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Thus far, most of my series on Matt Hancock has focused on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Those who missed them can catch up on parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Even though the vaccine was about to be distributed throughout the UK, people in England were frustrated by the restrictions which the Government had imposed indefinitely. Effectively, we had had a Christmas lockdown, with more restrictions that came in on Boxing Day. As I covered in my last post, even at the end of the year, Hancock could not say when they would be lifted.

This post covers the first half of 2021 with excerpts from Hancock’s Pandemic Diaries as serialised in the Mail along with news I had collected during that time. Pandemic Diaries entries come from this excerpt, unless otherwise specified.

Vaccines and side-effects

Former Times journalist Isabel Oakeshott co-authored Pandemic Diaries. On December 7, The Spectator posted her impressions of Hancock and the pandemic.

This is what she had to say about the vaccine policy (emphases mine):

The crusade to vaccinate the entire population against a disease with a low mortality rate among all but the very elderly is one of the most extraordinary cases of mission creep in political history. On 3 January 2021, Hancock told The Spectator that once priority groups had been jabbed (13 million doses) then ‘Cry freedom’. Instead, the government proceeded to attempt to vaccinate every-one, including children, and there was no freedom for another seven months. Sadly, we now know some young people died as a result of adverse reactions to a jab they never needed. Meanwhile experts have linked this month’s deadly outbreak of Strep A in young children to the weakening of their immune systems because they were prevented from socialising. Who knows what other long-term health consequences of the policy may emerge?

Why did the goalposts move so far off the pitch? I believe multiple driving forces combined almost accidentally to create a policy which was never subjected to rigorous cost-benefit analysis. Operating in classic Whitehall-style silos, key individuals and agencies – the JCVI, Sage, the MHRA – did their particular jobs, advising on narrow and very specific safety and regulatory issues. At no point did they all come together, along with ministers and, crucially, medical and scientific experts with differing views on the merits of whole-population vaccination, for a serious debate about whether such an approach was desirable or wise.

The apparent absence of any such discussion at the top of government is quite remarkable. The Treasury raised the occasional eyebrow at costs, but if a single cabinet minister challenged the policy on any other grounds, I’ve seen no evidence of it.

In Hancock’s defence, he would have been crucified for failing to order enough vaccines for everybody, just in case. He deserves credit for harnessing the full power of the state to accelerate the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab. He simply would not take no or ‘too difficult’ for an answer, forcing bureaucratic regulators and plodding public health bodies to bend to his will. He is adamant that he never cut corners on safety, though the tone of his internal communications suggest that in his hurtling rush to win the global race for a vaccine, he personally would have been willing to take bigger risks. I believe he would have justified any casualties as sacrifices necessary for the greater good. Fortunately (in my view) his enthusiasm was constrained by medical and scientific advisers, and by the Covid vaccine tsar Kate Bingham, who was so alarmed by his haste that at one point she warned him that he might ‘kill people’. She never thought it was necessary to jab everyone and repeatedly sought to prevent Hancock from over-ordering. Once he had far more than was needed for the initial target group of elderly and clinically vulnerable patients, he seems to have felt compelled to use it. Setting ever more ambitious vaccination rollout targets was a useful political device, creating an easily understood schedule for easing lockdown and allowing the government to play for time amid the threat of new variants. The strategy gave the Conservatives a big bounce in the polls, which only encouraged the party leadership to go further.

Now on to side-effects:

Given the unprecedented speed at which the vaccine was developed, the government might have been expected to be extra careful about recording and analysing any reported side-effects. While there was much anxiety about potential adverse reactions during clinical trials, once it passed regulatory hurdles, ministers seemed to stop worrying. In early January 2021, Hancock casually asked Chris Whitty ‘where we are up to on the system for monitoring events after rollout’

Not exactly reassuringly, Whitty replied that the system was ‘reasonable’ but needed to get better. This exchange, which Hancock didn’t consider to be of any significance, is likely to be seized on by those with concerns about vaccine safety.

January 2021

On January 2, Hancock hoped to ease red tape allowing NHS physicians to come out of retirement to be part of the vaccination drive:

On January 3, The Conservative Woman‘s co-editor and qualified barrister Laura Perrins blasted the Government for keeping Britons under ‘humiliating and undignified treatment‘:

Schools reopened in England on Monday, January 4. They closed again by the end of the day.

Monday, January 4:

Millions of children returned to school today, only to be told schools are closing again tomorrow. After sleeping on it, Boris agreed we have no choice but to go for another national lockdown.

On Thursday, January 7, Hancock appeared before the Health and Social Care Select Committee to answer questions about lockdown. He came across as arrogant, in my opinion:

Monday, January 11:

A message from a friend tipping me off that straight-talking cricket legend Sir Geoffrey Boycott is very unhappy about the delay in the second dose. He’s a childhood hero of mine, so I volunteered to call him personally to explain. I rang him and made the case as well as I could, but it was clear he was far from persuaded.

That morning, Guido Fawkes’s cartoonist posted his ghoulish perspective on Hancock: ‘A nightmare before vaccination’. It was hard to disagree:

Tuesday, January 12:

A bunch of GPs are refusing to go into care homes where there are Covid cases. Apparently there are cases in about a third of care homes, meaning many residents aren’t getting vaccinated. Evidently I was naive to think £25 a jab would be enough of an incentive. We may have to use the Army to fill the gap.

Also that day:

Not only is [Sir Geoffrey] Boycott in the Press having a go at me; now [former Speaker of the House of Commons] Betty Boothroyd is kicking off as well. Given that I personally ensured she got her first jab fast, it feels a bit rich. It’s particularly miserable being criticised by people I’ve grown up admiring and went out of my way to help, but welcome to the life of a politician.

On Wednesday, January 13, Hancock still had no answer as to when restrictions would be lifted. Many of us thought he was enjoying his power too much:

Friday, January 15:

An extraordinary row with Pfizer bosses, who are trying to divert some of our vaccine supply to the EU!

When I got to the Cabinet Room, the PM practically had smoke coming out of his ears. He was in full bull-in-a-china-shop mode, pacing round the room growling.

What really riled him was the fact that only last night he was speaking to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, and Bourla made no mention of it! I was wary: when the PM is in this mood, he can really lash out. I knew I’d need to be as diplomatic as possible if I wanted to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.

Monday, January 18:

Pfizer has relented. Following a robust exchange between Bourla and the PM, lo and behold, they’ve located an ’emergency supply’, which is now heading our way.

On Tuesday, January 19, Hancock got coronavirus and had to self-isolate. This was his second bout. The first one was earlier in 2020:

Julia Hartley-Brewer of talkRADIO posed an interesting question about re-infection and T-cells. Hmm:

Thursday, January 21:

[Social Care minister] Helen Whately wants to find a way of allowing indoor visits again. I’m hardline on this: we cannot have Covid taking off in care homes again.

Monday, January 25:

The EU health commissioner has tweeted that ‘in the future’ any company that produces vaccines in the EU will have to provide ‘early notification’ if they want to sell it to a third-party country. In other words, they’ll need permission. Totally desperate stuff! They’re doing it purely because they screwed up procurement.

Tuesday, January 26:

Today we reached a really grim milestone in the pandemic: more than 100,000 deaths in this country. So many people grieving; so much loss.

