On a recent holiday to Sweden I had the good fortune to spend two hours with Anders Tegnell, at the time Sweden’s state epidemiologist, and the three-day drive home gave me plenty of time to imagine how the past two-and-a-half years might have played out if Tegnell had headed up the British pandemic response.
Tegnell has both the qualifications and experience needed for the role. In his early 60s, Tegnell is a doctor with an MSc in Epidemiology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In 1990 he’d been in the frontline in Zaire helping with the Ebola outbreak. In 1993 he was again in the frontline, this time at Linkoping University Hospital in Sweden during the flu pandemic. “There were patients everywhere,” he later recalled, “but it wasn’t a crisis.” In the early noughties he helped prepare the EU pandemic response plans and since 2004 he had been working at the Swedish Public Health Agency, one of the most respected public health agencies in the world, becoming State Epidemiologist in 2013.
Tegnell is determinedly apolitical it was his well known indifference to people’s opinion of him that best prepared him to resist the extraordinary pressure to join the global lockdown experiment.
The 2009 Swine flu epidemic was key to informing Tegnell’s approach. The forecasts of high numbers of deaths by Professor Ferguson and his Imperial College team led the WHO to declare a Swine Flu pandemic. This triggered the role out of the Pandermix vaccination programme in Sweden, with five million Swedes receiving the jab. Not for the first time, as Tegnell found out, Imperial forecasts were catastrophically wrong (65,000 swine flu deaths were forecast in the U.K. alone – 457 actually died) and in Sweden the vaccine caused almost 500 cases of narcolepsy. It was Tegnell who copped the lion’s share of the blame.
It was never credible that between the March 13th and 23rd 2020 all the participants in SAGE could have agreed to a policy U-turn and we have since learnt that the views of those opposed to lockdowns were edited out of the SAGE minutes. There are several SAGE members who in those critical early days would surely have rallied around Tegnell as he fought to get Johnson on side. Professor John Edmunds, who had so patiently explained to hysterical Silicon Valley entrepreneur and lockdown/zero Covid advocate, Thomas Pueyo, on Channel 4 News that is not possible “get rid of every single case in the world” and that the “only other solution is herd immunity”, would have been one. Mark Woolhouse, Professor of Infectious Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, another. And with Tegnell in charge the SAGE line up would have had some different faces – Sunetra Gupta, Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at Oxford University, would surely have been signed up. We also know that in Rishi Sunak – at least, so he claims – Tegnell would have had a key political ally and Tegnell would have been able to provide the backbone that Sunak was missing.
If only! The history of the pandemic in the U.K. might have read something like this…
March 12th. 10 Downing Street. The first daily Covid press briefing with Johnson and Tegnell. The priority is to “protect the elderly”, “slow the spread” and “reduce the peak” to “protect the NHS”. “Stay at home if you or someone in your house is sick” and “isolate for 7 days”.
March 13th. 10 Downing Street. Cummings and Ben Warner, “Vote Leave’s” data scientist, present Warner’s dire prediction that “the NHS will be smashed in weeks” unless lockdowns are introduced. Dominic Cummings and an over-excited Michael Gove believe it’s an open-and-shut case for lockdowns. Tegnell reminds Johnson that Warner is not an epidemiologist and refers them to the Hine report on the 2009 Swine flu pandemic. Tegnell argues that blanket lockdowns will make little difference to stopping the spread, that the only way this will end is through herd immunity. “What is needed,” Tegnell tells them, “is targeted protection.” Tegnell makes clear this could be a resigning issue. Johnson is instinctively anti-lockdown and the taciturn and honest Tegnell has earned his respect. Sunak is concerned about the devastating impact lockdowns will have on the economy. Matt Hancock chips in but is ignored. “Every other country in Europe is locking down,” Cummings tells Johnson. “You will not only have blood on your hands, you will also look ridiculous.” For Cummings the precautionary principle dictates we should lockdown; for Tegnell it dictates that we should follow long-established pandemic protocols.
March 15th. Imperial College. Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College releases the epidemiological forecast that takes the world by storm. Ferguson predicts that tens of millions will die in the pandemic including over 500,000 deaths in the U.K. if there are no mitigations.
