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Robert Peston: How risky is Boris Johnson’s maverick coronavirus strategy?

Boris Johnson has developed his coronavirus management strategy with assistance from chief medical officer Chris Whitty (behind) and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance (back). Credit: PA

There is no question more important for all of us than whether Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings and Matt Hancock are right that there is no alternative to letting coronavirus run its course in the UK, and to control the peak of the epidemic so that it falls in summer when the NHS may have the capacity to cope (see my earlier note for more on their policy).

This may well be a rational approach, supported by the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser - Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance - underpinned by some sophisticated modelling on how viruses spread through populations.

But rational is not the same as optimal, workable, practical or sensible.

Conspicuously it is not the approach being taken by most other governments, which are banning public events, closing schools, and even - in Italy - most shops, bars and restaurants.

It was striking that last night on my show when I asked Margaret Harris of the World Health Organisation to name a country that was adopting an optimal strategy she cited South Korea - which has a mass testing and quarantining programme that is on an utterly different scale from what prevails here.

I gave Harris many opportunities to say something positive about the UK’s failure yet to impose serious restrictions on our freedom to move around and socialise.

She conspicuously failed to take that opportunity, though equally she resisted the temptation to criticise.

Hand sanitiser stations have been installed at Cheltenam Race Course, but big events such as this have not yet been cancelled. Credit: PA

The worries for many doctors and medical experts about how we are handling the crisis are threefold.

First, by simply making the assumption that the whole UK population should in a phased way be exposed to the virus, to develop the antibodies and immunity, we run the risk that the peak of the virus overwhelms the NHS whenever it comes.

It is within the government’s own planning ranges for several hundred thousand sufferers to need in-patient treatment over the course of a few very short weeks - this terrifies doctors.

And if the modelling turns out to be wrong and the peak can’t be managed so precisely as to fall in the summer, rather then in winter, then the hospitals would find themselves in even worse straits (as would all of us).

Also the rest of the world would see the UK’s attempt to acquire herd immunity, as the scientists put it, as massively antisocial, in that it would turn the UK into a country-sized breeding ground for the toxic Covid-19 pathogens, when they are still desperately trying to suppress the numbers getting it.

Finally, it is not utterly obvious that the kind of coercion we’ve seen in China - to confine the people of Hubei to their homes, to suppress the viral spread - is as fatuous as our government believes.

The view of our ministers and scientists is that China is simply bottling up the virus, and as soon as freedom of movement resumes it will restart its devastating advance through the population.

But that is not the whole story. The longer the virus is contained, the more the world can develop and expand treatment and care, even if that will fall short of a vaccine for a good year or so.

None of which is to argue that Johnson, Cummings, Hancock, Whitty and Vallance are wrong. But it does warrant a proper national debate.

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know