Herd immunity against COVID won’t happen until next summer, says leading scientist

Ross McGuinness
·3 min read
 A lady wearing a face mask as preventive measure against the spread of covid 19 walks in Green Park. Under tier four restrictions, pubs and restaurants will close, as well as �non-essential� retail. (Photo by Pietro Recchia / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
A woman wearing a face mask on Sunday in Green Park, central London. (PA)

Herd immunity in the UK against coronavirus will not happen until next summer, a leading scientist has said.

The warning came from Professor Calum Semple, a respiratory disease expert at the University of Liverpool and a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

He said it is likely to be summer 2021 before herd immunity is reached in Britain through a COVID-19 vaccination programme.

At the beginning of this month, another Sage member said herd immunity was “not going to be possible for the foreseeable future”, while there have been warnings that COVID could be with us for the next 10 years.

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Hospital admissions from coronavirus have reached the level of the first peak in April, as one ambulance service reported Boxing Day was one of its “busiest ever days”.

On Monday, cabinet minister Michael Gove refused to rule out putting the whole of England under Tier 4 restrictions.

It was reported on Sunday that the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency is expected to approve the Oxford University/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine some time this week.

Watch: Oxford COVID vaccine submitted for approval

Prof Semple told BBC Breakfast on Monday: “Obviously there is an urgency about this and we know that it is difficult to vaccinate lots of people at the same time.

“We’ve got a population of just under 70 million people and we’re going to move through them in an orderly fashion vaccinating people most at risk.”

He added: “The people that have been vaccinated will be protected within a matter of weeks and that’s very important.

“On an individual basis, these vaccines are so good that they will protect individuals, so we don’t have to wait for this nonsense about herd immunity developing through natural infection, we can start to protect the individuals.

“To get the wider community herd immunity from vaccination rather than through natural infection will take probably 70% to 80% of the population to be vaccinated, and that, I’m afraid, is going to take us right into the summer I expect.”

Last week, Prof Semple said the new strain of coronavirus found in the UK is likely to become the dominant global variant.

Hundreds of thousands of people in the UK have already received a dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine since it was made available on 8 December.

Prof Semple described the Oxford vaccine as a “game changer” if it is approved in the coming days.

“It can be stored at a more convenient temperature and it can therefore be moved around the country a lot more easily.

“This vaccine is very important because not only does it generate the antibodies that protect you from being infected, it also generates these ‘hunter killer cells’ – the T cells – that actually deal with infection.

“They help people who have some degree of infection, if a little bit of virus escapes and starts causing infection it can actually treat that disease as well in the people that have been vaccinated, so it’s a very, very good vaccine.”

Watch: What is herd immunity?