Nudging towards 400,000 deaths

David Hookes on the dangerous role of behavioural ‘science’ experts and the concept of ‘herd immunity’ in the Government response to the Covid-19 epidemic

I cannot do better than recommend that every Chartist reader studies this article by Nafeez Ahmed.

His investigation is divided into three parts:

  • Part 1: “The Politicised Science that Nudged the Johnson Government to Safeguard the Economy over British Lives”
  • Part 2: “Government Documents Reveal Concern for ‘Economic’ and ‘Business’ Impacts Prevented Early Action”
  • Part 3: “Behavioural Scientists told Government to use ‘Herd Immunity’ to Justify Business-As-Usual”

As can be seen from the titles of the three parts, Nafeez is concerned with the fact that it appears that the first concern of the Government was to protect the interests of business and their friends in the City (who financed their rise to power), rather than protect the lives of the public.

By far the most sinister aspect of the Government policy is the early adoption of the “herd immunity” concept. In case any reader is still bemused by this notion Nafeez quotes Dr David Halpern, a member of SAGE (Science Advisory Group on Emergencies) and chief executive of the UK Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) – otherwise known as “the nudge unit” – who told the BBC:

“There’s going to be a point, assuming the epidemic flows and grows, as we think it probably will do, where you’ll want to cocoon, you’ll want to protect those at-risk groups so that they basically don’t catch the disease and by the time they come out of their cocooning, herd immunity’s been achieved in the rest of the population.” 

Got the idea? Allegedly, protect the vulnerable while letting the infection rip through the rest of the community.

The Government’s chief scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, told Sky News that he expected some 60% of Britons would need to contract the Coronavirus in order for the population overall to develop “herd immunity” from future outbreaks. Of course, this would mean that most people would then be able to go back to work, which is why it appealed to the Tories and their business friends.

Unfortunately Nafeez does not do the sums associated with this policy. The 60% of the population of the UK that will be infected by this policy is 40 million people approximately. The percentage of fatalities among the infected can be estimated to be 1% (the estimates vary from a few percent to a fraction of a percent, so 1% is a rough average (e.g. Italy has 1.23% deaths)). So that would be about 400,000 fatalities in the UK population.

When such figures became apparent, the Government hastily issued a claim that herd immunity was never its policy, although judging by the above quotes it clearly was, and may well still be the case.

For instance, according to Nafeez, new reports from sources who claim to have attended a private Government briefing in February say that they heard Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, advocate a policy they described as amounting to “herd immunity, protect the economy, and, if that means some pensioners die, too bad”

The Government advisers had apparently lent heavily on an Oxford Model which claimed that as much as half of the British population may have already been infected by the novel Coronavirus. The model was produced by Oxford University’s Evolutionary Ecology of Infectious Disease group.

Safeez shows that this model is of dubious or even no value because of its flawed assumptions and ignorance of recent data. It has been rejected by most leading experts.

One US epidemiologist from Harvard said he thought such a UK policy of herd immunity must be some kind of subtle UK joke.

Most expert opinion says that the only response is to “test, test, test”, as recommended by the World Health Organisation, followed by tracing contacts of the infected. This proved very effective in South Korea and China. Nafeez, understandably, does not deal with the other issue of lack of sufficient testing facilities in the UK and adequate protective equipment for NHS staff, and shortage of NHS beds (the UK has 2.2 beds per 1000 while Germany has over 8 per 1000). The lack of facilities is, of course, due to Tory cuts to the NHS over the last ten years.

There are many other disturbing facts revealed by Nafeez’s article, especially the role of the ‘Nudge Unit’ ensconced at the heart of Government in Number 10. Apparently it is partly privately owned, and its head, Halpern, has been recently promoted by Johnson. The Nudge Unit is connected to a company that advises the MOD on innovation to make it more efficient (in killing people presumably).

For those on the left in the Labour Party we should demand that a future Labour government would eject such pseudo-scientific behavioural ‘science’ units from the heart of policy making. It should also investigate how scientific advisers are chosen, so that those who can contemplate 400,000 fatalities without turning a hair should never be selected as ‘advisers’.

We also take note of the comments of a perceptive LSE academic, Dr Jason Hickel, who was interviewed by Nafeez. He pointed out the role of neoliberal ideology:

“The related prevalence of neoliberal ideology – which sees a diminished role for the state in an economy dominated by unregulated private power – played the key role in confusing the Government’s capability to respond decisively in the public interest… It’s partly because their minds are so strafed by neoliberalism that they cannot imagine how to function as an actual state,” he told me. “It’s all just ‘nudges’ and individual responsibility and laissez-faire.”

Of course, neoliberal ideology is not confined to the Tories. It was very much part of the Blairite wing of the Labour Party, some of whom may be hoping to make a comeback with the new leadership.

Again those on the Left should remind ourselves that science-based eugenics, which has parallels with herd immunity policies, had its origin in Fabian thinkers, such as Francis Galton, H G Wells, Bernard Shaw, etc. Indeed in social democratic Sweden, between the World Wars the Government advocated and tried to implement such policies.

We should approach our new leaders to get reassurances that they will dissociate themselves from such ruthless Tory policies of coping with the epidemic.

The party must insist that a public enquiry be carried out into the Tory Government handling of the Covid-19 epidemic. The role of vested interests, and neoliberal ideology that prevented a rapid response to the emergency and thus resulted in unnecessary deaths, should be investigated without fear or favour. This will, of course have to wait until the present crisis recedes.


  1. I forgot to mention in my article that Sir Patrick Vallance who initially advocated Herd Immunity has a day job with Glaxo-Smith- Kline i.e. Big Pharma who might well benefit from Herd Immunity

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