Coronavirus. It feels a long time ago since Brexit was the big cat in the room and that was only a couple of months ago. I have been anxious to write on this topic because as someone who is at increased risk of complications if I get it (for those who don’t know, I am diabetic; that account for 26% of underlying conditions in England) it terrifies me. It literally scares the crap out of me! However, If the worst were to happen this may be my only chance to voice my concerns on it ok!
It was 23rd March when the Prime Minister announced measures that amounted to the biggest curb on our civil liberties ever in modern British history outside of wartime. The UK is on lockdown of sorts, following in the path of other European countries including France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Ireland in a bid to curb the transmission and spread of the new novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The lockdown measures are relatively lax compared to some other countries and while it was a necessary move and universally praised as a look at my Facebook feed that Monday evening suggested, it is one that I felt was overdue.
Yes, this post will be critiquing the approach the government has taken in handling this epidemic. Criticising them has not been a cool thing to do at present. As people who know me know, I am a socialist and I often get told I criticise them whatever they do, or if it were a Labour government I would not be so critical. If Labour’s record was anywhere near the record of the current government, trust me I would be saying the same. I have also seen a lot of posts saying this is not a time to be political or that Boris Johnson is doing a good job and doing the best he can. The final assertion is a fair point. Boris Johnson, we must assume is doing what he feels is the best job he can and he cannot be faulted for that. However, at this time holding the government to account, regardless of your views in an objective way (as I hope to do in this post) has never been more important…
The Prime Minister after his own bout with COVID-19 claimed that the UK was ‘an apparent success‘ in the handling of the pandemic. The UK has the highest death toll in Europe. At the time of publishing, the current official total is 34,796 deaths which is far worse than the expected best case scenario of 20,000, while the Financial Times believe the figure to be around 62,100. It is an abomination! The BBC did remind us that Italy has the highest death toll in the EU but globally, we are second to only the United States in terms of deaths and when you look at the deaths per million of the population, we are in worse shape. If you cannot be critical of the government in such circumstances, when can you?
It is interesting to see how other countries have looked upon the response of our government. While the UK media praised him for eventually doing the right thing, the view of other nations is less optimistic. The French newspaper, Ethnos declared Johnson to be even more dangerous than the virus itself for having ‘gone out publically and essentially asked Britons…to accept death’. Australian press latched onto the Lancet editor Dr Richard Horton’s comments labelling it, ‘the most serious science policy failure in a generation‘. We are unfortunately not viewed as a success in handling the pandemic and even some sections of the US press believe the UK has messed it up.
The route to lockdown was slow compared to other European countries in terms of their epidemic. Italy, the first European country to be impacted by COVID-19 and at one stage had the epicentre of the outbreak went into full lockdown on 10th March after 463 deaths. France went into lockdown after 91 deaths on March 16th, Spain after 193 deaths on March 13th. The UK eventually went into lockdown after 422 deaths on 23rd March. Despite having the advantage of knowing what happened in China, in Italy and Spain, it feels like in the UK we have been playing catch up in our response to it.
Even when social distancing measures were introduced before the lockdown, the messaging from the government was far from consistent. For example, on Friday 16th March, the Prime Minister told the UK to avoid going to pubs, clubs and restaurants. The messaging was not explicit as even his father declared he would go to a pub if he wanted to citing they would still want his custom. Johnson Snr was right on that. These establishments had not been told to close and whilst they were still open they needed customers in order to continue business and survive and many could not shut their doors fearing they would not be covered by their insurance. Johnson would close these establishments at the end of the week despite the previous day insisting his already announced measures could turn the tide in 12 weeks. It turns out though, it may have been forced on him by French President Emmanuel Macron if reports in France were accurate.
As countries have been going into lockdown and closing borders to help contain the spread of the virus, there has been an alarming lack of it in the UK. Slightly ironic isn’t it? The one country trying to isolate itself for the past few years with Brexit has been the only one in Europe not to have any measures at the borders.
Normally, I am one for keeping borders open as I firmly believe in the benefits of migration and freedom of movement. However, these aren’t normal times and I can’t believe I’m saying this but the government should have implemented policies at the border. Our lack of policies has meant we have become the only nation in Europe not to either be checking people’s temperatures coming into the country or guaranteeing them upon arrival. As many as 15,000 people per day have been coming into the UK a day unchecked and allowed to go free into the UK, even from COVID hotspots like New York. For a virus that arrived in the UK through imported transmission, it has been surprising how little I have seen or heard of the Home Secretary. Instead, on one particular Sunday, it was left to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to defend the government’s record on the Sophy Ridge show. Even the Daily Express sided with Ridge.