Wednesday, January 27:

A humiliating climbdown from the EU, who clearly realised their ‘export ban’ wouldn’t end well. It followed frantic diplomacy on our side, plus our lawyers confirming that they wouldn’t be able to block our supply anyway. What a ridiculous waste of time and energy.

Tonight I’m doing a night shift at Basildon Hospital [in Essex]. Front-line staff are still under horrendous pressure, and the best way for me to understand is to see it for myself.

Thursday, January 28:

The night shift has left me completely drained. I don’t know how they do it day in and day out: heroic. I donned full PPE, and got stuck in, helping to turn patients and fetch and carry. In intensive care, I watched a man consent to being intubated because his blood oxygen levels weren’t sustainable.

He spoke to the doctor, who said: ‘We want to put a tube in, because we don’t think you’ll make it unless we do that.’

His chances of waking up were 50:50. He knew that. It was an unbelievably awful moment. He reluctantly agreed, and within a minute he was flat out on the ventilator. The doctor next to me said: ‘I don’t think we’ll see him again.’

When my shift was over, I went down to the rest area. One of the registrars told me he’d just had to phone the wife of the patient to say he’d been intubated.

‘We’re doing this, we all know it’s our duty, we’re coping with a second wave — but we can’t have a third,’ he said. Then he burst into tears.

That day, an article appeared in Spiked about the Government’s censorship of lockdown sceptics. ‘Shouldn’t we “expose” the government rather than its critics?’ says:

It’s true ‘lockdown sceptics’ have made mistakes. But the government’s survival depends on none of us ever understanding that lockdown sceptics are not in charge – it is.

they’re gunning for people like Sunetra Gupta, the professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford University … 

Pre-Covid, I would estimate 97 per cent of the population couldn’t have picked Matt Hancock out of a police line-up if he had just mugged them. So when he stood up in the House of Commons, last January, to state that ‘the Chinese city of Wuhan has been the site of an outbreak of 2019-nCoV’, there was no reason to doubt him when he said ‘the public can be assured that the whole of the UK is always well-prepared for these types of outbreaks’. In February, he explained ‘our belts and braces approach to protecting the public’ and insisted that ‘the clinical advice about the risk to the public has not changed and remains moderate’.

On 23 March, he made a complete volte-farce. (That was not a typo.) The ‘risk to the public’ wasn’t ‘moderate’ at all. ‘It is incredibly important that people stay more than two metres away from others wherever they are or stay at home wherever possible’, he told the Today programme, adding those who weren’t doing so were ‘very selfish’. Four days later, Hancock tested positive for coronavirus. Seven days after that (3 April), he opened the Nightingale hospital (‘a spectacular and almost unbelievable feat’), while ‘blowing his nose’ and not appearing ‘to be at 100 per cent’. Two days after that, he threatened to change the rules again so that people who weren’t ill couldn’t go outside at all: ‘If you don’t want us to have to take the step to ban exercise of all forms outside of your own home, then you’ve got to follow the rules’ …

We’ll skip over Hancock’s botching of track and trace, the dodgy private contracts he’s had a hand in rewarding, how he breaks the rules he makes for us while cracking jokes about it, or his intervention into the debate about whether scotch eggs constitute a ‘substantial meal’.

In the autumn of 2020, pubs could only open if they served a plate of food. Why, I do not know.

The article mentions Hancock’s tears on Good Morning Britain as he watched the first two people get the first doses of the vaccine. Then:

Days later, all this ‘emotion’ had gone down well, so Hancock did more of it – in parliament – announcing that his step-grandfather had died of Covid-19. (‘He was in a home and he had Alzheimer’s – the usual story’, Hancock’s father told the Daily Mail. ‘It was just a few weeks ago.’)

‘Beware of men who cry’, Nora Ephron once wrote. ‘It’s true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own.’ Was Hancock crying because he was devastated that his step-grandfather was not kept alive long enough to receive the vaccine (suffering from Alzheimer’s – so it would not be a leap to fear – bewildered, confused, and very likely denied the comfort of the touch of anyone he loved for most of the year)? Or was it because the political survival of the Conservative government depends on being proved right about lockdown – and that depends on one thing: the vaccine …

Hancock told the Spectator that Covid-19 will never be eradicated. But he sees no reason for his extraordinary powers as health secretary to cease even if – by some miracle – it does. In late November, Hancock told a Commons health and science committee that he wants to end the British culture of ‘soldiering on’. Having built a ‘massive diagnostics capacity’, he said, ‘we must hold on to it. And afterwards we must use it not just for coronavirus, but everything. In fact, I want to have a change in the British way of doing things, where if in doubt, get a test. It doesn’t just refer to coronavirus, but to any illness that you might have.’

The idea that we would continue to test, track and trace healthy people who have cold symptoms is so psychotic it’s a struggle to understand whether the man is even aware of how many people weren’t tested for cancer last year. The only hero in this context is Professor Sunetra Gupta. All she’s done is express her fears that lockdown – long-term – will do more harm than good – which is what she believes. In China, Zhang Zhan was also worried that people were dying and the government didn’t want anyone to know about it, so she tried her best to warn everyone in society that more people were going to die if nothing was done. If China had been honest about the outbreak from the start, maybe, just maybe, 100,000 lives would have been saved from Covid-19 here …

Maybe anyone who shares Gupta’s fears are ‘fringe cranks’, but ‘fringe cranks’ have as much right to say what they think as anyone else. And especially when the government has stripped us of all our rights to do pretty much anything else, while refusing to reveal when – if ever – our rights will be returned. This isn’t China. It’s Britain. And we do things differently here. Or at least we used to – in those halcyon days when none of us had a clue who Matt Hancock was

Friday, January 29:

Scandalous behaviour by certain care home operators, who are unscrupulously using staff with Covid. Inspectors have identified no fewer than 40 places where this is happening.

Wow. I am shocked. It underlines why we need to make jabs mandatory for people working in social care. The PM supports me on this.

February 2021

Monday, February 1:

A YouGov poll suggests 70 per cent of Britons think the Government is handling the vaccine rollout well, while 23 per cent think we’re doing badly. I forwarded it to [NHS England chief executive] Simon Stevens.

‘Who the heck are the 23 per cent, for goodness’ sake!!’ he replied.

I don’t know. Maybe the same 20 per cent of people who believe UFOs have landed on Earth? Or the five million Brits who think the Apollo moon landings were faked?

Thursday, February 4:

Tobias Ellwood [Tory MP] thinks GPs are deliberately discouraging patients from using vaccination centres so they get their jabs in GP surgeries instead. I’m sure he’s right. That way, the GPs make more money.

On Saturday, February 6, The Telegraph reported that Hancock wanted to ‘take control of the NHS’. Most Britons would agree that something needs to be done — just not by him:

 

On Sunday, February 7, The Express‘s Health and Social Affairs editor said a specialist thought that the Government was using virus variants to control the public. Many would have agreed with that assessment:

Monday, February 8:

We’ve now vaccinated almost a quarter of all adults in the UK!

Also that day:

I’ve finally, finally got my way on making vaccines mandatory for people who work in care homes.

Because of that, a lot of employees resigned from their care home posts and have gone into other work, especially hospitality.

