mortality rate of slightly under one in every hundred.
This means that, in order to reach general population immunity without a vaccine, at least a further half of the population would have to contract Covid-19 – approximately 30 million people. Given that tens of thousands have died so far, it is not an exaggeration to say that infecting this many would be likely to result in hundreds of thousands of further deaths.
As millions fell ill, they would require hospitalisation, overwhelming the hospitals – even the Nightingale hospitals. While advances in treatment and medicines can reduce the lethality of this disease and the length of a hospital stay, they cannot prevent a patient needing a hospital bed in the first place.
As we ran out of bed space, many would be unable to access basic care. We know that this is likely, not because of any predictions, but because it very nearly happened in the spring.
During the two weeks from the 25th of March, the proportion of English ICU beds occupied by Covid-19 patients trebled – from 20 per cent to almost 60 per cent. A reminder: this test to hospital capacity was caused by fewer than one in ten people in the UK contracting Covid-19, not half the population.
These are verified, confirmed facts about the spread of the disease in the UK. To claim that these facts are incorrect would require an explanation of why the NHS recorded tens of thousands of deaths and hospitalisations from Covid-19, or of why the ONS has not seen tens of millions of people with coronavirus antibodies.
In the absence of a credible explanation for this, we are left with the simple fact that more than 90 per cent of the UK has yet to be exposed to a disease far more virulent than seasonal ‘flu.
Yes, Sweden appears to have avoided the wave of deaths of countries such as the UK and France, while also managing to avoid the draconian spring lockdowns and, so far, the rising second wave of the oncoming winter. So why can’t we mirror its success?
The populations of the United Kingdom and Sweden differ significantly. Moreover, the absence of a national lockdown in Sweden does not mean that the government of Sweden did nothing at all.
First, the population of Sweden is healthier than in the UK. About 20 per cent of Swedes is obese: the UK’s figure is 27 per cent. The average Briton smokes more than 100 more cigarettes per year than the average Swede. This means that, for the average Swede, Covid-19 is a less deadly disease.
Second, Swedish people are more dispersed than in the UK. Sweden has 25 people per square kilometre: the UK has 275. In the UK where the most common household type is a family home with children, but in Sweden more than 50 per cent of people live alone.
So the Coronavirus is far less likely to spread between people in Sweden, because they are less likely to live with someone they could infect. This lower rate of spread means that it is easier for testing, tracking and tracing to suppress the virus. When people already live alone, and far away from other people, they are less likely to have spread the disease to others, lowering the burden on a national track and trace system.
Finally, Sweden may not have imposed a national lockdown, but people there are following social distancing guidelines. According to data seen by the BBC, the average Swede has fewer than one third of the social contacts they had before the pandemic, and surveys from August suggest that almost 90 per cent of people in Sweden are continuing to follow the government’s advice on distancing from other people.
Studies also suggest that far from everyone in Sweden having been infected with Coronavirus (‘herd immunity’), rates of cumulative infection range from six per cent to 30 per cent – but all estimates still leave millions of people still vulnerable to the disease.
Taking all these facts into account, what has happened in Sweden is not a quick rush to mass exposure, followed by population immunity. As before, there is very little evidence that Sweden has seen levels of Coronavirus exposure to put them on the brink of reaching herd immunity. Proponents of this theory require a serious account of how multiple studies have missed millions of infections and recoveries.
Indeed, were Sweden to have achieved herd immunity, the second spikes being seen in Spain and other European countries should not be taking place. This is because, extrapolating backwards from the number of Coronavirus deaths in these countries, they would have already reached a similar level of infection as Sweden.
The more plausible explanation is that the government of Sweden has used social distancing, extensive testing and an effective track and trace system to systematically monitor the pandemic.
This path, in principle, is available to the United Kingdom, but it requires a far more testing and contact tracing than we currently have – which is why military planners and commanders should be brought in to help scale up this part of the response. The current level of social mixing and trace-based isolation is allowing thousands of new cases per day, and this number is growing. Until a vaccine is developed, massively increased test, track and trace is the only way forward. More restrictions are a poor substitute.
To be clear: mass exposure is indeed one way out of the crisis. But those advocating it must be utterly clear that this extraordinary human cost is something that they are willing to have others pay.