The anniversary of the start of the pandemic has occasioned a rash of review pieces, replete with all the standard lockdowner myths that have become part of the Official Narrative in the past year. Not least of which is that lockdown came too late, as Boris has apparently now admitted according to Telegraph sources, which bodes ill for the future.
One of these review pieces, by Telegraph Associate Editor Gordon Rayner, takes a look back at the road to lockdown last March, and includes new insights from insiders, including several ministers.
It rehashes several myths, half-truths and clangers, which we will do our best to debunk.
By mid-March last year new Covid cases were running at an average of 271 per week, though the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) was estimating there were 5,000 to 10,000 cases nationally.
Questions over why Britain was not following other nations, such as Italy, into lockdown were rebuffed because government modelling suggested Mr Johnson’s “squash the sombrero” strategy of flattening the peak would prevent the NHS being overwhelmed.
Suddenly, on Friday, March 13th, everything changed. It was Gold Cup day at the now notorious 2020 Cheltenham Festival, which had been allowed to go ahead despite well-founded concerns that it would become a super-spreader event and SAGE realised it had underestimated the numbers.
Meeting in a conference room at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in Victoria Street, London, the scientists decided a 5-7-day lag in data provision meant the country was “further ahead on the epidemic curve” than they had thought, though SAGE did not at that stage recommend an immediate lockdown and warned that “measures seeking to completely suppress spread of COVID-19 will cause a second peak”.
Five hundred yards away in Downing St, Ben Warner, a young data specialist who had been No 10’s eyes and ears in SAGE meetings, conducted his own analysis of the numbers and concluded that the NHS would “fall over” in a matter of weeks because the virus was spreading exponentially.
Mr Warner took his findings to Mr Cummings, and at an emergency meeting in the Prime Minister’s Downing Street office the next morning, March 14th, Mr Cummings wrote Mr Warner’s projections on a whiteboard and said the course the Government was following would result in potentially tens of thousands of additional deaths.
“The PM was stunned,” said one source. “That was the key meeting in deciding we had to go into lockdown.”
“Our priority had always been to make sure the NHS could cope,” said another, “but the new analysis showed Covid wasn’t going to just pass that line on the graph, it was going to really smash through it.”
Reassuring to know the Government was being advised by a broad range of the best scientists in these crucial decisions, with Professor Cummings and Professor Warner drawing wobbly red lines on white boards…
Last June, Imperial College’s Neil Ferguson, who became known as “Professor Lockdown”, controversially told MPs that “had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier, we would have reduced the final death toll by at least half”.
The accuracy of Prof Ferguson’s suggestion can never be proven, but one insider said: “We lacked the confidence in the public being prepared and able to react quickly, that’s why we waited days and weeks sometimes to implement things.
“There was a strange preference for giving people notice, which seemed bizarre. People were saying to us ‘if you’re going to do this, why not do it now?’
“It was a major misstep not to do lockdown a week earlier. There was a false hope that a few extra days would give us more time to prepare, when in fact it contributed to the whole year progressing as it did.”
Fears of rioting also troubled Downing Street. “There were conversations going on in Government about whether the summer could end up like August 2011 if we locked the country down,” said one minister.
SAGE had also warned the Prime Minister about the danger of “lockdown fatigue”, which has been blamed in the past for the decision not to lock down earlier.
In truth, Downing Street had plenty of evidence that the public was ready and willing to take the sort of tough measures that were being seen abroad.
“We had bags of data that said the public was hugely behind the idea of lockdown,” said one senior source. “We were never going to lose by going in hard. The more extreme the measures we took, the more the public were behind us.”
One source who worked with the Prime Minister said: “There are times when he listens to everyone around the Cabinet table and he will put his fist on the table and say ‘this is what we’re going to do’, like when the testing programme was going wrong. But he definitely dithered when it came to massive decisions that meant curtailing freedoms.”
“The accuracy of Prof Ferguson’s suggestion can never be proven” – this is one of the most persistent and pernicious lockdown myths. It’s as though Sweden doesn’t exist. We know Sweden didn’t lock down and fared better than the UK. And we know that places which didn’t lock down this winter often fared better than those that did. We also know that deaths in the UK peaked on April 8th, which, it was pointed out last April by leading Oxford epidemiologist Professor Carl Heneghan, meant that new daily infections had peaked around 23 days earlier on March 16th, eight days before the national lockdown was imposed. Thus contrary to pro-lockdown mythology there is ample evidence disproving Professor Ferguson’s claim that the UK death toll could have been halved by locking down a week earlier. Lockdown simply isn’t that effective and COVID-19 simply isn’t that deadly.
Then on March 23rd SAGE told Boris Johnson that the reproduction rate of the virus – the R number which would quickly become part of the national lexicon – had risen to between 2.6 and 2.8, meaning each infected person was passing it on to almost three others.
Advisers had been dismayed by pictures of crowded Tube trains in London and people ignoring social distancing advice by flocking to public spaces.