A poll that day showed that the public was happy with the Government’s handling of the pandemic. John Rentoul must have looked at the wrong line in the graph. Rishi Sunak, then Chancellor, came out the best for shaking the magic money tree:

On Tuesday, February 9, Hancock proposed 10-year jail sentences for people breaking travel restrictions. This referred to people travelling from ‘red list’ countries, but, nonetheless, pointed to a slippery slope:

The Conservative Woman‘s co-editor and qualified barrister Laura Perrins pointed out a logic gap in sentencing:

Spiked agreed with Perrins’s assessment in ‘Matt Hancock is behaving like a tyrant’:

Health secretary Matt Hancock announced new, staggeringly authoritarian enforcement measures in the House of Commons today.

Passengers returning from one of the 33 designated ‘red list’ countries will have to quarantine in government-approved hotels from next week. Anyone who lies on their passenger-locator form about whether they have visited one of these countries faces imprisonment for up to 10 years. As the Telegraph’s assistant head of travel, Oliver Smith, has pointed out, this is longer than some sentences for rape (the average sentence is estimated to be eight years).

In addition, passengers who fail to quarantine in hotels when required to do so will face staggering fines of up to £10,000.

This is horrifying. Of course, we need to take steps to manage the arrival of travellers from countries with high levels of infection, particularly since different variants of Covid have emerged. But to threaten people with a decade behind bars or a life-ruining fine for breaching travel rules is a grotesque abuse of state power.

During the pandemic, we have faced unprecedented attacks on our civil liberties. We have been ordered to stay at home and have been banned from socialising under the threat of fines. But this latest move is the most draconian yet …

we have now reached the stage where a 10-year sentence is considered an appropriate punishment for lying on a travel form.

Matt Hancock is behaving like a tyrant.

Meanwhile, Hancock’s fellow Conservative MPs wanted answers as to when lockdown would end. The Mail reported:

Furious Tories savaged Matt Hancock over a ‘forever lockdown‘ today after the Health Secretary warned border restrictions may need to stay until autumn — despite figures showing the UK’s epidemic is firmly in retreat.

Lockdown-sceptic backbenchers took aim at Mr Hancock when he unveiled the latest brutal squeeze aimed at preventing mutant coronavirus strains getting into the country …

… hopes the world-beating vaccine roll-out will mean lockdown curbs can be significantly eased any time soon were shot down today by Mr Hancock, who unveiled the latest suite of border curbs and warned they could last until the Autumn when booster vaccines will be available.  

As of Monday travellers from high-risk ‘red list’ countries will be forced to spend 10 days in ‘quarantine hotels’, and all arrivals must test negative three times through gold-standard PCR coronavirus tests before being allowed to freely move around the UK. Anyone who lies about whether they have been to places on the banned list recently will face up to 10 years in prison. 

The fallout continued the next day. See below.

Wednesday, February 10:

Meg Hillier [Labour MP], who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, has started an infuriating campaign accusing ‘Tory ministers’ of running a ‘chumocracy’ over PPE contracts. How pitifully low. I’m incandescent.

What Meg fails to acknowledge is that when the pandemic kicked off, of course we had to use the emergency procedure for buying, which allows officials to move fast and not tender everything for months.

And when people got in contact [about] PPE, of course we forwarded on the proposals for civil servants to look at.

Even the Labour Party were getting involved — it was a national crisis and these leads have proved invaluable.

[Shadow Chancellor] Rachel Reeves wrote to Michael Gove at the time, complaining that a series of offers weren’t being taken up. Officials looked into her proposals, too.

I’m even more offended because I used to respect Meg. It’s so offensive for a supposedly grown-up politician to bend the truth in this way.

Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner was angry at the Conservatives. What else is new?

This story has not gone away. There was a debate about it in the Commons this month.

Fallout continued from February 9 over Hancock’s never-ending lockdown.

His fellow Conservative, Sir Charles Walker MP, gave an interview saying that Hancock was ‘robbing people of hope’. He was also appalled by the prospect of a 10-year prison term for travelling from a red list country:

With regard to lockdowns, recall that at the end of 2020, Hancock said that only the vulnerable needed vaccinating, then we could all, in his words, ‘Cry freedom’. In the space of a few weeks, he had a change of tune:

Thursday, February 11:

So here we are, in the depths of the bleakest lockdown, with the virus still picking off hundreds of victims every week, and Test and Trace officials have been having secret talks about scaling back. Unbelievable!

I told them there was no way they should stand down any lab capacity, but I’m told they’re getting a very different signal from the Treasury.

Friday, February 12:

The Left never ceases to amaze. The bleeding hearts who run North West London CCG (one of many health quangos nobody will miss when they’re abolished) have taken it upon themselves to prioritise vaccinating asylum seekers. They have fast-tracked no fewer than 317 such individuals — ‘predominantly males in their 20s and 30s’.

So, while older British citizens quietly wait their turn, we are fast-tracking people who aren’t in high-risk categories and may not even have any right to be here?

Meanwhile, some of our vaccine supply has met an untimely end. I’d just reached the end of a tricky meeting when a sheepish-looking official knocked on my office door. He’d been dispatched to inform me that half a million doses of the active ingredient that makes up the vaccine have gone down the drain.

Some poor lab technician literally dropped a bag of the vaccine on the floor. Half a million doses in one dropped bag! I decided not to calculate how much Butter Fingers has cost us. Mistakes happen.

On February 22, CapX asked, ‘Why isn’t Matt Hancock in jail?’

It was about Labour’s accusations about procurement contracts for the pandemic. The article comes out in Hancock’s favour:

On Thursday, Mr Justice Chamberlain sitting in the High Court ruled that Matt Hancock had acted unlawfully by failing to to publish certain procurement contracts

It is worth noting that there was no suggestion in Mr Justice Chamberlain’s judgment that Matt Hancock had any personal involvement in the delayed publication. The judgment was made against the Health Secretary, but in his capacity as a Government Minister and legal figurehead for his Department, rather than as a private citizen. In fact, the failure to publish was actually on the part of civil servants in the Department who, in the face of the pandemic, saw a more than tenfold increase in procurement by value and struggled to keep up.

Indeed, on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Mr Hancock did not apologise for the unlawful delays, saying it was “the right thing to do” to prioritise getting the PPE to the frontline rather than ensuring timely transparency returns. I wonder how many of those calling for Mr Hancock’s imprisonment would rather he had published the contracts in the required timeframe even if it meant there was less PPE available for NHS workers.

As a general rule, we should be able to see how the Government spends our money, what it is spent on and to whom it is given. Transparency improves governance. It is right that the Secretary of State is under a legal duty to publish contracts such as those at the heart of this case. However, this case – and the way it has been reported – is likely to have a much more invidious impact than simply improving transparency in public procurement policy.

Opposition politicians and activists have attacked the Government with claims that it has been using procurement during the pandemic as a way to funnel money to its political supporters and donors. It is certainly true that the sums spent by the Government have been large, and have been spent quickly.

What is certainly not true is that Mr Justice Chamberlain in his judgment gave any credence to this line of attack. He accepted evidence from an official at the Department of Health and Social Care that the delay was due to increased volume in contracts and lack of staff. However, that has not stopped figures linking the judgment to the attack line, such as Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth who tweeted that the delay was ‘Cronyism’. In fact, there was no evidence to suggest that was so.