11 Downing Street. In the room are Sunak, Tegnell, Liam Booth-Smith, Sunak’s chief of staff, Nerissa Chesterfield, his media advisor, and Steve Barclay MP, Sunak’s trusted friend and colleague. Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee and professors Edmunds, Gupta and Woolhouse, join on zoom. Tegnell briefs Sunak on Ferguson’s appalling modelling track record – BSE, Foot and Mouth, Swine Flu and Bird Flu. Booth-Smith and Chesterfield stress the urgent need to get Tory MPs and the national media onside if Johnson, the flip-flopping opportunist, is to be persuaded not to lockdown. The three epidemiologists agree that targeted measures to protect the elderly and vulnerable are the right approach; closing schools is a red line for all of them. Tegnell wants an honest conversation with the British people, the need for herd immunity to be explained, and stresses the critical importance of context and proportionality.
The 11 Downing Street comms team brief key journalists. Barclay and Brady start reaching out to Tory MPs.
March 16th. Keir Starmer accuses the Government of putting the economy before people’s lives and demands immediate lockdowns.
On Newsnight, Lancet editor Richard Horton praises the Chinese response to Coronavirus, predicts 400k people will die in the U.K. if we don’t lockdown and demands that we pursue a zero Covid strategy. Emily Maitlis has little patience for Professor John Edmunds’s argument that zero Covid is a fantasy, that lockdowns will do more harm than good and that this only ends with herd immunity. Maitlis describes Edmunds as “a lone voice in a world where the emerging consensus is not if, but when to lock down, and in the U.K. the case has surely been made for ‘the sooner the better’”.
March 17th. The Guardian describes Ferguson as “the most respected pandemic modeller in the world” and that “his influence reaches to the heart of the White House” and demands an immediate lockdown. “Why should we trust this man?” asks the the Daily Telegraph. Readers learn that Ferguson was behind the 2001 research that predicted 150,000 people could die from BSE (mad cow disease) and sparked the mass culling of eleven million cows and sheep. In the end, there were fewer than 200 deaths – although Ferguson could argue that’s because the Government followed his advice. The paper also reminds its readers that in 2005 Ferguson also predicted up to 150 million people could be killed by bird flu – in the event, 282 people died. In 2009, a government estimate, based on Ferguson’s advice, said a “reasonable worst-case scenario” was that the swine flu would lead to 65,000 British deaths – 457 people died.
Daily Mail readers delight in the revelation of tensions between the Imperial College modelling department and leading British epidemiologist and SAGE member Professor Sunetra Gupta. The modelling department, they learn, was set up by Sir Roy Anderson, following his departure in disgrace from Oxford University after falsely accusing the young Gupta of having an affair with a superior. Peter Hitchens warns of the grave dangers of over-reacting, “locking down” he warns “would be like burning down a house to get rid of a wasps’ nest – the financial consequences will be catastrophic”.
In the Daily Telegraph Fraser Nelson sheds doubt on the Ferguson forecasts, explains the clear correlation between the economy and life expectancy and the need to do a cost benefit analysis before the introduction of draconian lockdowns. Elsewhere in the Telegraph, Sarah Knapton, the Science Editor, explains the Gompertz curve and puts the pandemic in context – that in a bad flu year 50,000 will die, proportionately far more of those will be young and she introduces the concept of Quality Adjusted Life Years. In the Times Lord Sumption writes that there is more to life than the avoidance of death, that not all lives are of equal value and it is easier for governments to remove hard won freedoms than to reinstate them.
France locks down.
Infections peak and start to fall (not known until mid-April).
March 19th. The WHO, which weeks earlier stated that mass quarantines are not effective against infectious diseases, starts promoting the coercive measures introduced by China, including mandatory quarantines and lockdowns.
The Mail profiles Anders Tegnell and decide he is a man it can trust. Straight talking, unflappable (his favourite poem is Kipling’s If) and extremely well qualified for the role, he is felt to be the right man for the job. We learn that he loves to walk in the English countryside, that one of his children is a doctor and another a nurse, and that his wife is a fan of Bake Off (plum flan is her signature dish). The comments of online readers are overwhelmingly positive. “Scandi Noir” reads the Guardian headline. Tegnell cycles around London without wearing a helmet, they reveal, calling him reckless and stubborn. They demand the immediate introduction of lockdowns including the closure of schools.
March 20th. BBC News shows dramatic scenes of people collapsing in the streets, ambulances pulling up outside hospitals and interviews with inconsolable relatives of the bereaved who plead for global lockdowns. “We are all scared now,” Clive Myrie portentously declares. In a letter to the Times, children’s author Michael Rosen asks, “Who does Sumption think he is to say that my life has any less value just because I am 73?”
In the Spectator, Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield writes of the serious damage closing schools will do to children and in particular Britain’s most vulnerable children.
