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UK's herd immunity strategy over coronavirus called into question

A woman wearing a face mask mask in Oxford Street in London, as the Government's top scientist warned that up to 10,000 people in the UK are already infected with Covid-19. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire

The UK's approach to developing "herd immunity" against Covid-19 has been called into question by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Spokeswoman Margaret Harris said not enough is known about the science of the coronavirus, and that while "theories" can be talked about, the current situation requires "action".

Her comments come as plans get under way to ban mass gatherings from next week as the Government looks to implement more extreme measures in the fight against Covid-19.

Boris Johnson had faced criticism for not taking such actions, despite similar steps being taken by other European countries as the pandemic worsens.

Emergency legislation bringing in beefed-up powers will be published next week and there could also be a move towards more people working from home, a Whitehall source said.

The announcement comes as the UK deals with a rising number of cases of the illness, increasing to 798, and a death toll of 11.

WHO spokeswoman Dr Harris questioned the UK's approach to developing "herd immunity" against Covid-19, telling BBC Radio 4's Today: "We don't know enough about the science of this virus, it hasn't been in our population for long enough for us to know what it does in immunological terms.

"Every virus functions differently in your body and stimulates a different immunological profile.

"We can talk theories, but at the moment we are really facing a situation where we have got to look at action."

On Friday, the UK's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said it is hoped the Government's approach to tackling coronavirus will create a "herd immunity" to the disease.

WHO said Europe has become the epicentre of the pandemic and Donald Trump indicated he might add the UK to a list of countries facing a US travel ban.

Other developments in the spread of Covid-19 include:

- New restrictions are being imposed on visitor access to the Palace of Westminster and overseas travel by MPs and peers is being strongly discouraged to keep Parliament functioning during the crisis

- Mr Trump said the UK could be added to the list of European countries included in the US travel ban after he described cases of coronavirus as having risen "fairly precipitously" since he initially announced the ban with the UK exemption

- The leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland wrote to Stormont's education minister urging him to consider closing Northern Ireland's schools over coronavirus. It came on the day the first cases of community transmission of Covid-19 not linked to travel were detected there

- The death of the first patient in Scotland took the total for the UK to 11

- The London Marathon, scheduled to take place on April 26, was postponed until October 4

- The Football Association announced the Premier League will be suspended until April 4

- It was announced that local and mayoral elections in May were being postponed for a year

- Disneyland closed its parks, including Disneyland Paris, until the end of the month and suspended new departures on its Disney cruises

- A London Underground driver tested positive, while London's St Patrick's Day parade and celebrations on Sunday were cancelled

- The health minister in Wales announced the suspension of non-urgent surgical procedures and outpatient appointments, and said as many as 20,000 people could die in the country in a worst-case scenario

- Apple said it was closing all its stores outside China

Scores of major sporting and cultural events have already been suspended, despite the Government resisting calls to ban mass events in its latest guidance earlier this week.

Scotland had already announced a ban on gatherings of more than 500 people.

Late on Friday a Whitehall source said: "Ministers are working with the chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer on our plan to stop various types of public event, including mass gatherings, beginning next week.

"We are also talking to businesses and other bodies about the timing of moving towards much more widespread working from home.

"There are many complex considerations to make all these measures as effective as possible.

"We will make the right decisions at the right time based on the best scientific evidence.

"We have drafted emergency legislation to give the Government the powers it needs to deal with coronavirus, including powers to stop mass gatherings and compensate organisations.

"We will publish this legislation next week."

The Times reported the laws could also give police and immigration officers to detain people if they are suspected of being infected and the ability to direct schools to stay open.

The newspaper said the laws could remain in place for two years.

The UK's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance had previously said while it is "eye-catching" to order the cancellation of mass gatherings and sporting events, the chances of contracting the disease by attending such occasions are slim.

Care Minister Helen Whately told the BBC: "We are following the evidence. As the chief medical officer said, and I have been advised, the evidence tells us that stopping mass gatherings doesn't have a huge impact on the spread of the virus.

"But, for example, decisions have been taken in some countries because of the impact on public services and because, when you have a mass gatherings, that draws on the police and the ambulance service you need to support it."