Vanishingly few people will read Mr Justice Chamberlain’s judgment in full, or even in part. Most people will only see the headlines in the press. Coupled with tweets such as those by Mr Ashworth, the public at large is likely to come to the conclusion that a court has found against the Government for cronyism, when that is not the case. And this will likely fuel further resentment that the Cabinet are not serving decades behind bars.

Justice must be done and it must be seen to be done. Justice has been done in this case – the Secretary of State has been found to have acted unlawfully – but too many lack the ability and willingness to see.

Sunday, February 28:

A potentially dangerous new variant — which we think originated in Brazil — has been identified in the UK, but we can’t find Patient Zero. Whoever it is failed to provide the correct contact details when they took their Covid test, so we don’t know who or where they are. Cue a frantic search.

March 2021

Monday, March 1:

When a lab technician first spotted the new variant, we didn’t even know which part of the country the positive test had come from. Since then, thanks to some fancy sequencing and a high-quality data system, we’ve been able to identify the batch of home-test kits involved, and narrowed it down to just 379 possible households. We’re now contacting every single one.

Tuesday, March 2:

The net’s closing. We now know that the PCR test was processed at 00.18hrs on Valentine’s Day and went to the lab via a mailing centre in Croydon [south London].

Thursday, March 4:

Test and Trace have found Patient Zero! He was on the shortlist of 379 households and eventually returned calls from officials at 4 pm yesterday.

Apparently, he tried to register his test but got the details wrong. We now know his name and age (38) and that he has been very ill. He claims not to have left his house for 18 days.

This is extremely good news: assuming he’s telling the truth, he has not been out and about super-spreading. What amazing detective work.

Friday, March 5:

Covid deaths have nearly halved within a week. The vaccine is clearly saving lives.

On Saturday, March 6, The Conservative Woman‘s Laura Perrins, a qualified barrister, pointed out that mandatory vaccinations — she was probably thinking of health workers — is ‘criminal battery’:

Wednesday, March 10:

Can you imagine if we hadn’t bothered to set up a contact tracing system? And if we’d decided it was all too difficult and expensive to do mass testing? Would we ever have been forgiven if we’d failed to identify clusters of cases or new variants?

No — and rightly so. Yet a cross-party committee of MPs has come to the conclusion that Test and Trace was basically a gigantic waste of time and money. I felt the red mist descend.

Yesterday, we did 1.5 million tests — in a single day! No other European country has built such a capability.

Thursday, March 11 (see photo):

The Test and Trace row is rumbling on, as is a ridiculous story about me supposedly helping a guy who used to be the landlord of my local pub in Suffolk land a multi-million-pound Covid contract. As I’ve said ad nauseam, I’ve had nothing to do with awarding Covid contracts. I find these attacks on my integrity incredibly hurtful.

The story rumbles on in Parliament, including in a debate this month.

Friday, March 12:

Oh well, at least [retired cricketer, see January’s entries] Geoffrey Boycott is happy. He texted me to say he’d got his second dose. He seems genuinely grateful. I resisted the temptation to tell him that good things come to those who wait.

Tuesday, March 16:

To my astonishment, hotel quarantine is working. There’s a weird new variant from the Philippines, but the two cases we’ve identified have gone no further than their Heathrow airport hotel rooms.

Wednesday, March 17:

Today was my son’s birthday. We had breakfast together, but there was no way I could join the birthday tea with family. I hope to make it up to him — to all of them — when all this is over.

On Tuesday, March 23, the first anniversary of lockdown, Boris did the coronavirus briefing. Below is a list of all the Cabinet members who had headed the briefings in the previous 12 months. I saw them all:

On Wednesday, March 24, Hancock announced the creation of the sinister sounding UK Health Security Agency. SAGE member Dr Jenny Harries is at its helm:

Tuesday, March 30:

How did Covid start? A year on, we still don’t really know, and there’s still an awful lot of pussyfooting around not wanting to upset the Chinese.

No surprise to learn that the Foreign Office has ‘strong views on diplomacy’ — in other words, they won’t rock the boat with Beijing and just want it all to go away.

Sometime in March, because magazine editions are always a month ahead, the publisher of Tatler, Kate Slesinger, enclosed a note with the April edition, which had Boris’s then-partner/now-wife Carrie Symonds on the cover. It began:

As I write this letter, the Prime Minister has just announced an extension to the nationwide lockdown, to be reviewed at around the time this Tatler April issue goes on sale — an opportune moment for us to be taking an in-depth look into the world of Carrie Symonds, possibly the most powerful woman in Britain right now.

April

On April 5, a furious Laura Perrins from The Conservative Woman tweeted that Hancock’s policies were ‘absolute fascism’, especially as we had passed the one year anniversary of lockdown and restrictions on March 23:

Note that lateral flow tests, as Hancock tweeted above, were free on the NHS. The programme continued for a year.

Tuesday, April 13:

The civil service seems determined to kill off the Covid dogs idea, which is so much more versatile than normal testing and really worthwhile. The animals are amazing – they get it right over 90 per cent of the time – but officials are being very tricky.

We should have started training dogs months ago and then sending them to railway stations and other busy places, where they could identify people who probably have Covid so they can then get a conventional test.

Unfortunately, even though I’ve signed off on it, the system just doesn’t buy it.

So far we’ve done a successful Phase 1 trial, but Phase 2, which costs £2.5 million, has hit the buffers. The civil service have come up with no fewer than 11 reasons to junk the idea.

That’s one idea I actually like. It sounds great.

On Friday, April 16, someone posted a video of Hancock breezing into No. 10. He had his mask on outside for the cameras, then whisked it off once he entered. Hmm. The person posting it wrote, ‘The hypocrisy and lies need to stop!

That day, the BBC posted that Hancock had financial interests in a company awarded an NHS contract — in 2019:

Health Secretary Matt Hancock owns shares in a company which was approved as a potential supplier for NHS trusts in England, it has emerged.

In March, he declared he had acquired more than 15% of Topwood Ltd, which was granted the approved status in 2019.

The firm, which specialises in the secure storage, shredding and scanning of documents, also won £300,000 of business from NHS Wales this year.

A government spokesman said there had been no conflict of interest.

He also said the health secretary had acted “entirely properly”.

But Labour said there was “cronyism at the heart of this government” and the party’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth has asked the head of the civil service to investigate whether Mr Hancock breached the ministerial code.

In March this year, Mr Hancock declared in the MPs’ register of interests that he had acquired more than 15% of the shares in Topwood, under a “delegated management arrangement”.

Public contract records show that the company was awarded a place in the Shared Business Services framework as a potential supplier for NHS local trusts in 2019, the year after Mr Hancock became health secretary.

The MPs’ register did not mention that his sister Emily Gilruth – involved in the firm since its foundation in 2002 – owns a larger portion of the shares and is a director, or that Topwood has links to the NHS – as first reported by the Guido Fawkes blog and Health Service Journal.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “Matt Hancock has to answer the questions… He can’t pretend that the responsibility lies elsewhere.”

But he said he was “not suggesting” the health secretary had broken any rules.

