Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, center, speaks while Chris Whitty, U.K. chief medical officer, left, and Patrick Vallance, U.K. lead science adviser, listen during a coronavirus news conference inside number 10 Downing Street in London, U.K., on Thursday, March 12, 2020. Johnson said the true scale of the outbreak may be "much higher" than the 590 patients who have tested positive for the virus in the U.K. so far. Photographer: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA/Bloomberg
Boris Johnson, left, and Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, outline the UK's response to the coronavirus on Thursday © Bloomberg

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Britain’s chief scientific adviser stoked controversy on Friday when he said that about 40m people in the UK could need to catch the coronavirus to build up “herd immunity” and prevent the disease coming back in the future.

Defending Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision not to follow other European countries by closing schools and banning mass gatherings, Patrick Vallance said it was the government’s aim to “reduce the peak of the epidemic, pull it down and broaden it” while protecting the elderly and vulnerable.

But Sir Patrick told Sky News that experts estimated that about 60 per cent of the UK’s 66m population would have to contract coronavirus in order for society to build up immunity.

“Communities will become immune to it and that’s going to be an important part of controlling this longer term,” he said. “About 60 per cent is the sort of figure you need to get herd immunity.”

In another interview with the BBC, Sir Patrick said: “If you suppress something very, very hard, when you release those measures it bounces back and it bounces back at the wrong time.”

He added: “Our aim is to try to reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it.”

A total of 798 people in the UK have so far tested positive for coronavirus, an increase of 208 since Thursday. Following confirmation of the first death from the virus in Scotland, 11 people are now known to have died of it in the UK.

Downing Street confirmed that the prime minister had decided to postpone May’s local and mayoral elections for a year, amid fears they could coincide with the peak of the coronavirus outbreak.

Elections were due to be held on May 7 for councils in England and Wales, the London Assembly and for mayors including those for London, the West Midlands and Liverpool, as well as police commissioners.

The polls were set to be the first electoral test for Mr Johnson since his general election victory in December as well as a significant moment for Labour’s new leader — the winner is due to be announced on April 4.

On Friday morning the pressure on Mr Johnson and his scientific and medical advisers to take more drastic action more quickly grew when opposition leaders, including Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, challenged England’s deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries and minister of care Helen Whately on why the UK was taking such a different approach to other countries.

An official with knowledge of the meeting said Ms Harries “came under sustained pressure” and “the meeting was quite fractious”.

They added: “It was difficult and lots of opposition MPs had a range of concerns with the government’s position.”

Mr Johnson’s decision on Thursday to introduce staged interventions — starting with asking people with a new cough or a temperature to self-isolate for seven days — has been criticised as too timid by politicians.

The prime minister is also under pressure because some neighbouring countries, including Ireland, France and Belgium, are taking much tougher measures, including banning sports fixtures. On Friday, England’s football authorities said all professional games were being postponed until April 3, including Premier League and Football League matches.

Jeremy Hunt, former health secretary, on Thursday led the attack against Mr Johnson, arguing that countries such as Thailand and Singapore, which have most successfully contained the coronavirus, had adopted stringent “social distancing” measures early on in the outbreak.

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John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, called on the prime minister to launch an international intervention to agree a global co-ordinated response, and accused Mr Johnson of having “self-isolated” himself from his responsibilities.

“We are saying to Boris Johnson, bluntly, get off your backside and show some international leadership,” he said. “That is what UK prime ministers of all political colours have traditionally done.”

A Liberal Democrat spokesman said: “We maintain our confidence in the CMO [chief medical officer], the experts and the decisions we are making.

“What we are disappointed with is the way Conservative ministers have communicated that information. We feel they haven’t really made a clear enough case as to why our position is so radically different to other countries.

“We aren’t saying it’s the wrong advice, it’s just that we feel there is increasing concern that people don’t know what’s going on.”

Letter in response to this article:

Herd immunity plan ignores viral mutations / From Dr John Warren, Ipswich, Suffolk, UK

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