At the beginning of the year, Boris Johnson and his advisers were at pains to tell us that by spring we would be in a vastly better situation with Covid. Well, spring is here, the number of new infections and deaths is falling by around 30 per cent week on week, deaths are back to where they were last October and new infections last September. The vaccine programme is running on time, and take-up has been high. Why, then, was the chief medical officer Chris Whitty so downbeat when he addressed the House of Commons science and technology committee this morning?
He told MPs that he was expecting a further surge of Covid ‘with significant numbers but much fewer deaths’ either in the summer or next autumn or winter — with the likelihood that, given the seasonality of the virus, that it would be the latter. Significant numbers of people will still be vulnerable, he said, either because they couldn’t have the vaccine or because they had refused it. He did, however, decline to back the figures in a paper published last month by the government’s modelling committee SPI-M, which presented scenarios in which a further 33,200 to 81,200 deaths between 12 February 2021 and 30 June 2022. Asked by Labour MP Graham Stringer about that scenario, he said that focussing on numbers was ‘unhelpful’.
Yet there are some very tough questions that need to be asked on the scientific advisers. Whatever happened to herd immunity? This time last year Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance were telling us that the epidemic would not fade away until around 60 per cent of the population had been infected (or immunised, though no vaccine existed at that point).
The US Centers for Disease Control recently revised this up to 85 per cent if the newer, more transmissible Kent variant became the dominant strain.