Here’s photographic proof of share ownership:

Saturday, April 17:

Prince Philip’s funeral. The Queen sat alone in a pew, in widow’s weeds and a black face mask. Looking at her in her grief, I felt an intense internal conflict, almost an anguish, between the overwhelming sense of duty I have had to save lives on the one hand and the painful consequences of my own decisions on the other. Out of duty, out of an abundance of caution, and to show leadership, the Queen took the most proper approach. It was humbling, and I felt wretched.

Monday, April 19:

The police rang to warn me that anti-vaxxers are planning a march on my London home. They suggested I liaise with [my wife] Martha so she can tell me if it’s happening.

Great that they spotted it, but asking my wife to keep an eye out of the window while a baying horde descends on the family home is not exactly British policing at its finest. I asked for more support. Then I went home to make sure I was there if it kicked off, but there was no sign of anyone.

A policeman explained that the anti-vaxxers had posted the wrong details on social media so were busy protesting a few streets away. What complete idiots.

Thursday, April 22:

Boris has completely lost his rag over Scotland.

He’s got it into his head that Nicola Sturgeon is going to use vaccine passports to drive a wedge between Scotland and the rest of the UK and is harrumphing around his bunker, firing off WhatsApps like a nervous second lieutenant in a skirmish.

He’s completely right: Sturgeon has tried to use the pandemic to further her separatist agenda at every turn.

Now the Scottish government is working on its own system of vaccine certification, which might or might not link up with what’s being developed for the rest of the UK.

On April 26, the vaccine was rolled out to the general population. Hancock is pictured here at Piccadilly Circus:

I cannot tell you how many phone calls and letters we got in the ensuing weeks. Not being early adopters of anything, we finally succumbed in early July, again a few months later and at the end of the year for the booster.

On April 29, Hancock and Deputy Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam had a matey vaccination session together, with ‘JVT’, as Hancock called him, doing the honours:

May

Saturday, May 1:

Another outright death threat today in my inbox that said simply: ‘I am going to kill you.’ Lovely. The threats from online anti-vaxxers are getting far more frequent and violent.

As a result, I’m now being assessed for the maximum level of government security.

Tuesday, May 4:

Today, I was out campaigning for the local elections in Derbyshire. Gina [Coladangelo, adviser] drove me up. My relationship with Gina is changing.

Having spent so much time talking about how to communicate in an emotionally engaged way, we are getting much closer.

On Wednesday, May 12, the London Evening Standard interviewed Hancock. ‘Matt Hancock: Let’s put our year of hell behind us’ is more interesting now than it was then:

Matt Hancock today struck his most upbeat note yet on easing many of the remaining lockdown restrictions next month, with Britain set to be “back to life as normal” within a year.

The Health Secretary, who has been one of the most powerful voices arguing for lockdown to save thousands of lives, stressed that the Government would lay out the low risks of further Covid-19 infections if, as expected, it presses ahead with the final relaxation stage in June.

“Our aim on the 21st is to lift as many of the measures/restrictions as possible,” he told the Standard’s editor Emily Sheffield in a studio interview aired today for its online London Rising series to spur the city’s recovery from the pandemic. “We’ve been putting in place all these rules that you’d never have imagined — you’re not allowed to go and hug who you want,” while adding he hadn’t seen his own mother since July and he was looking forward to hugging her.

“I am very gregarious,” he added, “and I really want to also get back to the verve of life. For the last year, we have had people literally asking ministers, ‘Who can I hug?’”

Mr Hancock also criticised as “absolutely absurd” protests outside AstraZeneca’s offices in Cambridge, where demonstrators have been calling for the pharmaceutical giant to openly licence its vaccine. He stressed that the Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs were already being offered to many countries “around the world” at cost price.

During the interview, for the business and tech section of London Rising, he admitted being too busy to keep a diary of the year’s extraordinary events.

He also said he hadn’t had time to help with the housework as he was “working full-time” on the pandemic and that he had spent more hours than he cared to remember in his home “red room” office, which went viral.

In a boost for going back to offices, he admitted that he was now back at Whitehall, adding: “I get most of my work done there.”

He also said he had not heard Mr Johnson say he was prepared to see “bodies pile high” rather than order another lockdown, a phrase the Prime Minister has denied using, saying: “No I never heard him talk in those terms.” But he admitted there were very lengthy, serious debates and “my job is to articulate the health imperative”.

He added: “By this time next year, large swathes of people will have had a booster jab. That means we’ll be able to deal with variants, not just the existing strains, and I think we’ll be back to life as normal.”

In the interview, Mr Hancock also:

    • Warned that another pandemic hitting the UK was “inevitable” and “we’ve got to be ready and more ready than last time. Hence, we are making sure we have got vaccines that could be developed in 100 days and the onshore manufacturing” and that health chiefs would be better equipped to defeat it …
    • Told how he hoped that England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty, his deputy Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance are “properly thanked” for their work in steering the country through the crisis. Pressed on whether they should be elevated to the Lords, he said: “That’s a matter for Her Majesty the Queen”
    • Backed Boris Johnson, enjoying a “vaccines bounce” which is believed to have contributed to Tory success in the recent elections, to be Tory leader for a decade.

Indeed, the Queen did reward Whitty, Van-Tam and Vallance with knighthoods.

Boris seemed invincible at that point, until Partygate emerged in November that year. Someone was out to get him. They succeeded.

Four days later, on May 16, Wales Online reported ‘Matt Hancock sets date for next lockdown announcement; he also says local lockdowns are not ruled out’. This is interesting, as he seemed to walk back what he told the Evening Standard:

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has confirmed the date for the next lockdown lifting announcement by the Government, but has said local lockdowns ‘have not been ruled out’.

Speaking on Sky News this morning Mr Hancock said their strategy was to continue with the lockdown lifting roadmap as planned, but said they would be monitoring the data very closely.

He said there had been just over 1,300 cases of the Indian variant detected in the country so far, with fears it could be 50% more infectious than Kent Covid.

Mr Hancock said: “It is becoming the dominant strain in some parts of the country, for instance in Bolton and in Blackburn.” But he said it has also been detected ‘in much lower numbers’ in other parts of the country

He added: “We need to be cautious, we need to be careful, we need to be vigilant.”

Asked if lockdown lifting could be reversed he said: “I very much hope not.” but on local lockdowns he said: “We haven’t ruled that out.”

Mr Hancock said: “We will do what it takes to keep the public safe as we learn more about this particular variant and the virus overall.”

The Health Secretary said an announcement on the next stage of lockdown lifting would be made on June 14

It was thought at the time that lockdown would be lifted on June 21.

Wednesday, May 26:

Dominic Cummings has told a select committee I should have been fired ‘for at least 15-20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions’.

Apparently I lied about PPE, lied about patients getting the treatment they needed, lied about this and lied about that.

Later, the PM called. ‘Don’t you worry, Matt. No one believes a word he says. I’m sorry I ever hired him. You’re doing a great job — and history will prove you right. Bash on!’

I went to bed thinking, ‘Thank goodness I kept vaccines out of Dom’s destructive hands or that would have been a disaster like everything else he touched.’

I watched that session. Everyone was at fault except for Dominic Cummings. Anyone who presents himself in such a way is probably not all he seems.

