Covid and the unforgivable mistakes that cost tens of thousands of lives in the UK



As the Covid
progresses, it is clear the government led by
Boris Johnson made two catastrophic mistakes during the pandemic of
2020. The first was to do virtually nothing until late March. The
second was to encourage a second wave in the autumn, and again fail
to take effective action to stem it during the rest of that year.
With the first there are potentially many who contributed to that
mistake, including our broadcast media. The second mistake was
primarily the responsibility of Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson.

As the second is
simpler, I’ll start with that.

In June the first
lockdown continued to be unwound, yet during June and July case
numbers remained fairly flat. The reproduction number R was close to
the beginning of August
Sunak introduced the ‘Eat
Out to Help Out’ scheme, encouraging people to eat inside
restaurants. That was not the only reason cases began to rise in
August and September, but
evidence is clear that it helped
. The current
chief scientific adviser, Angela McLean,
one message.

Incredibly SAGE, the government’s scientific advisers
for the pandemic, were not consulted about the scheme.
is one of its members, John Edmunds, describing to the inquiry his

In September SAGE
recommended a new lockdown
to prevent “a very large
epidemic with catastrophic consequences in terms of direct
Covid-related deaths and the ability of the health service to meet
needs.” Johnson, encouraged by Sunak, rejected that advice. Through
September and October more minor, regionally based restrictions were
imposed, but as the data shows clearly this failed to avoid a rapid
rise in case numbers. At the end of October the crisis was so bad
that Johnson was forced to impose a national lockdown. As the data
also shows, cases started falling after the inevitable lag. Lockdowns
clearly work in saving lives, but Johnson had resisted the
recommendations of his scientific advisers for weeks before imposing

Worse was to come.
This national lockdown ended at the beginning of December, even
though case levels remained high. Cases started rising again soon
afterwards, but Johnson was determined to avoid a national lockdown
over Christmas. The third national lockdown began on 6th January, and
once again it produced a rapid decline in cases, but only from a
horrendously high level.

Not only do
lockdowns work in saving lives in the short term, as they inevitably
must because they reduce social interaction, but they also save lives
in the long term if effective vaccines are developed. That this
statement is not blindingly obvious to everyone is a testament to
motivated beliefs. In the Autumn and Winter of 2020 it was clear
there were good chances of a vaccine being developed. As a result,
tens of thousands of UK citizens who died as a result of Covid
during this period did so as a result of Johnson and Sunak ignoring
expert advice. Outside of wars, other political mistakes don’t even
get close to being as serious as this.

The earlier
catastrophic mistake, doing nothing as the pandemic unfolded until
mid-March, shares some similarities but there are important
differences. The key difference is knowledge. In the Autumn nearly
all experts, inside and outside of government, knew how the virus
behaved and what was needed to control case numbers until a vaccine
arrived. Johnson and Sunak went against this scientific consensus.
This was less so in January, February and early March 2020 because
much less was known.

This lack of
knowledge was compounded by pre-pandemic planning, which had focused
on a flu outbreak that was different in nature to Covid. Focusing on
just one type of pandemic, rather than a range of possibilities, was
an error that cannot be put at the feet of political leaders in 2020.
Equally the degradation of the PPE stockpile, which led to the deaths
of doctors and nurses during the early months of the pandemic, was
mainly a consequence of the decisions of previous Conservative
political leaders.

However, from the
evidence I have seen, it is clear that ministers, and in particular
the Prime Minister, were from the outset predisposed against
taking large scale preventative measures. Herd Immunity, as the
strategy became known, is really just a name for doing nothing
unusual in a pandemic. As is often the case with ideologically led
rather than evidence led governments, the rationale behind this
strategy evolved not from evidence or from example (what other
countries were doing), but from the need to support this

A good example of
this was the idea of behavioural fatigue: lockdowns could not be
imposed because people would quickly tire of restrictions and the
lockdowns would become ineffective. It is not clear where this idea
came from, but it seems it was not from the behavioural experts who
were part of SAGE or its sub-committees. As Christina
Pagel notes here
, the reality was the opposite, with
97% of people complying with the rules in the first lockdown. Trust
only began to break down when the members of the government got
caught breaking the rules.

Because the initial
policy was not evidence led, the government made little attempt to
talk directly to its own experts, or involve them in the decision
making process. Professor
Neil Ferguson talked of
a “Chinese wall” between
the experts on SAGE and the officials preparing for the pandemic. In
early March “both John Edmunds and myself got concerned about the
slight air of unreality of some of the discussions, and started
talking in the margins to government attendees, saying: ‘Do you
know what this is going to be like?’” Ferguson said.

It was in part these
efforts, rather than the sea-change in the science that politicians
and the media talked about, which led to the eventual imposition of
lockdown. But it took some time to persuade Johnson that he needed to
change his approach, and that two or three week delay led to tens of
thousands of unnecessary deaths.

If Johnson’s
predisposition against lockdowns is largely the cause of tens of
thousands of unnecessary deaths in 2020, the broadcast media also
failed badly in the early months of the pandemic. As a recent
study by Greg Philo and Mike Berry
shows, in those
initial months the broadcast media largely became a mouthpiece for
the government, with information about the pandemic mostly coming
from senior political correspondents.

is a
still from this
clip from Irish TV
from mid-March. As Richard Horton
pointed out, the small amount of information required to do
calculations of this kind had been available from studies published
in the Lancet in January and February. As he put it, “any numerate
school student could make the calculation”. Did no journalists from
the MSM think to try to do similar assessments before mid-March, or
just talk to experts outside government who could do so more easily?
If they had, surely they would have realised that two million
critical cases was way beyond what the NHS could handle?

If just one MSM
journalist had done something like this before mid-March, it would
have been something other journalists could have referenced when
talking to officials and ministers. That, in turn, might have made
ministers realise what the SAGE modellers later got them to
understand. Each week’s delay in imposing a lockdown cost countless
lives. Our broadcast media’s fondness of Westminster access and its
aversion to talking to experts is also partly to blame for the
mistakes government ministers made at the start of the pandemic.

Politicians and organisations are bound to make mistakes, as they are not superhuman. However I think there is an important distinction between mistakes where politicians or organisations act on or in accordance with expert or received wisdom, and mistakes where they ignored or went against that wisdom. In the first case the responsibility is shared, but in the second it rests with the politicians or organisations alone. When the advice and knowledge of the consensus of experts is ignored in a pandemic, and tens of thousands of people die unnecessarily as a result, then responsibility for those deaths lies squarely with the politicians and media organisations that ignored that consensus. 

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