U.K. daily deaths exceed 100 for the first time.
New York locks down.
March 21st. The Scotsman reveals that Professor Devi Sridhar, Covid advisor to Nicola Sturgeon, is urging Sturgeon to press No. 10 for an immediate and total lockdown and to pursue a policy of zero Covid. “Can Scotland go it alone?” the Scotsman asks.
March 22nd. 10 Downing Street. Sunday morning. Sunak, Tegnell and Sir Graham Brady meet with Johnson, Gove and Hancock. Cummings is not present. Assured of significant backbench support and swayed by recent media coverage, Johnson starts to see that this could be his moment. Gove falls into line. Hancock chips in but when asked later no one can recall what he said. Johnson decides to trust Tegnell and Sunak. The following day Johnson and Tegnell will restate their pandemic strategy and address the issue of lockdowns head on.
In the Observer Sonia Sodha (PPE, St Hilda’s, Oxford) describes anyone opposed to lockdowns as being “captured by anti-science”.
Germany locks down.
March 23rd. 10 Downing Street. Daily press briefing. Tegnell reaffirms his commitment to treat the British people like adults.
“There is an awful lot we do know about this virus but there is still a lot that we do not know,” Tegnell says. “We know that if you catch the virus in your 80s or 90s, the risks of hospitalisation or death are not insignificant – around 3%. But if you are 60 or under and are in good health the chances of you becoming very seriously ill or dying are really pretty low – certainly less than 1% – and if you are under 30, they are very low indeed. We also know that if you are overweight or have other health issues your risks increase. The risks are real, but they do not warrant the shutting down of society and the economy. That so called ‘cure’ would do far more harm than the disease.”
Tegnell explains that the pandemic will only end when we achieve herd immunity through natural infection or vaccines which are thought to be many months if not years away.
“Some have been calling for us to close schools but one thing we will not do is close schools – you cannot close schools. If you close schools hundreds of thousands of NHS and other critical workers will have to stay at home to care for their children at the time when they are needed most. In many schools 30% or more of the pupils will be children of critical workers – these pupils will need to attend school and teachers will still have to come in to care for them. The rest will languish at home. There is little evidence that this will make any material difference in curbing the spread and the damage it will do to children’s education and their emotional wellbeing will far outweigh any potential benefits. It is the worst of all worlds. Eight year-olds should go to school, 80 year-olds should stay at home.”
Tegnell announces that theatres will close and that all events, both indoors and outdoors, will be limited to two thousand people, not least to reduce the pressure on public services. Those who can, should work from home. Pubs, restaurants, and shops will stay open as will places of worship, leisure centres, gyms and dentists. Tegnell reinforces the importance of social distancing, of ventilation and of staying at home if feeling unwell.
“The importance of physical and mental well-being in overcoming Covid cannot be overstated,” Tegnell tells us. “Staying indoors and eating comfort food while watching Covid TV coverage 24 hours a day is the very last thing we should be doing. Switch off the TV, stop looking at social media and go for a walk, or even better go for a run or get on your bike – lose weight and get fit.” Tegnell looks directly at the PM: “Get fit to protect the NHS.” He concludes: “We will keep our strategy under constant review and continue to be guided by the science.”
Tegnell hands over to the Prime Minister.
“Now is not the time to reinvent the wheel,” Johnson tells us and runs through the key relevant findings from Dame Deidre Heine’s report into the 2009 Influenza pandemic. “Dame Deidre highlighted the risk of making plans based upon the worst possible scenarios; she stressed the importance of ensuring that the response to any pandemic is proportionate to the risks. We must not kid ourselves that shutting down the economy would not have catastrophic consequences – not least for the public services, including the NHS, that depend upon a healthy economy to fund them. Much has been made of the Imperial College forecasts, but Dame Deidre specifically cautioned that, as history has repeatedly taught us, modelling in the early stages of a pandemic is unlikely to be reliable. It would be wrong to base our response on one set of forecasts when we have real world data to inform us.”
Johnson then returns to the issue of school closures building on the comments of Dr Tegnell: “While the children of the laptop classes who can work from home and have a garden to play in may muddle through, it will be the poorest children that suffer most – children whose one hot meal a day is at school, children for whom school is the safest place in their lives. And does anyone who has had children really believe that a parent, quite possibly a single parent, stuck at the top of a tower block with stir-crazy children, is going to deny their children the chance to see friends and give themselves some respite when they know the risk is so small? If we are going to introduce new regulations, they must be regulations that have been thought through, regulations that can be obeyed. The last thing we should do is panic and abandon our common sense.”