Thursday, May 27:

When I got into work, I heard that the Prof [Whitty] had called my private office volunteering to support me in public if need be.

This spectacular vote of confidence meant the most.

Shortly before I headed home, [Defence Secretary] Ben Wallace sent a nice message asking if I was OK. ‘The Cummings evidence can be summed up as the ‘ramblings of a tw*t’,’ he said.

Also:

Of all the many accusations Dom Cummings has hurled at me, the media seem most interested in his claims that I lied about the arrangements surrounding hospital discharges into care homes at the beginning of the pandemic.

Annoyingly, it was only after this evening’s [Downing Street] press conference that I received some very pertinent PHE [Public Health England] data. They analysed all the Covid cases in care homes from January to October last year and found that just 1.2 per cent could be traced back to hospitals.

The vast majority of infections were brought in from the wider community, mainly by staff.

Overall, England did no worse at protecting care home residents than many countries, and better than someincluding Scotland, where [Nicola] Sturgeon’s team has been responsible for decision-making. Regardless, the awfulness of what the virus did to people in care homes around the world will stay with me for the rest of my life.

That day, YouGov published the results of a poll asking if Hancock should resign. Overall, 36% thought he should and 31% thought he should remain in post:

Saturday, May 29:

Boris and Carrie got married at Westminster Cathedral. I’m not entirely sure how much the PM’s mind was on his future with his beloved, though, because this afternoon he was busy texting me about the latest Covid data.

‘Lower cases and deaths today. So definitely ne panique pas,’ I told him.

Then again, perhaps he’s just very good at multi-tasking and can examine infection graphs, pick bits of confetti off his jacket and give his new bride doe-eyed looks all at the same time.

Sunday, May 30:

‘Keep going, we have seen off Cummings’s bungled assassination,’ Boris messaged cheerfully.

It was lunchtime and the PM didn’t appear to be having any kind of honeymoon, or even half a day off.

Nevertheless, that day, the Mail on Sunday reported that the Conservatives were beginning to slip in the polls and had more on Cummings’s testimony to the select committee:

The extraordinary salvo launched by Mr Cummings during a hearing with MPs last week appears to be taking its toll on the government, with a new poll suggesting the Tory lead has been slashed by more than half. 

Keir Starmer tried to turn the screw today, accusing Mr Johnson and his ministers of being busy ‘covering their own backs’ to combat the Indian coronavirus variant.

The Labour leader said ‘mistakes are being repeated’ as the Government considers whether to go ahead with easing restrictions on June 21.

‘Weak, slow decisions on border policy let the Indian variant take hold,’ he said.

‘Lack of self-isolation support and confused local guidance failed to contain it.

‘We all want to unlock on June 21 but the single biggest threat to that is the Government’s incompetence’ …

Mr Cummings, the Prime Minister’s former adviser, told MPs on Wednesday that ‘tens of thousands’ had died unnecessarily because of the Government’s handling of the pandemic and accused Mr Hancock of ‘lying’ about testing for care home residents discharged from hospital – a claim he denies. 

Separately, the Sunday Times highlighted an email dated March 26 from social care leaders warning Mr Hancock that homes were being ‘pressured’ to take patients who had not been tested and had symptoms.

Lisa Lenton, chair of the Care Provider Alliance at the time, told Mr Hancock managers were ‘terrified’ about ‘outbreaks’.

‘The following action MUST be taken: All people discharged from hospital to social care settings (eg care homes, home care, supported living) MUST be tested before discharge,’ she wrote.

However, the government’s guidance on testing was not updated until April 15.

Instructions issued by the Department of Health and the NHS on March 19 2020 said ‘discharge home today should be the default pathway’, according to the Sunday Telegraph – with no mention of testing …  

An insider told the Sun on Sunday on the spat between Mr Johnson and Mr Hancock: ‘Boris returned from convalescence at Chequers when he heard the news. He was incensed. 

‘Matt had told him point blank tests would be carried out. He couldn’t understand why they hadn’t been. For a moment he lost it with Matt, shouting ”What a f***ing mess”.

‘At least three ministers told Boris Matt should be sacked.’

However, Mr Johnson refused to axe Mr Hancock reportedly saying that losing the health secretary during a pandemic would be ‘intolerable’.  

Sir Keir said the situation in care homes had been a ‘betrayal’, adding: ‘We may never know whether Boris Johnson said Covid ”was only killing 80-year olds” when he delayed a second lockdown.

‘What we do know is that the man charged with keeping them safe showed callous disregard for our elderly, as he overlooked the incompetence of his Health Secretary.’

June

Tuesday, June 1:

For the first time since last summer, there were no Covid deaths reported yesterday. We really are coming out of this.

Things might have looked good for Hancock at the beginning of the month, but the mood would sour rapidly.

England’s 2021 reopening on June 21 looked as if it would not happen. Not surprisingly, members of the public were not happy.

On June 6, Essex publican Adam Brooks tweeted Hancock’s words about personal responsibility back at him, calling him a ‘liar’:

Brooks, who owned two pubs at the time, followed up later, threatening that the hospitality industry would issue another legal challenge to coronavirus restrictions:

The next day, June 7, The Sun sounded the death knell for a reopening on June 21:

BRITS’ holiday hopes have been dashed AGAIN as Matt Hancock warns that the new variants are the “biggest challenging” to our domestic freedom.

The Health Secretary told MPs that restoring international travel is an “important goal” – but is one that will be “challenging and hard.”

Health Secretary Mr Hancock said the return to domestic freedom must be “protected at all costs”.

It comes after he confirmed that over-25s in England will be invited to receive their Covid jabs from Tuesday as the Delta variant “made the race between the virus and this vaccination effort tighter”.

Matt Hancock told the Commons this afternoon: “Restoring travel in the medium term is an incredibly important goal.

“It is going to be challenging, it’s going to be hard because of the risk of new variants and new variants popping up in places like Portugal which have an otherwise relatively low case rate.

“But the biggest challenge, and the reason this is so difficult, is that a variant that undermines the vaccine effort obviously would undermine the return to domestic freedom.

“And that has to be protected at all costs.”

The Health Secretary added: “No-one wants our freedoms to be restricted a single day longer than is necessary.

“I know the impact that these restrictions have on the things we love, on our businesses, on our mental health.

“I know that these restrictions have not been easy and with our vaccine programme moving at such pace I’m confident that one day soon freedom will return.”

This comes as desperate Brits have flooded airports as they race against the clock to get back to the UK before Portugal is slapped onto the amber travel list.

The next day, nutritionist Gillian McKeith tweeted her disgust with Hancock:

On Wednesday, June 9, the Health and Social Care Select Committee, which former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt headed, posed questions to Hancock in a coronavirus inquiry session:

On Thursday, June 10, The Guardian reported that Dominic Cummings would tell all about coronavirus as well as Brexit on his new Substack:

Dominic Cummings is planning to publish a paid-for newsletter in which subscribers can learn about his time inside Downing Street.

Boris Johnson’s former top aide has launched a profile on Substack, a platform that allows people to sign up to newsletter mailing lists.

In a post on the site, Cummings said he would be giving out information on the coronavirus pandemic for free, as well as some details of his time at Downing Street.

