Inside Westminster’s coronavirus blame game
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Boris Johnson was enjoying a Sunday barbecue at 10 Downing Street when the blame game over Britain’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis formally began. News was leaking that he was about to oust the head of the civil service, Mark Sedwill, after months of tensions and hostile briefings over the way the country had dealt with the virus. By June 28, it was clear the UK was facing one of the worst death rates and biggest economic disasters of any major economy.
Advisers urged the prime minister to drag himself away from the garden to formalise Sedwill’s departure immediately. Johnson wiped his hands and disappeared inside to scrawl a handwritten note confirming that, after little more than two years in his post, the security expert would be leaving. Amid the sloping text of the two-page letter, laden with praise for the official he was effectively sacking, Johnson added ominously that Sedwill was “instrumental” in drawing up the country’s plan to deal with coronavirus.
After months of mistakes, fatal delays and episodes of incompetence at the heart of the British state, that is a line that few would choose to put on their CV. Johnson knows blame will soon start to be apportioned ahead of an eventual inquiry into the handling of the virus. “There are plenty of things that people say and will say that we got wrong and we owe that discussion and that honesty to the tens of thousands who have died before their time,” he said in a speech two days later in the West Midlands.
But when the blame is distributed, Johnson’s team will try to ensure it remains as far away from the prime minister as possible. Civil servants, scientists, public health officials and ministers are all being eyed as potential scapegoats for a searing episode that has seen 45,053 people die and, according to the OECD, left the British economy facing the biggest recession of any European nation.
“Parts of government… seemed to respond so sluggishly, so that sometimes it seemed like that recurring bad dream when you are telling your feet to run and your feet won’t move,” Johnson lamented in his speech. Some things — such as the speedy building of emergency hospitals, work on a treatment and the Treasury’s emergency economic response — had gone well, he said.
But the list of silent omissions was longer: the fiasco over testing, the shortage of protective equipment, the tide of death surging through care homes and — crucially — the failure to lock down the country more quickly. Earlier that week, Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s iconoclastic chief adviser, told political colleagues in a Zoom call from the cabinet room — a none-too-subtle symbol of his power — that he would use the crisis to reshape the British state, adding: “A hard rain is coming.”
Meanwhile, Johnson’s cabinet lieutenant Michael Gove reinforced the argument that Covid-19 failures were the result of a long-broken system, not political failure. Citing the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci in a speech to the Ditchley Foundation late last month, he said: “The crisis consists precisely of the fact that the inherited is dying — and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
When the public inquiry comes, its spotlight will shine most brightly on the week leading up to Britain’s lockdown on Monday March 23, the climax of a saga that saw it stumbling reluctantly towards a policy already adopted by many other western countries, who followed China’s lead after the initial outbreak in the city of Wuhan.
The epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, one of Britain’s most influential advisers in that crucial period, later admitted to MPs: “The epidemic was doubling every three to four days before lockdown interventions were introduced. So, had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier, we would have reduced the final death toll by at least a half.”
By early March, it had become clear that Britain, like many western countries, was preparing for the wrong kind of pandemic. Previous outbreak planning had focused on influenza and the country had not built up a test-and-trace capability of the kind seen in Taiwan and South Korea, which had previous experience of dealing with coronaviruses such as Sars in 2002 and Mers in 2015. Jeremy Hunt, the former Tory health secretary, told the Financial Times in May that testing and contact tracing were the big differences between fighting a flu pandemic and a coronavirus outbreak: “You can’t stop flu but you can stop a Sars-like virus.”
To many, it seemed inevitable as early as March 12 that Britain would have to lock down: that was when the government suspended mass community testing. The rejection of the World Health Organization’s later plea to “test, test, test” was presented as a policy choice, part of a grand strategy in which Britain would focus its testing effort on hospitals, which were well prepared to cope with the pandemic.
It was nothing of the sort. Ferguson told MPs on March 25 that the real reason why mass community testing was abandoned was because, from January onwards, it was “very clear from messages from Public Health England that we would have nowhere near enough testing capacity to adopt that strategy”. When it stopped, capacity was only about 5,000 a day and frequently only about half of that number were carried out. It was not until early April that health secretary Matt Hancock sidelined PHE and launched a national effort to reach 100,000 daily tests by the end of the month.
