Public Health: Coronavirus Regulations

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:19 pm on 13th October 2020.

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Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 2:19 pm, 13th October 2020

My hon. Friend—and he is an honourable man—makes an important point that has wider context than just his constituency, which is that we must make sure that we control the virus. My heart goes out to the families of those in his constituency who have died. The only alternative to suppressing the virus is that it then expands exponentially. That is what happens with a virus when the R is above 1. I know that some people feel that we should adopt a more relaxed approach, but that will lead to more of the sort of thing that my hon. Friend has related from his constituency.

Some people have set out this more relaxed approach, including those in the so-called Great Barrington declaration. I want to take this argument head on, because on the substance, the Great Barrington declaration is underpinned by two central claims and both are emphatically false. First, it says that if enough people get covid, we will reach herd immunity. That is not true. Many infectious diseases never reach herd immunity, such as measles, malaria, AIDS and flu, and with increasing evidence of reinfection, we should have no confidence that we would ever reach herd immunity to covid, even if everyone caught it. Herd immunity is a flawed goal without a vaccine, even if we could get to it, which we cannot.

The second central claim is that we can segregate the old and vulnerable on our way to herd immunity. That is simply not possible. As the medical director of the NHS said yesterday, we cannot somehow fence off the elderly and the vulnerable from risk while everyone else returns to normal. It is neither conscionable nor practicable—not when so many people live in inter- generational homes, not when older people need carers who of course themselves live in the community, and not when young people can suffer the debilitating impact of long covid. Whenever we have seen cases among young people rise sharply, we then see cases among the over-60s rise inevitably thereafter, and we are not the kind of country that abandons our vulnerable or just locks them up.

If we let this virus continue unchecked, the loss of life would be simply too great to contemplate. We know that it would put our NHS at risk, as my hon. Friends have just said. We know that both because of what happened in March and because of what is happening right now. We have already heard from the heads of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and the Royal College of Emergency Medicine that, if we do not act fast and come together to quash the virus, we risk putting the NHS under extraordinary strain both for covid treatments and for non-covid treatments.