Why was it so easy to fool the media on herd immunity?

UK planning at the start of the pandemic involved allowing the majority of the population to become infected with covid between April and September 2020, causing five thousand deaths a day and ending with enough cumulative infections for herd immunity, as shown on both the whiteboard photos from 10 Downing St, contemporary tweets from MPs, and the subsequently released SAGE papers:

Known inside the government as “single peak” and outside it as the “herd immunity plan”, this idea obviously wasn’t some evil plot to deliberately cause death and suffering- compared with an unmitigated pandemic it cut deaths in half, and must have looked pretty good if you were anchored at that 500k deaths mark.

Alternative measures which would suppress the disease aggressively were thought to be more dangerous- closing or severely limiting borders for a year or more as Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan and others have done was not seen as viable, and therefore even if restrictions were 100% effective, there would just be a wave of infections and deaths as the virus was reintroduced from outside the country, but now with our stock of possible interventions “used up”. (More on the difficult relationship between public health and border measures here).

So “shield the vulnerable, let it pass through the population and emerge in September to bury the dead” became the plan, until mid March 2020 when, according to the evidence given to the Health, and Science and Technology Committee, the UK changed tack and adopted what became known as the “build” strategy: to instead hold the virus at bay with alternating lockdowns while rushing to get vaccines and treatments in place.

The plan becomes memory-holed

The original plan was all public at the time, endorsed and discussed at length by the relevant parties, and then further explained by the publication of SAGE minutes modelling it, but somehow a large part of the media have developed the view that it never happened, and that any references to “herd immunity” refer only to vaccination, or that a “herd immunity plan” means something different from the above and therefore Britain never had one.

Jenny Harries, who in her then-role as Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England campaigned against masks during the early part of the UK pandemic and is now head of the new Health Protection Agency, has claimed she had never seen the mass infection plan above put forward, meaning at the very least the new head of pandemic prevention in the UK hasn’t read the SAGE minutes, (or more likely, correctly judged that few journalists have done so either and wouldn’t query it).

“To allow people to become infected and develop herd immunity… has never been on the agenda but you would always look to see how safe you can get your population through a vaccination programme."

The idea that something planned by SAGE and Number Ten in documents available for any of us to look up was “never on the agenda” is obvious nonsense

There are dozens of official media interviews and press conferences from the time explaining the single peak herd immunity strategy, MPs tweets defending it- are we supposed to think that in each of these interviews, the scientific advisor or government rep kept meaning to say the word “vaccine” at the end of each sentence setting out the plans for herd immunity, but somehow was cut off just in time?

For journalists who are a little bit more sceptical, a second line of defence was produced: the UK didn’t have a herd immunity strategy, it had something else [which on close examination looks exactly like the herd immunity strategy]. This argument often comes coupled with some handwaving about howherd immunity is a scientific concept, not a goal or a strategy

This I think is designed to seem plausible to people who aren’t quite paying attention to the debate. Jane Merrick was convinced by this, writing in an article titled “The truth about herd immunity":

As Sir Patrick [Vallance, Chief Scientific Adviser UK government] said, there was a goal to shield the most vulnerable and allow everyone else to get a “mild illness”, which would stop pressure on the NHS and minimise deaths, as well as building up immunity in a population.

This was not the same – as some critics have claimed – as letting the virus rip through the population, allowing hundreds of thousands to die but letting healthier people build up natural immunity through mild infection.

Yes it was! That’s literally what it was! Hundreds of thousands were planned to die while healthier people would build up immunity through mild natural infection. It’s just describing the same thing using different language.

Why were the media taken in?

I think there are a couple of parts to this- one is that even after a year of being bad at it, most of the media orgs who are covering this are still giving the job to political reporters, who have a framework that doesn’t really work for analysing a problem of this type.

They’re very good at noticing violations of courtly etiquette like slips in language or violating taboos, often overlapping with their other interest area: stories with implications for the careers of politicians they follow. A systemic failure doesn’t really fit into this mental model since the herd immunity plan was carefully outlined using polite speech codes. Nobody used taboo language to describe it, and its failure implicates so many people that ministerial career implications are unclear. The “wacky rigmarole” of Westminster reporting relies on all debates being largely trivial and taking place away from consequential decisions- that’s why they were so much happier talking about “bArNaRd CaStLe” which fit into their learned and frequently repeated behavioural and speech patterns.

Another suggestion is that preserving confidence in the idea of expertise is in journalists’ self interest. Even if you have someone in a really important consequential role like Harries directly contradicting documents and interviews which we can all read, she won’t be challenged the way a politician would partly because the people scrutinising her imagine themselves as junior members of the same guild whose status rises and falls together.

Part of the story could also be that expert infallibility is what their readers want to believe. The survey below isn’t perfect, but it does seem like the public also find the idea of bad scientific advice too horrifying to contemplate and prefer to cast the debacle as a morality play

It’s also possible that understanding this stuff is hard and the media are just not really up to it. Systemic failures require systemic thinking to understand, and that’s in short supply.

Either way, the lesson here (if it were ever needed) is that media focus just bears no relationship to the importance of any event for you or your life. For next time, we need to remember that while the media see themselves as the guardians against the nation’s slide into fascism and tyranny, most of them attended a press conference about a mass death plan and didn’t really notice.