The chair of the British Medical Association, Chaand Nagpaul, says that once contact tracing was stopped, “we were effectively working blindfolded”. According to Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh: “It was absolutely catastrophic that the decision was made to delay locking down and to stop community testing and tracing. It was equivalent to just giving up and letting the virus go.”
One government adviser suggested that ending mass community testing was not just about capacity but a very strategic decision taken by a small group of modellers who sit on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). “Early on, this was treated like flu, a mild illness that should be allowed to pass through,” the adviser says.
Hancock has argued that this is an unfair criticism and Covid-19 was a new and unpredictable disease, but the adviser says: “It was a strategic choice very early on about how we were going to deal with this, giving up on containment did not have anything to do with capacity and had everything to do with following a flu plan.”
“Our preparedness plan, as we had it, didn’t include a lockdown,” says one Sage member who admits that during March “there was a sense of panic” as it became obvious one would be needed. Johnson confirmed this week that there will be an independent inquiry — although its format and timing will be hotly contested. When the review does come, it will study closely the decisions taken in those crucial few weeks.
Alarm bells were sounded in a paper by Steven Riley, a professor at Imperial College, dated March 9. Another Sage member says: “Riley was concerned there would be dead bodies in corridors and it would be too late. We would end up with the worst of all worlds — and end up locking down anyway.”
Riley says: “The key scientific assumption was that any benefit you get in lockdown you’ll lose immediately after — that transmission would return with the same strength. I didn’t know for sure that wouldn’t happen but based on Sars, Mers and even Ebola, I thought it was valid to assume it might not. Following precautionary principles, you’ve got to lock down. My view at that time was that we were thinking a bit like the 1918 pandemic flu when there really was nothing they could do.”
Meanwhile, as hospitals braced for a likely influx of very sick patients, it became clear that the NHS and care home sector did not have the equipment they needed. A scramble to build ventilators was launched. The UK’s stockpile of protective kit in the event of a flu-like pandemic had no surgical gowns, despite warnings a year ago from some of the government’s top scientific advisers that they were needed. The Department of Health confirmed that no gowns had been added before the crisis took hold. Sharon Peacock of PHE, responsible for preparing for pandemics, later told the Commons science committee on March 25 that this was “an unprecedented pandemic, which it would have been difficult to plan for”.
Unable to conduct a test-and-trace scheme because of a lack of tests, ministers and scientists now faced a stark binary choice: let the disease rip through the UK with whatever mitigation measures could be mustered or halt the virus by locking the nation down. They hesitated, perhaps fatally.
Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, knew there was something wrong when Johnson invited him “out of the blue” to a meeting of Cobra, the government’s emergency committee, on Monday March 16. “I’d been asking to be invited for a while, but I kept on being knocked back,” he recalls. Johnson chaired the meeting, Cummings at his side, along with senior ministers and advisers.
“I was given a paper saying that half the Covid cases were in London and were coming quicker than had been expected,” Khan says. “I was quite shocked. It was the first time I’d been told this.” Those attending recall how Johnson seemed under-prepared, passing questions to others in the room.
Two days earlier, on March 14, Johnson had been briefed on a devastating report by scientists at Imperial warning that 250,000 people could die in the UK from the disease and that the NHS would be quickly overwhelmed. Pictures of Italian patients in makeshift field hospitals were a clear warning sign.
Yet at that Cobra meeting on March 16 — which coincided with the publication of the Imperial report — there was no sense that Britain should imminently go into lockdown, as other European countries were starting to. “There was a discussion about how we might flatten the bell-curve of the disease and how people might feel fatigued if we introduced restrictions too early,” says an attendee.
Azra Ghani, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Imperial, says: “I had expected the Downing Street press conference that day to announce the lockdown and was surprised that it didn’t.” Sadiq Khan recalls: “I left the meeting thinking they’ve told me about this ticking time bomb but not how they were going to defuse it.”
One explanation offered for the delay is that Johnson is a free-wheeling politician instinctively uncomfortable with the idea of the state telling people to stay at home and ordering businesses to close. He is advised by anti-establishment figures led by Cummings, who himself later famously went on to break the government’s own lockdown rules.
Fortunately for Johnson, his caution about lockdown was shared by some Sage advisers. Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and a Sage attendee, says: “It was not clear that a lockdown could be achieved without some kind of authoritarian force, and it was not clear that this would be possible in the UK.”