Telling moment in @SophyRidgeSky's interview with @grantshapps.— Alex Andreou (@sturdyAlex) May 3, 2020
– According to these numbers. you show us daily, you failed.
– I don't like those numbers. We need to look at other numbers.
– Okay, here are the numbers you say we should look at.
– Not NOW. Don't look at them NOW! pic.twitter.com/NeI2uEiPfV
I quite like Grant Shapps. I admired the way he went about the nationalisation of the Northern Rail franchise and his rhetoric of just wanting trains to run on time was good but in this interview, he did not do himself justice. He argued there was no point once COVID-19 was prevalent in society to quarantine new arrivals at a time they also need to repatriate millions of Britons stuck abroad. I have to side with Ridge on this. We were doing quarantining quite well at the start of the outbreak when those arriving from China were quarantined at a hospital in the Wirral. The reference to the lockdown did not cut it either. It is a bit of a joke really. People coming into the country could still use public transport to get home, they could still go to shops, exercise and be spreading the virus. The announcement on 9th May that they were eventually going to ask arrivals to quarantine for two weeks is perhaps too little too late.
The Economic Measures
The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak has probably seen a bigger rise in his stock than some of his other Cabinet colleagues. He had barely been in the job two weeks after replacing Sajid Javid when his first budget was effectively made null and void after he had to make several big interventions and each of them fairly welcome.
In the biggest case of state intervention since the 2008 financial collapse, Sunak made available £350m to businesses in the form of loans before announcing a job retention scheme allowing businesses to furlough staff; effectively keeping them on even though they cannot work at present with the government covering 80% of the employees’ wages. The same move was eventually made for the self-employed. It was a policy I greatly welcomed! However, it is not without criticism.
The job retention scheme sees employees being kept on with the hope these jobs will still be there for when this time of lockdown is over. It guarantees incomes for people who would otherwise be out of a job and is a good thing. However, some redundancies were made in the two-day interval between the loan announcement and the job retention scheme. While the rules of the scheme say they could be furloughed instead there is no guarantee that the businesses did that. That is because it comes down to the businesses and how they go about it with some unscrupulous businesses coming under fire for their actions; such as Wetherspoons. For a Conservative government to make such a commitment, when historically they don’t do big state interventions, it is a big deal and while 80% of income may not leave someone financially comfortable or secure, it is a lot better than nothing or Universal Credit.
The self-employed had an even longer wait for their support package which when it came matched the job retention schemes commitment of 80%. This was the biggest issue of the three schemes as it took an additional two weeks for the treasury to make this commitment. Yes, I understand it is a lot of work and they need time, but this is something they could have learnt from our European neighbours in the weeks beforehand. Additionally, it left out an estimated 5% of self-employed individuals as no one who became self-employed after April 2019 could apply. I know a few people who have been unfortunate in this situation and are not covered. Those who are covered though have found themselves having to wait until June; the best part of three months for assistance. The delay in this scheme above all others was wrong and avoidable.
For all the painstaking effort putting the measures into place and the fact that lots are still falling through the cracks of the Chancellors stimulus packages though, I can’t help but feel that some sort of universal basic income, at least temporarily for the duration of the pandemic might have been far easier to implement. The Chancellor though is fundamentally opposed to that concept and his newfound popularity could fall if he handles the return to normality wrongly which after announcing the extension of the furlough scheme until October has merely been pushed further down the line.
That is before we even come to the situation on the frontline in the NHS.
NHS PPE Equipment shortage
Given this is a health issue, the situation with Britain’s health service is the most crucial. Scores of people applauding healthcare workers at 8pm on a Thursday every week has shown our immense appreciation for the NHS but I must say the sights of groups gathering on Westminster Bridge defeat the point of social distancing. However, the government have come in for a lot of criticism in providing the necessary equipment and a lot of it is justified.
Let’s start with ventilators which give seriously ill patients the best chance of fighting off the infection. At the start of April, the UK was at that point using 8,000 and that as many as 30,000 would be needed to get through the peak of the epidemic. Given the government believes we have ridden the peak, the procurement of these 30,000 ventilators has not been good enough; the latest figure I saw being 10,800 and given that the UK had 10,000 in the first place an additional 800 when they aimed for 20,000 is abysmal.
