Cabinet split on coronavirus plan masks greater rift, with thousands more deaths likely

Doctors treat a coronavirus patient in Italy
Tom Coburg

Over the Easter weekend, it was reported that there is a split in the Cabinet over how long the lockdown imposed to combat the coronavirus (Covid-19) should continue. Some ministers want it extended by six weeks “to save lives”; others, including home secretary Priti Patel, want it extended by three weeks to “protect the economy”.

But there could be a more fundamental rift, alluded to in recently leaked recordings, regarding a very different strategy. That strategy could, in theory, protect the economy, but would also see many more lives lost from the disease than currently anticipated and over a far longer time frame.

Leaked recording

In an exclusive, journalist Nafeez Ahmed reported on leaked recordings of a Home Office conference call about the coronavirus outbreak. It focuses on comments made by the government’s deputy scientific adviser Rupert Shute, whose background is in engineering and includes:

development of robotic systems for nuclear decommissioning, pioneering the application of VR and AR to engineering design and developing distributed sensor networks.

The Canary can also reveal that Shute is listed as a judge for the ADS security and innovation award at the closed Security and Policing event 2021. The event is organised by the Home Office’s Fusion Forum.

ADS supports “over 1100 UK businesses operating in the aerospace, defence, security and space sectors”. Fusion Forum is a Home Office initiative that is “harnessing private sector contributions to implementing the latest edition of the UK’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy, CONTEST [which includes the Prevent strategy]”.

Herd immunity in all but name

University College London professor and former World Health Organisation director Anthony Costello suggested only recently that herd immunity is still on the agenda. According to the leaked recordings, Shute argues the case for what can only be described as a version of ‘herd immunity’.

Ahmed comments:

The recordings show Home Office Deputy Science Advisor Rupert Shute stating repeatedly that the Government believes “we will all get” COVID-19 eventually. The call further implied that the Government now considers hundreds of thousands of deaths unavoidable over a long-term period consisting of multiple peaks of the disease.

…The strategy sounds almost indistinguishable from the previous ‘herd immunity’ approach which the Government has attempted to distance itself from.

The leaked recording also shows Shute saying:

[According to the] current modelling we are working on, 80% will get it [the virus] – of that, a large portion won’t notice that they have it. Another substantial portion will have very, very mild symptoms. And a small portion will have a very significant reaction.

Comparing figures

Ahmed applies what Shute says to figures published in a government report and he comments:

Using the Government’s own lowest estimate of a fatality rate at around 0.5%, this confirms that it has resigned itself to the expectation that some 264,000 Britons will inevitably die in ensuing months and years from the disease.

This also approximates with the figure quoted in a report authored by a team led by Professor Neil Ferguson at Imperial College London:

…even if all patients were able to be treated, we predict there would still be in the order of 250,000 deaths in GB.

Advocates

The government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, gave his thumbs up to the controversial herd immunity approach very early on:

David Halpern, chief executive of the Behavioural Insights Team and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), which advises the Cabinet, also promoted herd immunity.

And the British Medical Association may have inadvertently provided an indication of how herd immunity, or a version of it, could play out:

Health professionals may be obliged to withdraw treatment from some patients to enable treatment of other patients with a higher survival probability. This may involve withdrawing treatment from an individual who is stable or even improving but whose objective assessment indicates a worse prognosis than another patient who requires the same resource.

Hidden deaths

Meanwhile according to Jeremy Farrar, director of research for the Wellcome Trust, the UK could end up with the highest coronavirus death rates in Europe. If based on Department of Health figures, this would exclude deaths from care homes and the community. Many of these deaths are unrecorded as caused by Covid-19:

Likely contributing factors to the high number of Covid-19 related deaths include insufficient testing for the virus as well as problems affecting the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators. Another factor could be the promotion of herd immunity, given we now know it appears to be part of private government discussions.

Chaos

Let’s swap the term ‘herd immunity’ – which should only be applied once a population has been vaccinated – with ‘laissez faire’ capitalism (or let the market dictate what happens). We then get a better feel as to why Shute’s preferred but controversial approach remains an option.

With experts – medical, scientific and otherwise – offering sometimes opposing advice, it’s no wonder government’s management of the outbreak appears so chaotic.

Or to put it more simply: politics and medicine do not mix.

Featured image via YouTube – ITV News

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  • Show Comments
    1. To sort out the economy after this all they need to do is some serious wealth redistribution. If I find I can’t go to the beach this summer while non essential work is being carried out I will be really pissed off!

    2. What did Shute say?
      The recordings show Home Office Deputy Science Advisor Rupert Shute stating repeatedly that the Government believes “we will all get” COVID-19 eventually.
      and
      [According to the] current modelling we are working on, 80% will get it [the virus] – of that, a large portion won’t notice that they have it. Another substantial portion will have very, very mild symptoms. And a small portion will have a very significant reaction.

      Is there any reason to doubt any of that? It seems thoroughly reasonable scientific advice, though what the vicious gang of idiots in the Cabinet make of it is quite another matter.

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