I was interested to hear Sir Patrick Vallance’s excoriating criticisms of the Government’s performance during the early days of Covid on the news this week. No need for me to repeat them because you can read them in Will Jones’s piece here.
Working as a historian and a writer I’m always fascinated by the nature of what passes for historical evidence. One of the most unreliable of all is personal testimony which as we all know is responsible for more miscarriages of justice than any other evidence, and it’s just as unreliable in any other context.
Let’s look back at March 2020, and what do we find? Why, here we have a piece from March 13th 2020 in the Guardian in which Sir Patrick Vallance extolls the virtues of herd immunity, and specifically refutes the value of hard suppression (which of course means lockdown, though back then the word was only just coming into use):
“If you suppress something very, very hard, when you release those measures it bounces back and it bounces back at the wrong time,” he said. The Government is concerned that if not enough people catch the virus now, it will re-emerge in the winter, when the NHS is already overstretched.
Just a few lines earlier, there is the interestingly prescient observation that:
Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it. Those are the key things we need to do. (emphasis added)
Doesn’t exactly sound like someone champing at the bit to lock everyone down, does it?
Notice that he said ‘our aim’. Our? Who is that. One must assume the Government’s scientific advisers.
Vallance took the trouble to spell this out on TV on the same day, preferring self-isolation as a mechanism to slow the virus down. You can watch a Sky News interview with him here. At four minutes in he points out that a hard lockdown once lifted results in the disease coming straight back, and that therefore it’s far better to go for herd immunity “which would protect everybody” to prevent a second peak.
He may not have been quick to recommend a full lockdown in March 2020 but he was very quick to change his story within a few weeks. He was already denying he’d ever recommended herd immunity by May 2020, telling MPs, according to Politico, “that when he presented this concept at a press conference in mid-March, he did not mean that the U.K. should try to get immunity through this route. He reiterated that the strategy has always been trying to suppress the peak and keep it below the level at which the National Health Service can cope”.
Just by way of clarification, he added:
I should be clear about what I was trying to say, and if I didn’t say this clearly enough then I apologise. What I was trying to say was that, in the absence of a therapeutic, the way in which you can stop a community becoming susceptible to this is through immunity and immunity can be obtained by vaccination, or it can be obtained by people who have the infection.
Trying to say, but not actually using any of those words originally. Apparently. Interesting because if you want to say something it’s usually best to use the right words, especially at a moment of national crisis. If you try to say something using what you now claim were the wrong words, then people are bound to think you were saying something else. Wouldn’t they?
By September 2020 the BBC had this:
Sir Patrick and the Government have both insisted this [herd immunity] was never official policy. The Government also denies there was any delay in locking down the country, as some critics have suggested.
Emails obtained by the BBC reveal the alarm among the Government’s top scientific advisers at the reaction to Sir Patrick’s words.
In one email from March, Sir Patrick asks for help to “calm down” academics who have expressed anger at his repeated references to herd immunity and the delays in announcing a lockdown.
What do we conclude from this? That he was saying in public different things to what he wrote down in his diary? Do we know when he wrote down his diary? Or what? You tell me.
The truth of course, if there is any truth ever to be had out of all of this, is that back in March 2020 no-one in any position of political or scientific responsibility knew what the hell they were doing, and nor did they thereafter. It’s been a litany of changing narratives, contradictions and denials from day one.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Covid farce, it is that an expert’s expertise is only as good as his last piece of hindsight.
Stop Press: Chris Whitty today conceded to the Covid Inquiry that “with the benefit of hindsight, we went too late” with the first lockdown. Is this the same Chris Whitty who, with the benefit of hindsight in July 2020, told MPs (correctly) that Covid was already falling before the first lockdown? The ‘R number’ went “below one well before, or to some extent before March 23rd”, he said at the time. I’m sure Hugo Keith will be pressing him on this crucial point any minute now…
Stop Press 2: Fraser Nelson makes many of these points and more in the Spectator: “We also learned yesterday that the 4,000-deaths nonsense graph was shown by Vallance at the Halloween press conference because it had been used by Johnson’s advisers to scare him into action – and he felt the public should be shown what he had seen. The story here (which the Covid inquiry missed) was that Johnson was being spun by his advisers and shown misleading data.”