Perhaps the defining moment came on April 2nd. Granted it was only the first dispatch but the look of astonishment on BBC newsreader Jane Hill when she read out that only 30 were coming said it all. She couldn’t believe what she was reading and to be honest, I wouldn’t blame her. It would be something from a comedy sketch if it wasn’t deadly serious. Someone should have perhaps told the Prime Minister that when he was reported to have jokingly suggesting in a conference call to ask manufacturers to make more ventilators, that it could be called ‘Operation Last Gasp’.
In terms of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), it feels like we were not so well prepared in terms of stockpiling. At the end of March, 3,963 doctors penned an open letter to the Prime Minister saying they were ‘putting their lives on the line every day’ without the necessary equipment. One of those, Dr Abdul Mubad Chowdbury directly pleaded with Johnson in a Facebook post to ‘ensure urgently personal protective equipment (PPE) for each and every NHS worker’. He tragically died. It is clear from shots of NHS workers using bin bags for protection that warnings made by those in the NHS were not heeded or not enough was done by the government.
That is the picture that emerges when you see stories of various companies trying to help supply the NHS with PPE. By March 29th, fashion and textile firms believed they could’ve been supplying PPE for 10 days already seemingly having not received a response from The Cabinet Office after their plea for assistance on March 19th. Despite manufacturers telling the government in March, they could provide the scrubs, gowns and masks that doctors and nurses were crying out for, the cabinet office was still struggling to source PPE in April. Were they ignoring them, or was it too much to handle? Granted, the sheer volume of demands could easily have seen a government department overwhelmed, it doesn’t quite compensate for some of the farcical decisions made.
‘Waiting for supplies from China, Turkey, Egypt is a waste of time. Prices will escalate and ultimately run out’. This was the warning from Tamura Cincik, consultant and advisor to a parliamentary group for the textile and fashion industry. What did the government do?
By looks of it, they may have gone for the waste of time imports first judging by the Turkey fiasco at Easter weekend. Housing Secretary Robert Jenrik told us in the governments daily briefing on Saturday 11th April that the government had ordered some 84m tons of PPE from Turkey and that it was due imminently. It did not arrive the following day as promised which left Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to say it would arrive by Tuesday. However, at the time Jenrick made the original claim, the UK had yet to ask for the equipment from Turkey. It did eventually arrive. All the while though, those UK manufacturers that had informed the government they could help, what did they do? Well, they were left with ‘no choice’ but to distribute them out to EU countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain because the UK government did not take up their offers of assistance. And that delivery that included 400,000 gowns from Turkey? It did not meet British standards and remained unused.
The whole way through this pandemic, the government have tried to assure us they’re doing everything they possibly can to provide PPE for the NHS. Political decisions mean that isn’t strictly true and this is, unfortunately, an element where Brexit does come into the equation whether you like it or not.
Yes, Britain left the EU on January 31st. However, due to the transition agreement on the Brexit deal the UK was still eligible for the EU joint procurement scheme buying in materials in bulk. Despite being at four previous meetings, the government claimed that a miscommunication (a missed email) meant they meant the deadline to be involved in this scheme. That narrative changed slightly when Michael Gove defended not joining the scheme by saying, ‘nothing that we can’t do as an independent nation that being part of that scheme would allow us to do’. I call this a very political decision and negligence of the highest order. It was revealed by senior civil servant Sir Simon McDonald to the Foreign Affairs Committee to be ‘a political decision‘; his correction letter a few hours later did not cut it.
Without naming them, a couple of people have told me not to ‘play politics’ around this but at the end of the day, this is our health, the health of our families and loved ones we are talking about. That is not a game. God, I’m sounding like Theresa May but, it is not a game. Using the context of Brexit and our new found sovereignty that we never really lost, the government decided not to partake in a scheme to suit their political agenda instead of doing everything they really could do to help save lives.
The Testing farce!
Testing and contact tracing is considered by the WHO is key in tackling the spread of COVID-19. Testing alone does not treat it but it is critical in combatting the spread of it, to prevent more people becoming infected and potentially dying. In other words, curb the transmission of the virus. As the WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus advised on March 16th, ‘You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected. We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test. Test every suspected case.’
Initially, it appeared we were doing ok with testing but the turning point came on March 12th when the UK government decided they would no longer test in the community. Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Witty told us, ‘It is no longer necessary for us to identify every case and we will move from having testing mainly done in homes and outpatients and walk-in centres to a situation where people who are remaining at home do not need testing,’ At that stage, the UK had recorded 800 cases after 32,771 tests and speculated that anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people were already infected. At that stage, the UK lost any control over the pandemic. That sounds dramatic but at that point, the UK lost any accurate picture of where the virus was.
