Rishi Sunak has finally managed to grab the agenda during the leadership race, and finally not for a u-turn or a strategic cock up. Interviewed in The Spectator Sunak argues SAGE made bad predictions based on botched modelling and No. 10 never allowed a debate to be had on the cost-benefit of lockdown measures – particularly on closing schools. A culture of fear was decided on by the top of government and their scientific advisors, which was then set in stone. “Dissenting voices were filtered out and a see-no-evil policy was applied.”
While lockdown was known to be “by necessity, a gamble”, Rishi, echoing Steve Baker, says cost-benefit analyses were never made:
“I wasn’t allowed to talk about the trade-off,’ says Sunak. ‘The script was not to ever acknowledge them. The script was: oh, there’s no trade-off, because doing this for our health is good for the economy.”
The main problem, he appears to diagnose, was in elevating SAGE to “a committee that had the power to decide whether the country would lock down or not.” The problem was even more concentrated than the entire SAGE committee, however. Rishi observes that, whoever wrote their meetings’ minutes – deciding what discussions and facts to include – was essentially setting the nation’s entire public health policy.
“For a year, UK government policy – and the fate of millions –was being decided by half-explained graphs cooked up by outside academics.”
Rishi concludes “This is the problem… If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed… We shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did.” He concludes had we not done so, and had we acknowledged trade-offs from the beginning “we could be in a very different place… it could have been shorter. Different. Quicker.”
He doesn’t name names when accusing fellow cabinet colleagues of not speaking out, which is probably why those in the know aren’t calling him out for rose-tinted hindsight. Guido asked a source close to discussions happening around the first lockdown, who said the above is indeed what Sunak was saying internally at the time. The source also agreed with the problem of giving unelected officials so much power in deciding what ministers saw and what options they were given:
“There were often times the officials would do a “pre-meeting”, decide what they wanted to push through, then ram it through in the main meeting with the PM/ministers”
This process wasn’t helped when, on occasion, ministers would go into the key Covid meeting and be handed a set of 100 papers by officials, with no chance of being able to ingest them before a decision was taken. Guido can barely wait for tonight’s Julia Hartley-Brewer-hosted husting in East Anglia…
Read the full account on the Spectator here.
Plenty of noise is being made this morning about the the joint Commons Health, Science and Technology Select Committee’s new report on the government’s handling of the pandemic. Inevitably, some have immediately jumped at the chance to blame Number 10 and the Health Department for failing to contain the spread and naively adopting a herd immunity strategy despite the risks. Obviously, that strategy was wrong: the fact the government later pretended not to have taken that approach would suggest they think so too.
What caught Guido’s eye in the report, however, was how critical it is of the scientific advice that dictated the government’s response in the first place:
“In the first three months the strategy reflected official scientific advice to the Government which was accepted and implemented. When the Government moved from the ‘contain’ stage to the ‘delay’ stage, that approach involved trying to manage the spread of covid through the population rather than to stop it spreading altogether […] The fact that the UK approach reflected a consensus between official scientific advisers and the Government indicates a degree of groupthink that was present at the time which meant we were not as open to approaches being taken elsewhere as we should have been.”
In other words, the government was wrong to consistently accept the scientific advice, and should have challenged SAGE’s input more often. Quite the departure from the Twitterati’s squawks that the government should always and only “follow the science”…
The report later adds:
“We accept that it is difficult to challenge a widely held scientific consensus. But accountability in a democracy depends on elected decision-makers taking advice, but examining, questioning and challenging it before making their own decisions.”
