Is the UK close to developing herd immunity? That’s the potential conclusion of an exciting study by a group of Oxford academics. The term herd immunity has been widely misused and condemned in the last few weeks, but if large numbers of Britons have developed Coronavirus and suffered very few symptoms it could – could – suggest that the death rates in the more apocalyptic modelling published last week might not come to pass.

The latest modelling produced by the group of Oxford academics indicates that the Coronavirus may already have infected as many as half of the UK population.

The Oxford’s Evolutionary Ecology of Infectious Disease group uses a “susceptibility-infected-recovered model”. Published today, it takes into account initial underreporting and the vulnerability of the general population to hospitalisation from respiratory illness.

The document can be found here.

The study assumed that the disease has been circulating freely since the beginning of February. Infection would then have spread through the UK population in an uncontrolled way.

The first deaths from the virus were reported at the beginning of March. The picture we are seeing in terms of death rates may reflect the rapid progress of the disease through the population in that period.

Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology, who led the study, sounded a note of caution, however. The findings can only be corroborated through “large-scale serological surveys — antibody testing.”

Nonetheless, the initial conclusions are in marked contrast to the models produced by Imperial College, London which estimated that as many as half a million people could die of the disease in the UK if it circulated with no controls.

The Imperial study is credited with changing the UK government’s approach to much stricter restrictions on social mixing.

Gupta is quoted in the FT criticising the study: “I am surprised that there has been such unqualified acceptance of the Imperial model.”

But she supports the government’s strict measures to prevent the number of cases expanding over the next month beyond the capacity of the NHS.

The pressure on the NHS is building fast. Ministers announced today that the Excel conference centre in London is being turned into an emergency “field hospital” with the help of the armed forces. It will provide 4,000 beds.