This was also the day the government announced they were moving from the ‘contain’ phase of their four-stage plan to the mitigate part as the Prime Minister chillingly warned us ‘many more families will lose loved ones before their time’. That was the turning point for me, when it became scary! I felt nothing but fear after he said that. That week saw 250,000 people flock to Cheltenham Festival as well as 3,000 football fans travelling to Liverpool from Madrid to watch Atletico Madrid in the Champions League despite football in Spain being played behind closed doors. Hindsight is a lovely thing but these should not have happened it was the government’s decision. It scarily felt like the UK government had effectively given up!
However, the government have since changed tact and rightfully so. By then though, it was probably too late to prevent the sad numbers we have seen. The government have been ramping up the testing programme and they deserve credit for that, albeit belatedly. Ministers set various goals; 10,000 by the end of March, 25,000 per day by mid-April, 100,000 people per day by the end of April and 250,000 by…whenever as no date has been attached. However, the Prime Minister has committed to 200,000 per day by the end of May though that commitment was watered down within hours to apply only to testing capacity. The 10,000 test target was not met and the government were rightfully subjected to criticism and claims of putting lives at risk. The 25,000 test target was not met either yet just over two weeks later according to the official numbers, they miraculously met and exceeded the 100,000 target.
Friday 30th April saw the government announce they had smashed the 100,000 target claiming 122,347 had been done. The number when I first saw it looked suspicious given just the day before 81,000 had been tested. A deeper look at the numbers though indicated that almost 40,000 had not been done; 27,497 self-home its and 12,872 sent to satellite sites had been counted at the time they were dispatched. That gives a real number of 81,978 processed. It is odd. From the outside, you would have thought tests would be counted when they were completed and processed. Or, is that just me?
Anyway, Professor John Newton insisted, ‘All the tests are only counted once, and you can count tests when they go out or when they come back in. Whichever way you do it we still beat our target’. That implies that around 20,000 tests were returned on 30th April. If that is the case then, it bamboozles me. If they hit their target anyway, why did they feel the need to play with the figures and go for the higher one? It’s propaganda pure and simple and takes away from what is a significant achievement. Even if it’s the 81,000 tests being processed and not still out in the post, it is still a significant increase in testing than where we were at the end of March. The game was perhaps let out of the bag when Raab said that the UK’s testing capacity was 108,000. It’s a big leap forward but where on earth did 122,000 come from then? Additionally, in the seven days since 30th April, they did not hit that 100,000 once. Unfortunately, that progress has been tainted by the artificial massaging of the numbers to make it look like we passed a target.
I understand the need for targets, we set ourselves targets or goals every day, week, month, year whatever. They help give a focus and give us something to aim towards. That target gave the government something to aim for in ramping up the testing and I can understand having it in that regard had been important. However, massaging figures like that is misleading and quite frankly, we, the public deserve better. What is needed though will be an additional push in testing if we are to implement a full test and trace policy in the future? The government know that and it was telling the admission from Michael Gove and Shapps that if we had a higher testing capacity earlier then the UK may not have been so badly affected. So, why weren’t we prepared? After all, we were behind others in terms of our pandemic starting; for example, we were two weeks behind Italy, so what happened?
Why weren’t we prepared?
The answer to that lies with failings of successive governments over the past decade or so. Former Health Secretary Alan Johnson speaking to the House of Commons in November 2007 said,
‘The possibility of a new pandemic is one of the more severe risks facing the UK. Monitoring the resilience of the NHS and social care will be critical. The government plan to purchase about 34 million disposable respirators and 350 million surgical masks for use…in the event of a pandemic’.
It is safe to say he was ‘absolutely amazed‘ at how badly we were prepared.
At the end of the 2000s, the UK government saw a pandemic as the number one risk to the country. The last Labour government placed such high a risk that funding for ‘stockpiled goods…held for use in national emergencies’ increased from 2008 to 2011. So, what happened in the 2010s? The Conservatives came to power and have been ever since but in came Austerity.
Austerity contributed to the funding for such stockpiled goods decreasing from 2013. On the face of things, someone could argue that is all fine and well. The stockpile was built. Unfortunately, many of the stockpiled goods have a shelf life, they have an expiry date and as such needed replenishing. The value of the NHS stockpiles fell by 40% since 2013. In other words, it was not sufficiently sustained. Even then, the stockpile was geared towards a flu pandemic and not the one we are currently facing hence, successive governments have some but differing levels of questions to face. As such, gowns were not originally included and were only recommended by the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) in June 2019. That request was turned down.