Economic factors were also weighing heavily on Johnson. Rishi Sunak, chancellor, and Alok Sharma, business secretary, raised concerns at the Cobra meeting on March 16. Sunak, who had delivered his first Budget on March 11, could see his whole strategy going up in smoke. The Budget put aside £12bn to help deal with coronavirus.
When he gave an economic update to MPs on July 8, Sunak revealed he had now put aside £188bn in Covid support measures. Neil Ferguson confirmed to MPs on March 25 that Sage was trying to avoid a strategy that the UK would be paying for “this year [and] for many decades to come, in terms of the economic impact”. But economic considerations were not publicly given as the main reason for delaying a lockdown.
Instead, Johnson and his scientists repeatedly stated that it was right to introduce restrictions “at the right time” because they feared people would tire of lockdown and start to emerge from their self-isolation just as the virus was at its peak.
Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at University College London, says: “When I first heard Chris Whitty [chief medical officer] talking about behavioural fatigue, I thought, ‘Where did that come from?’ It’s not a term from behavioural science.” By March 16, more than 600 behavioural scientists had signed a letter challenging ministers to provide an evidence base for the assertion, which they claimed was being used to justify a policy of “herd immunity”, risking “large numbers of lives”.
Michael Tildesley, a Sage member from Warwick university, says the debate on a lockdown was based on advice that the “policy might come in for four to five weeks and wouldn’t necessarily be sustainable for longer than that”. He adds: “Where that advice came from, I don’t know. This is something that we were wrong about. We completely underestimated how incredible the general public were.”
Minutes from the Sage meeting on March 13 say: “There is some evidence that people find quarantining harder to comply with the longer it goes on. The evidence is not strong but the effect is intuitive.” Given the weight attached to “lockdown fatigue” by ministers and scientists as a reason for not shutting down Britain earlier, it was a remarkable admission that it was based on little more than a hunch.
The other explanation for the delay is the most pernicious and persistent one: that Johnson’s scientific advisers were prepared to see the disease sweep through the country in the hope that “herd immunity” would then be established. Hancock and others have insisted that herd immunity was a scientific concept but it was never government policy.
Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser and Sage chair, initially told Johnson the best way to handle the disease would be to suppress the virus’s peak, which would happen during the summer months, while ensuring that the most vulnerable were shielded at the height of the epidemic. Johnson called this “squashing the sombrero”.
The idea was that by the winter flu season much of the country would have had the disease and acquired some immunity. This was very different to the “hard stop” suppression strategy being adopted around the world — including by China and Italy — to stop the virus in its tracks. “It was British exceptionalism,” says one Treasury official.
For Johnson, savouring the first flush of “independence” after Britain’s exit from the EU on January 31, the Vallance argument was appealing. It would avoid the economic disaster of a spring lockdown and what was then seen by Sage as the near certainty that the virus would only reappear later in the year, causing more economic chaos and overwhelming the NHS during the winter flu season.
On March 11, David Halpern, a government behavioural science adviser and Sage member, told the BBC: “There’s going to be a point, assuming the epidemic flows and grows as it will do, where you want to cocoon, to protect those at-risk groups so they don’t catch the disease. By the time they come out of their cocooning, herd immunity has been achieved in the rest of the population.”
To Hancock’s dismay, Vallance was more explicit on March 13, telling Sky that 60 per cent of Britons — roughly 40 million people — “is the sort of figure you need to get herd immunity”. He added: “If you suppress something very, very hard, when you release those measures it bounces back and it bounces back at the wrong time.” With an estimated 1 per cent fatality rate, that implied 400,000 deaths.
According to some Sage members, the turning point came with the intervention of Cummings. Johnson’s adviser was later criticised for attending some Sage meetings by those who saw it as muddying the waters by mixing political and scientific advice. But others believe he cut to the heart of the crisis — the need for a lockdown.
In that crucial week starting March 16, Cummings reviewed the evidence. Britain had given up testing in the community and the disease was spreading exponentially; Ferguson’s Imperial team had produced a compelling report warning that the NHS would soon be overwhelmed by demand for intensive care beds. Yet still the scientists on Sage, fearing the possibility of a second peak many months down the line, were holding back from drawing the obvious conclusion.
“Cummings was there at two meetings and I was relieved he was there,” says one Sage scientist. “He was watching, listening and asking questions. He said: ‘Hang on a minute, we’re going to have half a million people die in 16 weeks? Why aren’t we locking down?’ And everyone turned round and said: ‘I don’t know. We should be.’ My feeling was a sense of relief, that the prime minister was no longer going around shaking hands — he’s sent his chief adviser.”
