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Jeremy Corbyn: government’s coronavirus policy was ‘eugenic’

Former Labour leader said government lectured him about herd immunity in cross-party talks

Jeremy Corbyn was invited to a meeting with Cabinet Office officials in the spring.

Jeremy Corbyn was invited to a meeting with Cabinet Office officials in the spring. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Jeremy Corbyn has said the government “lectured” him about herd immunity during cross-party coronavirus talks, a policy he described as “eugenic”.

The former Labour leader said he was invited to a meeting with Cabinet Office officials in the spring with the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, where a talk was held on the topic.

The government has repeatedly denied that pursuing herd immunity in tackling the coronavirus was ever its aim and it was not immediately clear from Corbyn’s comments if that is what he was accusing it of.

Controversy around the issue erupted when the government’s scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said in March that it was necessary to broaden the peak of the illness but not suppress it completely, and to achieve herd immunity about 60% of the population would need to get the illness.

In an interview with the podcast A World to Win, Corbyn said: “We were involved in meetings with the government throughout the spring of this year and Jon Ashworth and I remember distinctly going to a meeting at the Cabinet Office, where we got a lecture about herd immunity.

“The last time I discussed herd immunity was when I worked on a pig farm 40 years ago. It was absurd that actually [you] would build up herd immunity by allowing people to die.

“And so, while the government was going into eugenic formulas and discussing all this stuff, they were not making adequate preparations.”

On 15 March the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said herd immunity was not the government’s goal.

He said at the time: “Our goal is to protect life. I want to be absolutely crystal clear that we will do what is necessary to protect life.”

A government spokesperson said on Wednesday: “It is categorically wrong to suggest herd immunity was the government’s aim.”

Corbyn said Britain’s response had been poorer than countries such as South Korea, and money wasted on the emergency Nightingale hospitals programme that he claimed had “largely gone into the private sector”.

He said: “The idea that an epidemic or pandemic could cause a real problem in Britain was actually mooted in 2008 and even then they identified Britain’s lack of preparedness for dealing with it.

“We get to this year, lack of PPE, 94% bed occupancy in hospitals, insufficiency of space in care homes, and the whole thing got worse and worse and eventually the government got around to saying there would have to be restrictions on movements.

“Compare that with the response with South Korea and New Zealand …”

He said the Nightingale hospitals had hardly been used, and questioned their financing.

He claimed they “cost a great deal of money, much of it into the private sector. What has been going on? Except an exposure of a lack of preparedness for the NHS.”

A government spokesperson said: “Our goal is to reduce the impact of coronavirus – protecting the most vulnerable and ensuring our NHS and social care system has capacity to cope while leading the world on scientific research into therapeutics and a vaccine.

“This is an unprecedented global pandemic – our strategy was clearly set out and guided at every stage by the advice of scientific experts.

“Our response ensured the NHS was not overwhelmed even at the virus’s peak, so that everyone was always able to get the best possible care.”

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