That startling revelation came from a BBC Panorama episode which aired on April 27th but that was not the most damning indictment. The first revelation was what the government included when they say they have delivered 1 billion items of PPE. It included some items you wouldn’t have thought of as PPE such as disinfectant but alarmingly they counted some items like gloves as an individual glove, not pairs. Gloves are pairs, right? That’s common sense. So, while government ministers were saying they had delivered so many items of PPE including gloves, they had been over-counting them. Additionally, 12 million FFP3 masks out of a stockpile of 33 million distributed, where did the remaining 21 million end up?
The other revelation I took from Panorama was just how much further British government guidelines differed from WHO guidelines already conscious that our self-isolation guidelines are also different. That is something Dr Rossena Allan Khan has been keen to stress on social media highlighting the WHO recommend self-isolation for 14 days but in the UK it is 7; additionally the WHO list 14 possible symptoms of coronavirus, the UK has until today listed only two. The WHO calls for everyone dealing with COVID patients to have a full set of PPE; a face mask, eye shield and full gown. GP’s seeing COVID patients in the UK meanwhile are ok with a plastic apron and a surgical facemask which they also dithered over its effectiveness for the wider public. If the government have not convinced its effective for the wider public, why is it sufficient to protect GPs?
Panorama linked the PPE situation well with Public Health England (PHE) classification of Covid-19 as a High Consequence Infectious Disease (HCID). It was classified as an HCID in January and that classification gave the government a legal obligation to provide the right kit. However, it was downgraded in March and has remained off that list. The government insists that the science changed but as the HCID recommendation changed, so too did the recommendation around PPE. Professor John Ashton was astounded with the decision and the UK’s preparedness, ‘The consequence of not planning; not ordering kit; not having stockpiles is that we are sending into the front line doctors, nurses, other health workers and social care workers without the equipment to keep them safe’. I remember seeing the change of Covid-19, thinking something was not right. People will have seen that and thought COVID-19 was not so serious as a result (conspiracy theorists bought it) but Panorama revealed it may well be down to the PPE stockpile.
The programme sparked a war of words between the BBC and the government and relations were already frosty. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden wrote to the BBC’s Director-General Tony Hall warning the BBC should ‘uphold the highest standards in relation to integrity and impartiality’. The BBC defended their programme with a strongly worded statement and after watching the programme I see no fault in their response. They did include government responses throughout, they did indicate if participants had been critical of the government before such as Professor John Ashton and they did signpost the fact that some staff were unwilling to speak out.
Controversy over the participants in that show was sparked by right-wing site Guido Fawkes. They outlined that the prominent participants had left-wing activist backgrounds; that should not be surprising given 80% of nurses voted Labour in December. For example, Dr Sonia Adesara has shared the stage with Jeremy Corbyn and was a potential Labour candidate while Nurse Nibby Nolan who is a union activist. Panorama did identify her as a trade union rep. The Daily Mail went with the story in an attempt to delegitimise their views and concerns. It is absurd to do so. Everyone has their political views, and as such, does that make someone’s concerns in a workplace illegitimate especially when it is potentially a life and death situation? No!
Consequently, more than 270 NHS and Social care staff have tragically died. It should be a national scandal but we seem more bothered about ending the lockdown and getting back to normal; whatever that is. One thing I do find insulting is that time and again government ministers have been caught out not knowing the figures. Even more insulting was the Health Secretary’s condescending response to Dr Khan (who has been volunteering on the front line) to watch her tone when questioning him.
Piers Morgan has been excellent in revealing this in his robust approach with Government ministers. Perhaps that is why the Government have gone 15 days without allowing a Minister to appear on Good Morning Britain. Normally, I’m not a fan of Morgan. I understood but didn’t agree with his Brexit stance and I did not like the way he seemed to hound Megan Markle but on this, he has been spot on. His interview with Safeguarding Minister Victoria Atkins on April 28th sparked 712 complaints to OfCom.
I can see how he could be considered rude with technological constraints in using webcams and internet connections but he is spot on in his criticisms. He was spot on in his handling with Atkins. He was spot on in his handling of Dowden and he was spot on in handling of Matt Hancock which was very fiery indeed.