However, revelations about “more recondite stuff on the media, Westminster, ‘inside No 10’, how did we get Brexit done in 2019, the 2019 election etc” will be available only to those who pay £10 a month for a subscription …

It follows Cummings taking aim at Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, and the government in general as part of evidence given last month to the health and social care select committee and the science and technology committee.

Cummings, who left Downing Street after a behind-the-scenes power struggle in November last year, accused the health secretary of lying, failing on care homes and “criminal, disgraceful behaviour” on testing.

However, the parliamentary committees said Cummings’s claims would remain unproven because he had failed to provide supporting evidence.

On Friday, June 11, Labour MP Graham Stringer — one of the few Opposition MPs I admire — told talkRADIO’s Julia Hartley-Brewer that ‘things went badly wrong’ on Hancock’s watch and that the Health Secretary should not have ‘blamed scientific advice’:

On Monday, June 14, talkRADIO’s Mike Graham told listeners forced to cancel a holiday to sue Hancock, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, SAGE and ‘every single one of them, personally’, otherwise ‘they will think they’ve won’:

Friday, June 18:

[Lingerie tycoon] Baroness (Michelle) Mone has sent me an extraordinarily aggressive email complaining that a company she’s helping isn’t getting the multi-million-pound contracts it deserves.

She claims the firm, which makes lateral flow test kits, ‘has had a dreadful time’ trying to cut through red tape and demanded my ‘urgent help’ before it all comes out in the media.

‘I am going to blow this all wide open,’ she threatened.

In essence, she’s not at all happy that a U.S. company called Innova has secured so many contracts while others ‘can’t get in the game’. She claims test kits made by the company she’s representing, and by several others, have all passed rigorous quality control checks but only Innova is getting the business.

‘This makes it a monopoly position for Innova, who to date have received £2.85 billion in orders,’ she complained.

By the end of the email, she seemed to have worked herself into a complete frenzy and was throwing around wild accusations. ‘I smell a rat here. It is more than the usual red tape, incompetence and bureaucracy. That’s expected! I believe there is corruption here at the highest levels and a cover-up is taking place . . . Don’t say I didn’t [warn] you when Panorama or Horizon run an exposé documentary on all this.’

She concluded by urging me to intervene ‘to prevent the next bombshell being dropped on the govt’. I read the email again, stunned. Was she threatening me? It certainly looked that way.

Her tests, I am told, have not passed validation — which would explain why the company hasn’t won any contracts. I will simply not reply. I won’t be pushed around by aggressive peers representing commercial clients.

In December 2022, Baroness Mone announced that she would be taking a leave of absence from the House of Lords. Her Wikipedia entry states:

Mone became a Conservative life peer in 2015. From 2020 to 2022, in a series of investigative pieces, The Guardian reported that Mone and her children had secretly received £29 million of profits to an offshore trust from government PPE contracts, which she had lobbied for during the COVID-19 pandemic. The House of Lords Commissioner for Standards and National Crime Agency launched investigations into Mone’s links to these contracts in January 2022. Mone announced in December 2022 that she was taking a leave of absence from the House of Lords “to clear her name” amid the allegations.

Also that day came news that, after Parliament voted on coronavirus restrictions that week — June 21 having been postponed to July 19 — the NHS waiting list was much larger than expected. It was thought to be 5 million but was actually 12 million:

LBC reported:

The Health Secretary told the NHS Confederation conference that up to 12.2 million people are in need of elective procedures delayed due to the pandemic.

This includes 5.1m people already on waiting lists.

Health bosses believe there could be as many as 7.1m additional patients who stayed away from hospitals because of the risk of Covid-19.

Mr Hancock told the NHS conference that there is “another backlog out there” and that he expected the numbers to rise even further.

NHS leaders have warned the backlog could take five years to clear

Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said the current wave of cases would “definitely translate into further hospitalisations”.

On Saturday, June 19, a YouTube video appeared, which has since been deleted. These are my notes on it:

June 19, coronavirus: 24 mins in — Matt Hancock says unvaccinated will not receive health treatment if NHS is overwhelmed, also mentioned are Birmingham deaths, FOIA Pfizer vaccine information forwarded to Special Branch re Warwickshire and four Birmingham hospitals; Mark Sexton, ex police constable – YouTube.

I have no idea what ensued.

On Friday, June 25, Dominic Cummings posted this article on his Substack: ‘More evidence on  how the PM’s & Hancock’s negligence killed people’.

It’s quite lengthy, but begins as follows:

Below is some further evidence including a note I sent on 26 April regarding how we could shift to Plan B with a serious testing system.

It helps people understand what an incredible mess testing was and why care homes were neglected. Hancock had failed terribly. The Cabinet Office did not have the people it needed to solve the problem. Many were screaming at me that Hancock was failing to act on care homes and spinning nonsense to the Cabinet table while thousands were dying in care homes.

There are clearly errors in my note but the fact that *I* had to write it tells you a lot about how the system had collapsed. As you can see it is a draft for a document that needed to exist but didn’t because Hancock had not done his job properly and was absorbed in planning for his press conference at the end of April, not care homes and a serious plan for test-trace.

The Sunday Times‘s Tim Shipman summed up the article with Boris Johnson’s impressions of test and trace:

Returning to Hancock, it was clear that he would have to go, but no one expected his departure would be so dramatic.

To be continued tomorrow.

 

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On Friday, January 4, news emerged that SAGE, the scientific and clinical group advising the Government on coronavirus, will no longer be meeting regularly.

Pictured on the left is Sir Patrick Vallance, chief scientific officer, and, on the right, Sir Chris Whitty, chief medical officer:

Guido Fawkes’s post says (emphases in the original):

The pandemic is over and, rightly, SAGE is gone. Announced this afternoon, the freedom-hating advisory board will stop meeting regularly, though the government has placated hypochondriacs by promising they stand ready to reform. Like an epidemiological Take That…

SAGE met monthly from January 2020, though increasingly pushed for lockdowns and Covid measures, which when ignored by Boris proved massively surplus to requirement. The government has taken back control once again…

SAGE were the ones responsible for repeated lockdowns, the U-turn on masks and ‘hysterical’, as the Swedes put it, modelling. Here is one example:

https://image.vuukle.com/afdabdfb-de55-452b-b000-43e4d45f1094-1381fd12-ae2d-462b-9e2d-54d78ed87589

Shameful.

The Daily Mail reported (emphases mine):

The scientific advisory group, chaired by Sir Patrick Vallance and Sir Chris Whitty, ‘stands ready’ to reconvene if the virus rebounds.  

It marks another significant step in the return to normal and suggests even No10’s famously cautious advisers recognise the worst of the pandemic is over.  

The influential panel – made up of 90 leading experts and officials – has met at least monthly since January 2020, and multiple times a week during surges. 

There had been growing calls for the group to be reviewed amid claims it held too much power over the Government and did not have enough diversity of opinion.   

Much of the criticism has been aimed at SAGE’s pessimistic projections, most recently warning of up to 6,000 Omicron deaths per day this winter. It has also been accused of leaking proposals to the media in order to pressure ministers to back stricter measures

Sir Chris and Sir Patrick will continue to advise ministers on Covid, as will the UK Health Security Agency and Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI)

It comes a week after Boris Johnson lifted all pandemic laws in England as part of his ‘living with Covid’ strategy, with free testing due to be axed next month

Conservative MP Steve Baker was generous in his assessment of the freedom-depriving scientific group:

We have seen that experts are only human too.

