SOMETIMES in science the most telling experiments happen by accident rather than by design.
One thinks of the discovery of penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming after he spotted how mould on a carelessly discarded petri dish had prevented the growth of staphylococci. Or Edward Jenner noticing that milkmaids who had had the non-fatal cowpox did not go on to contract fatal smallpox during epidemics of it.
Well, right now nature has created an almost perfect experiment for us by arranging a Covid outbreak centred around two halls of residence at the University of Glasgow.
As of Wednesday there were 124 confirmed cases, with hundreds more suspected. However the University acknowledged that it was not aware of a single student hospitalised as a result. Of course, as the outbreak goes on it may be that some hospitalisations do occur. Yet this is a notable finding.
To date a major Covid outbreak hitting people solely in the 18-22 age range has not left any of them seriously ill, has put almost no pressure on the local healthcare system and none at all on hospitals.
Even better, by the end of it a large number of people will have acquired at least partial resistance to Covid (re-infections are vanishingly rare to date), helping to build a community immunity that can in due course help to protect people in more vulnerable groups from infection.
We already knew that the disease was much less dangerous for younger age groups, but the Glasgow University outbreak is a dramatic illustration of this. In my view it leads inexorably to a conclusion that policy from UK and devolved Governments towards a large section of young adults is badly misconceived.
Rather than shutting down normal undergraduate life a better path, as far as public health considerations go, would be to encourage students to lead their normal lives and universities to offer the full range of their normal activities. Students largely seclude themselves from the rest of us – and we from them – in any case.
They tend to drink in their own pubs or student union bars and to positively go out of their way to avoid extensive contact with older people.
Obviously, it would be foolish to send a load of undergrads to do voluntary work in care homes, and they would do well to observe the general distancing rules when shopping or on public transport. It would also be sensible of universities to encourage their more elderly or less healthy teaching staff to take sabbaticals and push more keen young postgraduates into face-to-face teaching roles.
But apart from that there would appear to be many more upsides than downsides to undergraduates having a normal university experience and getting Covid – and getting over it – before the onset of winter.
Instead the policy of universities, at the behest of the Government, is to force hundreds of undergraduates into lockdown every time there is an outbreak at their university so that the minimal possible number of them contract the disease. This will simply impede progress towards community immunity and risk future outbreaks taking place smack in the middle of the winter spike in general demand that always hits the NHS.
If the Glasgow episode is a reliable guide to the disease profile among young adults – and there was already a lot of evidence to suggest that it is – then some gentle advice for students to avoid local oldsters and to local oldsters to give students a wide berth for the time being (going with the grain of normal preferences for each group) is pretty much all that we need.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in future years the University of Glasgow’s Covid outbreak was cited in medical journals as being the key to a breakthrough in Britain’s management of the disease? For that to happen we need our policymakers to ditch their panic and extreme caution and think things through instead.
The SDP has already shown the way ahead on this score. It’s a crying shame that no party with representation in the House of Commons seems capable of doing the same.