On March 17, hospitals were ordered to start clearing beds of non-urgent cases to make way for the expected coronavirus influx. Up to 25,000 people were discharged into care homes at the height of the pandemic before the government started testing all patients entering care homes, not just those with symptoms. The seeding of the disease among Britain’s most vulnerable people remains a raw — and hotly contested — issue and will be a major focus of the eventual inquiry.
There have been about 20,000 coronavirus-related deaths in care homes in England and Wales. Hancock insisted on the BBC in July that care homes were well protected and that coronavirus death rates there were lower than the EU average: 30 per cent against 50 per cent of total deaths in care.
Johnson and Hancock have both argued that in mid-March the assumption was a person could only transmit the disease if they had symptoms — and allies of Hancock said doctors would not discharge a patient displaying Covid symptoms. But it was by no means seen as certain — Sage minutes on January 28 had stated: “There is limited evidence of asymptomatic transmission, but early indications imply some is occurring. PHE developing a paper on this.”
Johnson this month appeared to be rehearsing his arguments for the public inquiry when he claimed that some care homes “didn’t really follow the procedures”. It created a howl of anger from the sector. The chief executive of a care home charity claimed the prime minister was being “cowardly” and creating a “Kafkaesque” alternative reality by blaming care home workers.
By Thursday March 19, the situation in London was critical. Sadiq Khan was among those who had been urging Johnson to start closing down the capital and was summoned back to No 10 that day for crisis talks, along with Cressida Dick, head of the Metropolitan Police.
The London mayor told Johnson that if he wouldn’t lock down the whole country, he was ready for London to lead the way and the prime minister appeared to agree. Khan warned that there could be problems: for example, Londoners driving out into the country to pubs or restaurants or heading to second homes, spreading the disease.
But the dramatic move to lock down London was put on hold for 24 hours as the government turned towards taking a country-wide approach. On the morning of March 20, Emmanuel Macron, French president, asked Johnson what he was doing and warned he would close the border unless Britain went into lockdown, according to French diplomats.
Later that day, a plan to lock down the UK simultaneously finally took shape, an approach backed by leaders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
On that fateful Friday, Cobra was chaired by Michael Gove, cabinet office minister, not Johnson. Khan says: “I went to that meeting expecting it to be London only.” Gove proposed that the pubs should close on Saturday lunchtime, but Khan and Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, argued that this was a disastrous idea and that Friday night would see mayhem. “There would have been an end of days party,” says one participant.
Gove agreed — Cummings had also come to the same conclusion — and a message was hastily relayed to Johnson, preparing for the 5pm press conference, that Cobra had agreed that the closure of pubs and restaurants should take immediate effect on Friday night. Only Jesse Norman, a Treasury minister, raised any doubts, asking whether there had been any cost-benefit analysis of the economic and health impacts of lockdown or consideration of less onerous alternatives. Around the room there were blank looks: the decision had been taken.
But it was not until Monday March 23, after a sunny weekend in which many Britons went about their lives as normal, that Johnson introduced the travel restrictions and shop closures that finally put the country into lockdown.
When the inquiry does begin, the primary target for the Johnson government’s ire is already clear: PHE. The executive agency was created in 2013 following the troubled and complex reorganisation of the NHS by former Conservative health secretary Andrew Lansley, with a mission to improve health and reduce health inequalities. It works at arm’s length from ministers with operational autonomy.
Duncan Selbie, the chief executive of PHE, argues that they operate specialist labs rather than mass diagnostics. “Our expertise in rapidly developing a diagnostic test, one of the first outside of China, and its roll out across 40 NHS labs, was the fastest deployment of a novel test in recent UK history,” he says. “The UK did not have a mass diagnostic capability at the start of the pandemic but the good news is that it does now.”
But it was widely criticised for failing to fully involve the private sector earlier. One ally of Matt Hancock says: “They didn’t want to bring companies in. When Matt asked about it, they patted him on the head — he didn’t like that.”
One health service official predicted it would be “toast” after the inquiry. One minister says: “We haven’t blamed Public Health England — yet.” Meanwhile, No 10 insiders say ministers want to tighten their grip on England’s NHS, whose boss Simon Stevens also has operational independence. “You pull levers but they aren’t attached to anything,” complains one.