Johnson turns his attention to lockdowns elsewhere across the world: “There are some countries, not just China, but some ostensibly civilised western democracies, that are denying families the chance to say farewell to dying relatives, even denying parents – what should be an inalienable right – to hold their dying child in their arms. That is not how we do things in Britain. That is not who we are. Yes, we need to get the R number below 1 but we must retain our humanity and if doing so means it takes an extra day or two for the R number to fall below 1 then so be it.”
“There are also commentators who say the British people cannot be trusted to do the right thing, to them I say tosh. I trust the British to do the right thing. So long as it makes sense. And what we are proposing does make sense. I don’t expect an outbreak of reckless selfishness that will put people at risk, but of an outbreak of selflessness, a pandemic of altruism. I expect the fit and young to forgo the home delivery of their weekly shop for the old and vulnerable, I expect neighbours to offer to fetch and carry for those who cannot leave home. I expect those with symptoms to stay at home and those who are well, in these challenging times, to pick up the extra burden.”
Johnson introduces the ‘Campaign of Understanding’ that will keep people better informed about Covid and provide context and perspective. The PM also announces that, following advice from SAGE’s SPI-B committee, the Government will publish the age of those who have died together with the co-morbidities that have contributed to the deaths. To give a clearer picture of developing trends, Covid deaths will be recorded by date of death and not the date of recording, and to provide additional context they will publish the number of daily deaths we would expect to see at this time of year so that everyone can see how many deaths there are in excess of the norm.
“There is no escaping the gravity of the situation and while we may not all be at equal risk, we are all in this together. It will require a collective effort to get us all out on the other side. This is not a time for panic, it is a time to be sensible. Above all it is a time to ‘keep calm and carry on’.”
There follows a Q&A.
Laura Kuenssberg: “Dr Tegnell, the rest of the world is locking down – aren’t you displaying unbelievable arrogance by refusing to do so?”
Dr. Tegnell: “You are asking the wrong question of the wrong person. I have shared our data and explained our reasons. You should be asking those who are shutting down, ‘What is the data you’re basing your decisions on? What are your reasons? Why are you quarantining the healthy as well as the sick when that is explicitly recommended against in your pandemic preparedness policies? Just because the rest of the world is panicking doesn’t mean we should too.”
March 23rd. Dominic Cummings resigns stating that Boris Johnson is “making a decision that will kill tens of thousands of people and stalk him for the rest of his days”. He declares Johnson “unfit for public office”.
The Coronavirus Act passes the House of Commons without a vote.
Ofcom publish its guidelines reminding broadcasters of the need to avoid “material misleadingness in programmes in relation to the virus or public policy regarding it”. Any broadcasters that produce hysterical, knee jerk calls to lockdown, or misinformation about Covid deaths likely to cause public panic, will be fined. As a result, hospital porn quickly fades from the BBC News.
March 24th. The Mail praises the Prime Minister’s leadership. “Are you Corporal Jones or Sergeant Wilson?” they ask their readers, before inviting them to suggest 10 ways to help protect Private Godfrey.
The Guardian applaud Twitter’s decision to ban Boris Johnson on the grounds that the Government’s policy breaches community guidelines. “What price a life?” asks the paper beneath a photograph of a young man on a ventilator, and goes on to encourage parents to keep children at home and not send them to school.
The New York Times declares Britain a “rogue state”.
Police confirm that they are investigating threats to kill Anders Tegnell.
The teaching (NEU) and university academic (UCU) unions demand immediate national strike action to protect their members.
U.K. daily deaths exceed 200 for the first time.
March 25th. Ignoring calls for strike action schoolteachers return to work as normal. However, face-to-face teaching stops at universities throughout the U.K. as professors stay at home.
In the Telegraph Allison Pearson writes about the dangers of group think and the history of mass psychosis. On Twitter she posts emojis of champagne glasses and smiley faces below Emily Maitlis’s Twitter post announcing her resignation from Newsnight. “Following BBC impartiality rules is now impossible for me,” writes Maitlis. The appointment, in her place, of Freddie Sayers, an up and coming, half Swedish reporter is described by Owen Jones in the Guardian as a “stitch up and further confirmation, if any were needed, that the BBC is now the propaganda department of the Tory party”.
March 26th. The Scotsman reports a heated conversation between Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon. Johnson, the Scotsman claims, tells Sturgeon he will not stand in her way if she chooses to lock down Scotland but that the Scottish taxpayer and not the British taxpayer will have to fund it.
