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I regret saying ‘herd immunity’, Vallance tells UK Covid inquiry

Sir Patrick Vallance has expressed regret for using the phrase “herd immunity” during an early media interview about Covid, saying this was misunderstood to imply a wish to allow the virus to spread unchecked through the population.

Vallance, who was the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, said in his written witness statement to the Covid inquiry that he was “trying to explain a technically difficult concept of how infections reduce their impact and eventually stop and did so in a rather poor way”.

It emerged as Prof Sir Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, who alongside Vallance was a key adviser to Boris Johnson’s government during the pandemic, told the inquiry that the response to the threat from the virus was initially too slow.

Vallance’s statement referred to an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 13 March 2020, when he referred to “herd immunity” in an answer to a question about non-pharmaceutical interventions.

The term become something of a buzzword ahead of the lockdown measures introduced in 2020 and was interpreted by many as meaning it was official policy to effectively deliberately allow the infection to spread in order boost natural immunity among the population.

In his statement to the inquiry, Vallance said: “In the penultimate sentence I referred to the concept of herd or population immunity. I regret having done so and in particular not taking sufficient time to explain the concept fully.

“I was not suggesting or advocating that the country should ‘go for herd immunity’ in the sense of loosening non-pharmaceutical interventions to increase the spread of the virus.”

This was not, he said, government policy, and was “certainly not the advice” given by him or the Sage scientific advisory panel.

In lengthy evidence scheduled to last all Tuesday and into Wednesday morning, Whitty said initial moves on measures such as lockdown “fundamentally are ministerial decisions and I think that is where we were definitely slower than we should have been for a variety of reasons”.

Pressed repeatedly by the inquiry counsel Hugo Keith KC whether he and other Sage advisers should have called more urgently for action by early February 2020, as the scale of the likely threat emerged, Whitty said he had briefed national security advisers, Johnson, MPs and others.

However, he said, there was an institutional slowness when it came to responding to natural threats. If, he argued, ministers had been warned that 100,000 people were at risk of dying in a terrorist attack, the chances were “quite small” that things would carry on essentially as before, with the next emergency meeting chaired by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, rather than Johnson.

Whitty said: “My worry has always been that hard geopolitical threats are treated in a different way to ones that are treated as natural threats or hazards. That is something, collectively, we should think about.”

This was he, added, a systemic failure and not a result of the leadership of Johnson or due to other individuals.

Earlier in this testimony, Whitty declined to criticise Johnson, saying his role was not to “make commentaries on individual politicians”.

Asked if he had seen the then-prime minister as being indecisive or chaotic, Whitty said: “I think that the way that Mr Johnson took decisions was unique to him.” Whitty added: “He has quite a distinct style, but I think lots of other people have got quite distinct styles.”

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