After a weekend of opposition party criticism and anonymous briefings over the government's coronavirus strategy, Matt Hancock appeared on the Andrew Marr show in a bid to set the record straight. With the number of UK fatalities now at 21, the Health Secretary attempted to reassure members of the public that the government was doing everything in its power to protect life. Key to this was an effort to distance the government from reports that they are pursuing herd immunity.
The idea of herd immunity – as previously mentioned by both a government source and chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance – is that if enough of the population eventually get infected by the coronavirus and then develop immunity, it will become much harder for the virus to spread. However, the term has led to panic in certain quarters – with critics claiming it showed the government was risking more lives than necessary in order to try and achieve this end result. Speaking to Marr, Hancock denied that herd immunity was a motivating factor in the government strategy:
'Herd immunity is not our policy, it's not our goal. Our goal is to protect life. I want to be absolutely crystal clear that we will do what is necessary to protect life.'
Hancock said that suggestions the government actively wants younger individuals to contract the illness in the coming weeks were false as the consequence of the infection rate rising too fast is a burden on healthcare and all efforts were on bringing infections down while they prepared the NHS to cope with cases. As coronavirus is a respiratory illness, key to these preparations are plans to increase the number of ventilators in the UK – there are 5,000 at present. In order to boost supply, the government is asking manufacturers (including car companies) to join emergency efforts to create more.
The Health Secretary was sombre in tone – warning viewers that the British response to the virus is going to be 'one of the biggest challenges that our generation faces'. The push to protect life consists of two main planks: 1. preparing the NHS 2. protecting the vulnerable. In order to do the latter, Hancock confirmed reports that the elderly may be asked to self isolate for several months within a few weeks' time. He said this was an aspect of the government's action plan – but no formal decision had been taken.
That Hancock spent a large chunk of his Sunday media round countering and clarifying information linked to previous government comments shows the importance of clear unified communications in a health crisis. The government has previously been praised for its press conferences with the Prime Minister and the chief medical officer and chief scientific officer – the trio have been dubbed 'the three wise men' on Tory MP WhatsApp. But this weekend MPs have become twitchy – particularly over the idea of herd immunity. Going forward, there are already calls within the party to make these conferences a daily event so as to prevent confusion and misinformation.