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Covid-19: Great Barrington Declaration

Volume 806: debated on Tuesday 13 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Great Barrington Declaration on the (1) physical, and (2) mental, health impacts of COVID-19 policies.

My Lords, the analysis of the Department of Health and Social Care, the Office for National Statistics and the Government Actuary is clear. Mitigations have prevented more than 500,000 deaths and the associated heartache. As the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, it is right to look at alternatives, and I am grateful to the noble Lord for his Question. However, having looked at the Great Barrington declaration, we have decided that the idea of a great prevention is bad science and bad economics, and it is impractical. It would be an indefensible moral decision for any Government to take.

My Lords, the scientists from Oxford, Stanford and Harvard who are behind this declaration should surely be listened to as much as, for instance, the discredited Professor Ferguson or indeed SAGE. We know that NHS waiting lists are at an all-time high and that 3 million cancer screenings have been missed. We know that the average age of those dying from Covid is 82.4 years—higher than from other causes—and that a total of 313 people under the age of 60 and without comorbidities have died in English hospitals from Covid. Current policies are not working. Will the Government stop digging, get out of their hole and go back to first principles to determine the objective of their Covid policy, and then change tack to achieve that objective?

My Lords, I note that the 16,000 scientists supporting the Great Barrington declaration include “Dr Brian Blessed; doctor in winged flight, Z-cars and booming laughter”, “Dr Johnny Fartpants” and “Dr Johnny Bananas”. The serious point, however, is that the idea of “focused protection” is both unethical and impractical. Even if it was not, growing evidence of the impact of long Covid on the fit and young is mounting every day. On herd immunity, we currently have 8% sero-positivity, but we would need 70% for herd immunity, and it is completely improper to ask the young of Britain to suffer the risk of long Covid in order to achieve that. Winter is coming, and cold temperatures and more inside activity will raise prevalence. The great protection is simply not a conscionable option.

My Lords, will the Government please look at the Equality Act when they are considering something like this? Take the case of a young disabled person who is very vulnerable; would taking any action like this be a breach of that Act?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. Although I have not had legal advice on this, I feel sure that he is on the right track. The great protection would condemn anyone with asthma or a learning difficulty, in old age, or with any major disability or immune challenge to be locked up while society turns its back. That is not a decision that this Government are prepared to make.

My Lords, an exit from the pandemic will be achieved only when an appropriate level of population immunity is achieved, either by natural infection or vaccination. Given that the Government’s strategy is to rely on vaccination to deliver population immunity, what estimates and advice are Her Majesty’s Government receiving about the realistic timeframe, from now, in which an efficacious vaccine will have been given to sufficient numbers of people to establish that population immunity?

The noble Lord is entirely right in his analysis. The briefings from the Vaccine Taskforce to the Prime Minister are encouraging. One of the striking things about the updates is not only the promising nature of the Oxford vaccine, which is progressing very well, but the substantial pipeline of a dozen or more other vaccines that are coming through. Six of those have already been contracted by the Vaccine Taskforce on four different vaccine platforms. I am afraid that I cannot provide a firm schedule as such things are not in the gift of Ministers, but I am informed that progress is substantial.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that this so-called declaration is principally the work of the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian think tank funded by the Koch foundation and best known for its denial of climate change? As the Minister said in an earlier answer, a large number of the signatories are completely bogus. Does he agree that we should have nothing to do with fake science, which provides cover for a cull of the elderly and the disabled under the guise of herd immunity and promotes an American far-right agenda?

My Lords, there is some shared interest with those who drafted the Great Barrington declaration. They quite rightly make observations about the impact of the pandemic on education, and we are providing £1 billion to support those whose education has been hit by Covid. They make observations about support for those who are shielding, and we have written a new letter to 2.2 million people who are undergoing shielding. However, the noble Lord is entirely right: this is Johnny Bananas science, and we will not support it.

My Lords, the Minister and I are in complete agreement about this. The scientific understanding of Covid-19 suggests that having had the virus does not guarantee immunity. In fact, cases of second infections are emerging around the world. Does the Minister agree that, until we have a vaccine, this proposal is both dangerous and uncertain, and begs the question of who decides who needs to lock themselves away, and for how long?

The noble Baroness is entirely right. Not only is the evidence of reinfection mounting—a source of huge disappointment, frankly, but something that we have to realistically face up to—but the evidence of long Covid is also mounting, with nearly one in 10 young people infected with Covid reporting some kind of ongoing illness, and many reporting extremely worrying neurological, cardiac or renal damage. This is not flu; this is not a complex cold; this is not a posh version of a duvet day. This is a very serious infection that leaves a long effect on those who are vulnerable, and even on the young and fit. We should be very wary of it.

My Lords, what we need is some stability. Yesterday, as picked up by the media overnight, Lancashire and the borough of Pendle—here I declare my interest—were put into tier 2, which was welcomed locally by people and businesses. We now hear of discussions that, by the end of the week, we might be downgraded to tier 3. This is neither stability nor understanding. What on earth is going on? Is it a shambles?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the council in Pendle which, as those in the Chamber know, has done an enormous amount to fight Covid infection and has been exemplary in its approach to containment. However, it is a sad truth that the infection is spreading, particularly among the young, and making its way through the generations. You have only to look at the hospitalisation rates today to see that we will have a serious problem as the lag is complete; in a few weeks’ time, those rates will go up. The Government are taking prompt action, which is tough and unpleasant for those involved. I deeply regret the possibility that Pendle may be hit by harder restrictions, but this is a reasonable approach and it is done to save lives.

My Lords, will people be healthier this winter locked up on Zoom, playing computer games and watching Netflix, or out in the fresh air, on the rock, hills and footpaths of England in a socially distanced manner?

The noble Lord is entirely right to champion the role of fitness, exercise and fresh air, and this Government are doing an enormous amount to try to keep sports going during current arrangements. He is entirely right that for families, young people and those used to the outdoors, the prospect of being locked up presents a huge challenge. No one is under any illusion: the prospect of a long winter under restrictions is deeply challenging and unpleasant. However, I celebrate and totally endorse his advocacy of fresh air and exercise.

My Lords, comment on Barrington has been destructively dismissive, so at present it seems to have little chance of acceptance. However, should the new three-tier strategy falter, will an alternative other than national lockdown be adopted which does not decimate the economy? If NHS pressures were thereby increased, have enough personnel been identified to staff the Nightingale hospitals fully, and continue other NHS work, and will they be ready for action if required?

The noble Lord is entirely right: the impact on the economy of a full national lockdown has been learned already. We know what that looks like. It is a very tough decision and it is my hope and expectation that the British public and the health system will respond to the challenge they face and will step up. I would like to guide the noble and gallant Lord to the publication by the Government Actuary’s Department, the Office for National Statistics and the Department for Health and Social Care Direct and Indirect Impacts of COVID-19 on Excess Deaths and Morbidity. It spells out in very clear terms the economic and mortality effects of letting the disease rip. Those costs are simply unconscionable.