One thing is clear though. Despite Matt Hancock believing the UK was ready and prepared for a pandemic, we weren’t. That is shown by Operation Cygnus; the code name for a pandemic style mock trial that was conducted by the government in 2016. The overwhelming result was a disaster and was not in the public domain until revealed by The Telegraph at the end of March because it was deemed ‘too terrifying‘. It concluded that the UK was not prepared for a pandemic as Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer at the time told the World Innovation Summit for Health, ‘We’ve just had in the UK a three-day exercise on flu, on a pandemic that killed a lot of people. It became clear that we could not cope with the excess bodies‘. Guess what was not included in the stockpile? Ventilators and bodybags…
Almost four years later and nothing has been done. The entirety of the report was kept from the public realm until more than a month after The Telegraph article when The Guardian published the full report and it is damning. None of the 26 recommendations made was implemented despite Hancock’s belief everything had been. Let’s give Hancock same slack though. He is responsible for the situation in his department now, as it stands and as such, he deserves to be held accountable. However, he only took the role last year and so criticism also needs to be levelled at his predecessor; Jeremy Hunt. Hunt is now conveniently the one asking critical questions in his capacity as Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee but he was Health Secretary from 2012 until 2019. As such, he was Health Secretary when Operation Cygnus was conducted and had more time than Hancock to act on it.
That said, the fact some government ministers appear unfamiliar with the report is shocking! I’m looking at the Foreign Secretary in particular here. This is the same party that has had the levers of power in Britain since 2010 and most of the current cabinet were MPs from at least 2015. They were in government when the exercise was undertaken and had access to it, as well as a 2017 report that warned their pandemic communications strategy was inadequate and did nothing! Nothing! It is an absolute failure of duty and a scandal!
The worst part of the pandemic has been the way it has ravaged through care homes. Social Care has long been neglected in the age of Austerity and likely was neglected during the pandemic despite the advice for many vulnerable people to shield. The Government’s advice through PHE up until 12th March said, ‘This guidance is intended for the current position in the UK where there is currently no transmission of Covid-19 in the community. It is therefore very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected.’ New Layout leader Sir Keir Starmer quizzed Johnson on this in PMQs and the Prime Minister denied it was even the advice. The epidemic in Care Homes is scandalous! Care homes account for almost a quarter of UK COVID deaths by May 1st and there was nothing in place to prevent it with some care homes being encouraged to take in people with COVID without even a test in shocking revelations. Despite asserting they put a protective ring around care homes, testing before being admitted to care homes did not begin until April 15th but arguably, the damage had already been done. Returning to Piers Morgan, when asking the Care Minister, Helen Whately she didn’t know how many had died in our Care Homes despite it being on the front page of some of the daily newspapers and was even accused of laughing!
Are we following the science? SAGE and Herd Immunity
Throughout this pandemic, I have lost count of the number of times a government minister has insisted they have followed the science or are being led by the science justifying their ever action. First, it feels like a convenient scapegoat for those who are meant to be leading the country by passing the responsibility on to the scientists. The actions of Professor Neil Ferguson whose modelling was instrumental in taking the UK into lockdown may well prove useful for any media outlet who may well try to pursue this route.
Second, and this is most crucial, because the minutes have not been released, we don’t know what scientists have been saying throughout, at least not everything. Scientists, like any other groups of academics do not always agree. That could best be amplified by the different approaches taken by other countries who like our government are doing what their scientists advise. What do UK scientists know that say scientists in Germany, Sweden, the United States, New Zealand or Australia don’t? There will be arguments made and we do not know which scientists have said what and crucially who’s views have been leant on more than others by the government if there have not been unanimous agreements.
This is where the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) come into play. This group has been central to the government’s response to the outbreak and given its function has been central to providing the scientific advice the government claim to be following. However, what the members of this board have discussed and advised would not be made available until after the pandemic has passed. Thankfully there has been the odd leak but we are largely blind to what the government did with that advice, whether they did follow all of the advice at the time it was given or if government response was slow until well after the event.
If there has been an issue with SAGE, it has been transparency, or rather it’s lack of it. That issue came into further question when The Guardian revealed that Dominic Cummings as well as a data scientist he worked with on the VoteLeave campaign have been regularly attending SAGE meetings; the first time it is believed a political advisor has done so. Downing Street issued a rebuttal of the story but did not deny Cummings presence at these meetings insisting that…
‘It is not true that Mr Cummings or Dr Warner are ‘on’ or members of SAGE. Mr Cummings and Dr Warner have attended some SAGE meetings and listen to some meetings now they are all virtual. They do this in order to understand better the scientific debates concerning this emergency and also to understand better the limits of how science and data can help government decisions. Occasionally they ask questions or offer help when scientists mention problems in Whitehall.’