The death toll had leapt threefold to 335, with 6,650 cases. Mr Johnson decided he could delay no longer, and arranged a TV broadcast in which he told the nation: “From this evening, I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.”
Again, it has been known since mid-April 2020 that this estimate of R on March 23rd was way out. A straightforward analysis of the deaths data suggests R had fallen below 1 by around March 16th. Chris Whitty even admitted as much to MPs in July, when he said that R had gone “below one well before, or to some extent before, March 23rd”.
The deepest roots of the delay took hold long before Boris Johnson was Prime Minister. For years, all of the Government’s pandemic planning had been for an influenza outbreak, even though countries in the Far East had experienced the highly deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) in the recent past.
David Cameron admitted in March 2021 that his own Government’s failure to plan for a respiratory illness pandemic was a mistake, though Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary in 2016, told the Telegraph: “I don’t feel personally to blame because as a Cabinet minister you take advice from your scientists and there was no advice to do otherwise.”
Exercise Cygnus, a nationwide planning exercise to simulate a flu pandemic in 2016, had given civil servants a false sense of security, as they believed they had rehearsed for what was now upon them, without fully understanding they had rehearsed for the wrong thing.
One Whitehall source said: “They had a plan for flu but they didn’t have a plan for this. Even though countries in the Far East had experienced Sars, we never prepared for that. That was the fundamental problem in the early days.”
Cygnus’s findings contained no mention of testing, for example, because flu is only spread by people who have symptoms, unlike coronavirus, which can be spread asymptomatically.
The same source said: “Dominic Cummings was asking questions of [Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark, now Lord] Sedwill around 4-6 weeks in, they were being waved off because people were saying ‘we’ve got a plan for this, don’t worry’.
“The question for the future is whether those lost weeks were fundamentally critical and would we not now be talking about 125,000 deaths. What did those weeks cost us? It’s important to know because it could happen again.”
The claim that the UK’s Pandemic Preparedness Strategy did not envisage a coronavirus outbreak that could kill upwards of 125,000 people is yet another clanger. In fact, the document prepared in 2011 explicitly envisages the possibility of a SARS-like pandemic and up to 315,000 additional deaths. The COVID-19 pandemic has been well within these anticipated bounds – no country has yet experienced an equivalent death toll of 315,000, and the UK (as one of the worse hit countries in the world) is nowhere near it. Nonetheless, the strategy did not recommend lockdowns in any circumstances, questioning whether they were effective or ethical.
However, here is what lockdowners claim made the real difference with COVID-19: asymptomatic transmission.
The issue of asymptomatic transmission – and ministers’ lack of knowledge of it – has been cited by Mr Johnson almost every time he is asked about why Covid was able to spread in the UK.
It is a narrative that has gone largely unchallenged, yet some scientists on SAGE did try to raise the alarm.
On Jan 28th SAGE noted that “there is limited evidence of asymptomatic transmission, but early indications imply some is occurring”.
Then on Feb 21st last year the Italian village of Vo’Euganeo near Venice went into quarantine after the country’s first recorded death from Covid, and almost all of its residents were tested for the virus.
Around 40% of those who tested positive were asymptomatic, strongly suggesting asymptomatic transmission was occurring.
Members of Sage were so struck by the findings that they raised them with the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and with Prof Ferguson, only for their concerns to be dismissed.
One scientific adviser said: “Neil Ferguson’s response was that it doesn’t really make that much difference to the models, which seemed a bit strange, because it certainly made a bloody big difference.”
Tests on passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, where hundreds of people became infected and were quarantined, including Britons… also raised questions in February about whether the virus was being transmitted asymptomatically.
Nice to see a rare criticism of Ferguson’s modelling, if for the wrong reasons. In fact, asymptomatic transmission is another big fat lockdowner myth. The presence of a high proportion of asymptomatic PCR-positive individuals, as in Vo, is just a reflection of how sensitive the PCR test is in picking up viral material long after a person is infectious. As with other viruses, asymptomatic carriers of SAR-CoV-2 are barely infectious, with one recent study finding they account for just 0.7% of transmission. The fact that 40% of those who tested positive in Vo doesn’t “strongly suggest” asymptomatic transmission was occurring. All it shows is that almost half of those infected are asymptomatic. It tells you nothing about how they caught it.
In mid-March, Sir Patrick spoke of the need “to build up some degree of herd immunity” which would mean that “probably 60%” of the population would have to get the virus.
One health source said: “He was talking about herd immunity because that’s what you do with flu. What’s been forgotten in all of this is that herd immunity was what SAGE wanted at the beginning.”
One senior MP said: “They definitely had a view early on that allowing it to spread to build up immunity was necessary. They were saying privately ‘this is going to be like chickenpox, we are probably all going to have to get this’.”
Sir Patrick later denied herd immunity had ever been the preferred policy of SAGE, and it was never taken up by the Government.
It is nonsense to suggest that herd immunity is possible with flu but not with COVID-19, which is why there are so few reports of people being reinfected, even with all the new variants that are getting so much press coverage.
Should have stuck with the original plan, Boris.