Britain’s independent civil service, seen by Cummings as an organisation poor at analytical rigour but good at back-covering, will also face reforms, overseen by whoever replaces Sedwill. “Boris made a bold move by sacking Sedwill,” says one well-placed government official. “He was present when the PM was dithering. Given how badly Boris treated him, they should be worried he will turn on them come the inquiry.” Sedwill will be a star witness; Johnson will hope that the offer of a seat in the House of Lords and a £250,000 payoff will have made him less inclined to play the blame game.
Also facing the pillories is Vallance, who, as chief scientific adviser, is vulnerable because of the way Johnson has set the scientific community up as a shield: the prime minister’s mantra throughout has been that he has been “guided by the science”.
One NHS insider says: “[Vallance] may not go immediately. They may want to hold one back for after the public inquiry.” But the scientific adviser, formerly president of research and development at GlaxoSmithKline, was a leading sceptic about the merits of a lockdown and his public musings on herd immunity continue to rankle with ministers.
Indeed, Britain’s wider scientific community will face tough questions, amid fears that group-think took over on the Sage committee, whose membership and deliberations were only made public weeks afterwards. Peer review was not possible in real time, and many scientists outside the advisory group were baffled at what was going on.
Johnson has not criticised scientists publicly and both he and Hancock have pointed out that they were dealing with incomplete data — China is blamed for failing to provide reliable information early in the outbreak. But Helen Whately, a health minister, said in June that it was legitimate to stick it on scientists in relation to the spread of Covid-19 in care homes. She quickly retracted the comment.
Matt Hancock is seen by some in the Johnson circle as a likely scapegoat. Although Johnson praised his health secretary at cabinet, the catalogue of errors around testing, the availability of protective equipment and a botched attempt to develop a UK-specific NHS tracing app have put him in the firing line. One No 10 official referred to Hancock as “Matt Handjob” in a hostile briefing to The Sunday Times in April.
Hancock is, however, a deft political operator, who points to successes such as the quick establishment of emergency hospitals and the eventual speedy ramping up of testing. Like Johnson, he was diagnosed with coronavirus on March 27, but was less badly affected. A staunch Remainer — and by definition not part of the Johnson inner circle — some believe he will be moved to another department in a cabinet reshuffle rather than being axed. “Matt knows too much,” says one friend of the minister.
But the figure who will face the most intense scrutiny is Johnson himself. Although the prime minister is increasingly seen as a chairman-like figure who devolves decision making to advisers like Cummings and ministers such as Hancock and Gove, the major choices in dealing with the pandemic were ultimately his.
Slow to get a personal grip on the crisis, Johnson has appeared poorly briefed on occasions. “If you’d dropped in from Mars, you’d struggle to work out whether Cummings or Johnson was the prime minister,” says one person involved in talks at No 10. “I imagine Dom will do whatever it takes to insulate the PM from criticism,” says one senior civil servant. “But I can’t see Sedwill and the other officials playing ball. It’s going to be brutal.”
One senior Downing Street figure says that the situation inside No 10 was very tense but decisions were made in haste, with good faith, based on the advice available. “It was a national emergency and everyone was under incredible pressure,” says one government aide. Hancock tells colleagues: “People were doing their best in a sea of uncertainty.” A government spokesperson said: “The action we have taken allowed us to protect the vulnerable and ensured that the NHS was not overwhelmed even at the virus’ peak, so that everyone was always able to get the best possible care.”
Indeed, Britain’s politicians were far from alone in fumbling their way through a battle against a new disease, working long hours and sometimes succumbing themselves, against a backdrop of death and economic disaster. But Johnson knows the buck stops with him and that for all of his talk of “being guided by the science”, the public elected him to make the decisions. A biographer of Churchill, he might recall the dictum credited to the wartime leader: “Scientists should be on tap, not on top.”
In March, some 72 per cent of people told YouGov that the British government was handling the crisis well, but that had slumped to 44 per cent in its latest poll. For Johnson, it has been a searing experience: in six months, he went from election triumph and the delivery of Brexit to a slump in his approval ratings and near-death in an intensive care unit.
Last month, Johnson told MPs: “I do not consider at the moment, that a full-scale national inquiry is a good use of official time.” But the reckoning will come and with the death toll at 45,053, the annual deficit set to rise to more than £350bn and an economic contraction of 25 per cent in just two months, the questions of who did what, when and why will be impossible to avoid.
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