Looking at the spokesperson’s comments, I find myself in the unusual position of sympathising with Cummings to an extent. If you were in government, would you want to know what is happening? Would you want to observe these discussions to get a gist of what is being said that may not be recorded in the minutes of the meeting? Would you want to ask questions of my own to understand more about the concepts being discussed so I could understand more? Yes to all of the above. On the other hand, though, could the presence of Cummings be seen as applying pressure on participants to withhold comments or tailor them a certain way? You cannot be sure. If it were me, that is something I would want to discourage but it is impossible to guarantee. Add into the mix that this is Dominic Cummings, who has a reputation for being ruthless at best.
Cummings becomes more important when you consider that one of the reasons the UK were slow to take up lockdown measures. It was not the original plan. As a Senior cabinet member told The Telegraph, ‘We didn’t want to go down this route in the first place-public and media pressure pushed the lockdown, we went with the science. The lockdown will only start coming loose when the public wants it to’. It is impossible to know if Cummings influenced the way the discussions from SAGE were passed on to the Prime Minister and how the government acted upon ’the science’.
Did the science point towards herd immunity or was it Cummings preferred strategy? Herd immunity means that a population is sufficiently immune to a disease so an infection cannot spread within the population and gain natural immunity to said infection/virus. If enough people can gain immunity to a disease then it cannot spread through the community. The Health Secretary denied this was policy but a damning article in The Times (published 23rd March 2020) implicated that it was. In it, Cummings was implicated as outlining the government strategy at the end of February. While he did not say it explicitly word for word, it was something like, ‘herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad’. The article itself is behind a Times paywall but it’s author’s (Tim Shampan) sources established Cummings as an enthusiast for this herd immunity strategy.
At the time the report leaked, the UK had yet to implement lockdown. Lockdown would not be announced until the next day while the pubs, clubs and restaurants had only just had their closing orders. The UK had stopped testing in the community, the schools had only just closed Then, you remember what Johnson told the audience of This Morning and his interviewers Phillip Schofield and Holly Willobough on March 5th…
‘Well it’s a very, very important question, and that’s where a lot of the debate has been and one of the theories is, that perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures’.
Fact-checking charity Full Fact weighed in. They concluded that he did not advocate for herd immunity and that the quote has been taken out of context as he went on to say it would be better to strike a balance. That part of the exchange may come back to haunt Johnson because at the very least it highlights that someone around him was pushing for it. Was it Cummings?
Cummings presence at SAGE meetings brought into doubt the integrity and impartiality of the advice given to the government. That seemed to be a widespread view with even David Davis who worked with Cummings during the EU Referendum telling Sky News, ‘he should not be at SAGE meetings’. The Guardian’s revelations had an impact though. Sir Patrick Vallance published the list of SAGE attendees. For that to happen members had to agree to their attendance being made public knowledge. Two did not. Thanks to the Guardian we can assume who those two were. Additionally, minutes from SAGE have surfaced online but with large parts of the text redacted, a move the Daily Mail called Stalinist. You know the Tories have messed up when they’re being criticised by the Daily Mail. What do the government not want the public to know? That the scientists advised x but they did y? What are they hiding?
The damage of trust in the government and its scientific advice has been done. Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet medical journal, tweeted: “If it is true that Dominic Cummings attended meetings of SAGE, then the government led by Boris Johnson has utterly corrupted independent scientific advice.” while Sir David King said, ‘if you are giving science advice, your advice should be free from any political bias. That is just s critically important’. Sir King is a former government scientific chief advisor and served in that role 2000-2007. He was so concerned about developments he has since launched Independent SAGE. Their first meeting was broadcast on YouTube and immediately we have a more of a sense of what scientists are advising and the disparity between that advice and what the government are doing.
On a side note, I have been critical of the UK government (rightly or wrongly, that’s for you to decide), but while I have little confidence in the government it is also important for me to keep perspective. To help with that, I need an international comparison. Ironically, the government don’t think that is fair as the Office of National Statistics (ONS) are that good at counting. While it could almost certainly be better, it could also be a lot worse and that means looking over the Atlantic (ahem Trump). That comparison over who has handled it better or worse though could be a post in itself and maybe addressed at another time…
What next and the easing of lockdown?