March 27th. The New Statesman likens Government policy to using a gun with a bullet in every chamber to play Russian Roulette.
On Radio 4’s Any Questions Dr. Rachel Clarke says Tegnell brings shame on the medical profession and calls for him to be struck off. She describes focused protection as “weasel words”.
March 28th. Led by former Newsnight reporter Paul Mason, 200 people gather in Parliament Square to demand total lockdowns. “Lock down the country and lock-up Johnson,” demands Mason, without irony, on LBC’s James O’Brien Show.
March 29th. Archbishop Welby, in a sermon that is seen as an attack on the Government, asks the congregation to pray that our leaders “make wise and compassionate decisions”.
The Twitter ban on the U.K. Prime Minister is reversed following a global outcry.
March 30th. The extraordinary response to the Government’s call for people with spare rooms to offer them to the elderly in multi-generational families who are unable to isolate at home is the focus of Julia Hartley-Brewer’s morning show on Talk Radio. “This is the pandemic of altruism that the Prime Minister predicted,” says Hartley-Brewer as tens of thousands take in neighbours.
March 31st. The WHO, UN, BMGF and WEF express their “regret” and “disappointment” at the British decision not to lock down and call for a global Pandemic Treaty that would be enforceable under international law. These “unelected and unaccountable panjandrums should remember that Britain is still a sovereign nation, that we are still a democratic country” Johnson responds, adding, “they should butt out”.
And so, the direction of travel is set.
For the next 10 days the daily death toll continues to rise, peaking on April 8th and then falling rapidly. The average age of death is 82. Schools and borders remain open, the footfall in shops and bars recovers as young people return to their old ways. The focused protection programme reduces transmission amongst vulnerable groups and the NHS is not overwhelmed. A complaint to IPSO that the Guardian is continually misrepresenting the risks of Covid to young people is upheld.
The ‘Campaign of Understanding’ continues with deaths “from” and “with” Covid being reported separately, underlining the need for the elderly and vulnerable to continue to be cautious. The PM uses his brush with death to reinforce the message to lose weight and get fit. By the end of May, cancelled weddings are being rescheduled, some elderly relatives choose to attend, fully aware of the risks. By early June tens of thousands are protesting across the U.K. against George Floyd’s murder with no measurable impact on infections or deaths.
In September 2020 the second wave exposes the myth that it was the interventions that prevented the spread of coronavirus as it sweeps through Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and other European countries that missed the first wave. The U.K. has not achieved herd immunity, but prior infection provides protection against the original Wuhan strain and the new Alpha Variant. Without any mandatory government interventions infections have peaked by the end of December 2020 and quickly fall through January. The average age of death remains 82.
The third OFCOM complaint against Piers Morgan is upheld and he is sacked by Good Morning Britain. Morgan’s catastrophising about the pandemic is described as “a failure of journalism”. SPI – B release a series of public information videos warning that cloth and surgical masks can provide a false sense of security and that the best way for the old and the vulnerable to stay safe is to meet friends outside whenever possible. Mask wearing in schools is discouraged due to the emotional and psychological harm that they cause children and the absence of real-world evidence that they reduce transmission.
In early 2021 Prime Minister Johnson resists pressure from pharmaceutical companies to bypass NICE approval for new Covid vaccines. Following a new fast-track process, NICE approve vaccines for the over-50s but the vaccines do not pass the cost benefit analysis for younger age groups.
By March 2021 there is an increasing realisation across the world that lockdowns have made little, if any, impact on mortality rates and have had catastrophic consequences on national economies, individual wellbeing, and the life chances of the young. Britain is recognised as a beacon of freedom, a symbol of resistance to the lockdown orthodoxy, a plucky David in the face of the bullying Goliath of unaccountable globalist power brokers. With yearly death rates no higher than in 2008, schools across Europe are reopened, furlough schemes wound up and economies reopened.
Time Magazine describes Johnson’s leadership as Churchillian.
Macron and Trudeau are among the world leaders who beat a path to the door of No. 10 to bask in Johnson’s reflected glory.
Starmer resigns, saying, “We got it (our approach to Coronavirus) wrong.” Wes Streeting becomes the new Leader of the Opposition.
April 2022. Britain records the fastest economic growth in the G20.
October 2022. In an historic first, Boris Johnson and Anders Tegnell are announced as the winners of both the Nobel Prize for Medicine and the Nobel Prize for Economics.
December 2022. England win the World Cup.
David Stacey runs a farming and residential property business.
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