The government made lots of mistakes last year, yet it’s clear they were also being guided by ill-informed voices. Of course, that’s bound to happen in the chaos of a pandemic; it was a novel virus and no one really had all the right answers. Hindsight makes this look a lot easier. Still, this hardly vindicates Whitty, Vallance, and SAGE – and going forward, as the report says, there should be an effort to “include more representation and a wider range of disciplines” when making these decisions…
Ahead of his committee appearance on Wednesday, Dominic Cummings continued his Twitter tirade over the weekend by slamming the government’s initial lockdown strategy, and accusing Number 10 of lying about its original plans. According to Cummings, Plan A was to reduce the initial peak of the virus to protect the vulnerable whilst allowing the healthy to build up natural herd immunity. Plan B was a total lockdown as “Manhattan Project” style research went into developing vaccines and treatments. The official strategy, Cummings said, was repeatedly explained on TV…
Guido’s had a look back through the footage to check his recollection, and it looks like Cummings is broadly right. From March 5 to 14, Boris, Vallance, and the Behavioural Insights boffin and SAGE advisor Dr. David Halpern all state the original ‘Plan A’ approach. Vallance and Halpern are both explicit: it was, in their view, fair to pursue ‘herd immunity‘ amongst the healthy as the way out of the pandemic. Boris, whilst not using that term specifically, also stresses that (at the time) he wasn’t wasn’t being advised to lock down entirely – only to introduce limited restrictions to prevent an initial overwhelming peak. His view was that the government should strike a balance in policy: beefing up the NHS rather than locking down the population entirely…
Looking back at the briefings, it’s pretty obvious the plans changed halfway through March. Guido, like Cummings, can’t figure out why the government isn’t being straightforward about this given Vallance said herd immunity was desirable on-camera, contrary to Priti Patel’s denial yesterday. The truth is SAGE were intent on a Swedish-style herd immunity strategy originally, and switched to ‘Plan B’ once they modelled the much higher fatality rate that ‘Plan A’ would entail…
The public, in as much they will pay attention, might rightly sense that even if the government advisers may never have actively wanted people to be infected by the virus, they were sympathetic to a herd immunity strategy and so avoided a hard lockdown where no herd immunity would have built up. The strategy was, in any event, abandoned when modelling projected it would be disastrous.
Guido enjoys a bit of political theatre as much as anyone, so Dominic Cummings’s menacing tweet adds to the sense of drama about his forthcoming Committee appearance:
He’s now deleted the tweeted poll, saying he “botched” the options, and will “obviously” give it to the committee:
Did 1st twitter poll, botched options like idiot so scrapped... My point was *as well as* giving to cmte I cd also raise £ for a charity - not instead of - but I botched it... *Obviously* I'll give to cmte Wed...— Dominic Cummings (@Dominic2306) May 18, 2021
Perhaps he realised in a rare moment of self awareness that it made him look, well, a bit psychotic.
Epidemiologist Professor John Edmunds took to the airwaves this morning to claim that the Government’s new Covid measures do not go far enough in tackling the virus. He even claimed that Nicola Sturgeon’s draconian no-home-visits rule has not gone far enough. Blimey.
Yet back in March Edmunds was one of the most vociferous in calling for a ‘herd immunity’ strategy, mocking the idea of suppressing the virus across the world as unachievable. Today he struck an entirely contradictory tone. Could the reason why Professor Edmunds is now so keen to loudly propose what he used to think was impossible be that he is attempting to shore up his position in the forthcoming inquiry?..
Bernard Jenkin has this morning suggested an inquiry into the first phase of Coronavirus response could be vital for learning lessons before a potential second peak in the winter. Speaking to PoliticsLive today, Jenkin suggested a new inquiry could be run by Parliament rather than externally, like the Banking Standards Commission which was chaired by Andrew Tyrie. Jenkin further floated this new high profile inquiry it could be run by the Liaison Committee. Which he just so happens to chair….
UPDATE: Think Bernard’s serious, not just bloviating on air, he’s issued a statement:
“It is essential that the UK is prepared for a second wave of coronavirus later this year. We do not want another Chilcot-type inquiry at this stage, but medics are right to call for a swift cross-party ‘lessons learned’ exercise to be completed by October. This would not only contribute to UK’s readiness for a new Covid peak but would also strengthen public confidence in the government’s readiness.
“It should be led by Parliament and commissioned as soon as possible by the government. The Commons Liaison Committee could be a vehicle for this, or the government could ask Parliament to follow the model of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, which was set up after the banking crash and which will still be able to draw on cross-party expertise from Lords and Commons. It is vital that we work together and make the most of the opportunity to learn from recent experience, before a possible new wave of Covid.”