When this pandemic has passed, there are serious questions that need answering. Why were we not prepared? Why was nothing in Operation Cygnus implemented and why did government ministers seem oblivious to the reports existence and its warnings? Why did we not go into lockdown measures sooner? What happened with the government stockpiles of PPE and why did we get it so wrong? Why is it why at present, the UK has the second-highest death toll in the world? Why did Boris Johnson miss those five cobra meetings? Why did the UK diverge so much from WHO advice? Why were elderly patients sent back into care homes without even a test? There are all sorts of questions that need answering. There needs to be some form of inquiry, preferably a public inquiry. Before any complaints, I would’ve expected an inquiry regardless of how the UK managed the pandemic. I would expect every country to; asking themselves what they did right, what they did bad, what they could improve on; it’s called a performance review. But it seems there will be one now with Ministers reportedly bracing themselves for the ‘mother of all inquiries’.
Now, the conversation around lockdown is how can it be lifted? There have been calls for it across the media with The Telegraph being the first newspaper I saw calling for its end after just more than two weeks. Starmer was also pushing for the end of lockdown plan. The UK has seen the odd anti-lockdown protest, thankfully, they have been nowhere near the embarrassing scale of them in the US, yet. I understand fully that people want to know where the end of the tunnel is especially with countries that were more successful in suppressing their outbreak and some of the harder hit nations slightly further ahead in the curve than the UK easing restrictions, it is bound to come up but where cases have spiked after easing lockdown there are lessons to be learned.
Before they could ease lockdown, the government’s needed to five-point plan for what they need to see before they can end the lockdown.
1. Can the NHS function?
2. A ‘Sustained and consistent fall’ in the daily death rate?
3. A lower manageable rate of infection?
4. Do we have enough tests and PPE to meet future demand?
5. Would any changes risk a second peak?
The first condition for the government appears to be happening. The Nightingale hospitals which given the speed they were set up is a remarkable achievement but you cannot help but think again we could have been setting them up earlier and being more prepared. They are hardly being used and the one in London has gone ‘on standby‘, whether or not that is due to staffing levels I don’t know. The government also claim we have passed the peak. The final three tests are harder to determine. Test four is clearly not the case even though testing capacity is increasing we are nowhere near ready for a sufficient test, trace and isolate policy. We do not seem to know the actual rate of infection with Chris Witty saying it is somewhere between 0.6 and 0.9. The final test will be key, will we risk a second peek? It is likely we will with any changes due to increase in movement.
Having a higher capacity to test people will help in identifying cases but we also need to be able to trace their contacts. That is what South Korea got right. The government have been keen to use a track and trace app through the NHS. However, even that app has seen the UK go in a different approach; centralised rather than the decentralised option of Google and Android. On a personal level, if the UK were to use an app that was able to do that, it would give me some reassurance. You would know if there was a chance you had been infected before actually noticing symptoms. It does have its problems such as prank reporting which could be problematic as well as the risks it poses to data protection with its centralised approach.
The Prime Minister gave some sort of plan to the nation in a televised address on Sunday 10th May. Having a plan is one thing, people thinking everything will go back to normal is another. A plan gives people a blueprint for what is to come and what might happen, it should not be seen as something set in stone. However, with Andrew Costello stating that 20,000 active cases per day and deaths still in the multiple of hundreds per day it is extremely early to be implementing it as early as he planned; the very next day. Or was it Wednesday? The mixed communication really was poor. Yet, they have been adamant to move on with a change of slogan from ‘stay home, to stay alert. How on earth do you stay alert to a virus that you cannot see? Clearly, it was so well thought through that a 137-word iPhone note was needed to clarify it. Was it also the right approach when all thee of the devolved administrations-Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, some of the regional mayors such as Manchester and Liverpool as well as Newcastle are not using it?
The guidance was lacking and blaring omissions and contradictions as pointed out by Starmer…
‘One of the key issues is whether there will be guidelines in place to ensure the safety of the workforce. Those guidelines were being consulted on last Sunday, but they were vague and had big gaps. Under protective equipment, it just said, “To be inserted” or, “To be added”. The document that I have now seen says that workplaces should follow the new ‘COVID-19 Secure’ guidelines” which I assume are the same guidelines, as “soon as practicable”, but on page 22 the document states that they will be released later this week.‘
It may well be clear that government have not thought all of this through.
In writing this, I hoped at least the government would recognise mistakes, try to recover from the and get it right. That is the most important thing. It’s not about me being right. I would rather be wrong and accused of scaremongering than be proven right and thousands of people needlessly dying. Unfortunately, after Boris Johnsons’s early easing of lockdown, I fear a second peek could be coming. If it doesn’t, then I hope the government heed the warnings from the WHO, use the time to learn the lessons from their mistakes and prepare for a potential second wave in the autumn or winter…