Swann: We won’t even talk about ‘herd immunity’ in my department

Robin Swann has firmly rebutted the idea Northern Ireland will take a “herd immunity” approach to covornavirus on his watch as health minister.
Robin Swann at Wednesday's health briefingRobin Swann at Wednesday's health briefing
Robin Swann at Wednesday's health briefing

He said the notion is akin to a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest approach; something that is alien to the “psyche” of Northern Irish people.

Addressing the press at Stormont today, the health advisors flanking Mr Swann each gave grave assessments of the situation.

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Chief Scientific Advisor Professor Ian Young said an average of over 8% of tests at the moment come back with a positive result – rising as high as 12% some days – and that “the increase in cases is not due to an increase in testing”.

And Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride said: “Call it a surge, called it resurgence, call it whatever you want – yes, we’re into it.

“We won’t know how bad this will be until two weeks from now... what we will see, absolutely will see, is increased admissions to our hospitals, increased admissions to intensive care, and an increasing number of deaths over the next two to three weeks.”

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have defined herd immunity as follows: “A situation in which a sufficient proportion of a population is immune to an infectious disease (through vaccination and/or prior illness) to make its spread from person to person unlikely.

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“Even individuals not vaccinated (such as newborns and those with chronic illnesses) are offered some protection because the disease has little opportunity to spread within the community.”

Mr Swann said: “It’s never a phrase we have used.

“It’s never an approach we would consider taking because to follow that approach means to say that we think those who are medically vulnerable aren’t worth the efforts of the greater general public of NI. I’ll not accept that approach.

“I’ll not even accept that terminology within my department.

“I don’t think there’d be anybody in the Executive who’d be willing to take an approach that’d be basically ‘survival of the fittest’. I don’t think that’s something that’s in our minds as a society, or psyche.”

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He also hit out at people who are shunning the health guidance, saying they are sticking up a “two-fingered salute” to vulnerable residents and health workers, adding it “beggars belief frankly” that some object to wearing masks.

He also warned against people listening to “self-certified epidemiologists” who have no qualification to pronounce upon medical matters.

The British Medical Journal last month said there is “polarisation of opinion” over how to tackle the ‘second wave’ of Covid.

On the one hand some call for “shielding of the most vulnerable groups of people rather than local or national lockdown measures” since 89% of deaths are in over-65s (and concentrated among already-ill people). Others say “a goal of herd immunity rests on the unproved assumption that reinfection will not occur” and that isolating and shielding the vulnerable only has not worked anywhere in the world.


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