That said, he added:

As we now pick up the pieces after the collateral damage of lockdowns and restrictions, we see more clearly than ever before that we need competitive, multi-disciplinary expert advice with challenge. Boris ought to implement reforms now.

Indeed.

Even though most of us never heard of SAGE until two years ago, the committee has been around for well over a decade:

SAGE was initially set up to provide ‘coherent, coordinated advice’ on the science surrounding pandemics and other emergencies.

It was a little-known body before the Covid crisis, and had only occasionally been called upon to assist in decision making.

It first met in 2009 for the swine flu pandemic, and then in 2014 to advise on Ebola, in 2016 over Zika and in 2018 over the Salisbury poisoning.

The group met only once in 2019 amid concerns the Toddbrook Reservoir dam in Derbyshire would collapse.

But since the pandemic began it has convened meetings at least once a month, with the first held two weeks after the first cases of the virus emerged in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.

The group has met more frequently during fresh waves of the virus, convening eight meetings since Omicron emerged in late November. 

Other than Whitty and Vallance, we knew most about the SAGE subgroups SPI-M, the modellers, and SPI-B, the behaviourists:

SAGE meetings have a shifting membership drawn from a panel of about 90 scientists and medical experts. 

Dozens more sit on sub-groups, including controversial epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson, who was kept on as an adviser despite being forced to apologise for breaking lockdown rules during an affair with a married woman.

It is unclear how often the SAGE subcommittees will meet.   

My first inclination on seeing this news was that SAGE will now get involved in climate change.

I hope that the Ukraine situation has put paid to that.

I have some highly uncharitable things to say about SAGE.

GB News’s Mark Dolan expressed his dissatisfaction with SAGE much better than I could in this well considered editorial at the weekend. He is right to say that SAGE caused damage to Britain that Vladimir Putin could only have dreamed of:

May we never see their like again. Somehow, sadly, I think we will.

Thanks to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, England is now the freest country in the Western world.

On Monday, February 21, Boris announced the lifting of the remaining coronavirus restrictions. Some of this began yesterday. However, much of the lifting comes into effect on Thursday, February 24, with the remainder finished by April 1.

He gave a statement to Parliament first, which he followed with a televised coronavirus briefing — press conference — at 7 p.m. that evening.

This was the nub of his statement to the House of Commons (emphases mine):

As we have throughout the past two years, we will continue to work closely with the devolved Administrations as they decide how to take forward their own plans. Today’s strategy shows how we will structure our approach in England around four principles. First, we will remove all remaining domestic restrictions in law. From this Thursday, 24 February, we will end the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive test, and so we will also end self-isolation support payments, although covid provisions for statutory sick pay can still be claimed for a further month. We will end routine contact tracing, and no longer ask fully vaccinated close contacts and those under 18 to test daily for seven days. We will also remove the legal requirement for close contacts who are not fully vaccinated to self-isolate. Until 1 April, we will still advise people who test positive to stay at home, but after that we will encourage people with covid-19 symptoms to exercise personal responsibility, just as we encourage people who may have flu to be considerate to others …

The testing, tracing and isolation budget in 2020-21 exceeded the entire budget of the Home Office; it cost a further £15.7 billion in this financial year, and £2 billion in January alone, at the height of the omicron wave. We must now scale this back.

From today, we are removing the guidance for staff and students in most education and childcare settings to undertake twice-weekly asymptomatic testing. And from 1 April, when winter is over and the virus will spread less easily, we will end free symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for the general public. We will continue to provide free symptomatic tests to the oldest age groups and those most vulnerable to covid. And in line with the practice in many other countries, we are working with retailers to ensure that everyone who wants to can buy a test. From 1 April, we will also no longer recommend the use of voluntary covid-status certification, although the NHS app will continue to allow people to indicate their vaccination status for international travel. The Government will also expire all temporary provisions in the Coronavirus Act 2020. Of the original 40, 20 have already expired and 16 will expire on 24 March. The last four, relating to innovations in public service, will expire six months later, after we have made those improvements permanent via other means.

Secondly, we will continue to protect the most vulnerable with targeted vaccines and treatments. The UK Government have procured enough doses of vaccine to anticipate a wide range of possible Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommendations. Today, we are taking further action to guard against a possible resurgence of the virus, accepting JCVI advice for a new spring booster offered to those aged 75 and over, to older care home residents, and to those over 12 who are immunosuppressed. The UK is also leading the way on antivirals and therapeutics, with our Antivirals Taskforce securing a supply of almost 5 million, which is more per head than any other country in Europe.

Thirdly, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advises that there is considerable uncertainty about the future path of the pandemic, and there may of course be significant resurgences. SAGE is certain that there will be new variants, and it is very possible that those will be worse than omicron. So we will maintain our resilience to manage and respond to those risks, including our world-leading Office for National Statistics survey, which will allow us to continue tracking the virus in granular detail, with regional and age breakdowns helping us to spot surges as and where they happen. And our laboratory networks will help us understand the evolution of the virus and identify any changes in characteristics.

We will prepare and maintain our capabilities to ramp up testing. We will continue to support other countries in developing their own surveillance capabilities, because a new variant can emerge anywhere. We will meet our commitment to donate 100 million vaccine doses by June, as our part of the agreement at the UK’s G7 summit to provide a billion doses to vaccinate the world over the next year. In all circumstances, our aim will be to manage and respond to future risks through more routine public health interventions, with pharmaceutical interventions as the first line of defence.

Fourthly, we will build on the innovation that has defined the best of our response to the pandemic. The vaccines taskforce will continue to ensure that the UK has access to effective vaccines as they become available, and has already secured contracts with manufacturers trialling bi-valent vaccines, which would provide protection against covid variants. The therapeutics taskforce will continue to support seven national priority clinical trial platforms focused on prevention, novel treatments and treatments for long-covid. We are refreshing our biosecurity strategy to protect the UK against natural zoonosis and accidental laboratory leaks, as well as the potential for biological threats emanating from state and non-state actors.

Building on the five-point plan that I set out at the UN and the agreements reached at the UK’s G7 last year, we are working with our international partners on future pandemic preparedness, including through a new pandemic treaty; an effective early warning system or global pandemic radar; and a mission to make safe and effective diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines available within the first 100 days of a future pandemic threat being identified. We will host a global pandemic preparedness summit next month.

The pandemic treaty concerns me. Will it supersede individual nations’ laws and liberties?

Boris put the focus on common sense and personal responsibility. People took exception to his taking credit for restoring our liberties — ‘they were ours all along’ — but he was the one who took them away on March 23, 2020, at 8 p.m.:

Covid will not suddenly disappear, so those who would wait for a total end to this war before lifting the remaining regulations would be restricting the liberties of the British people for a long time to come. This Government do not believe that that is right or necessary. Restrictions take a heavy toll on our economy, our society, our mental wellbeing and the life chances of our children, and we do not need to pay that cost any longer. We have a population that is protected by the biggest vaccination programme in our history; we have the antivirals, the treatments and the scientific understanding of this virus; and we have the capabilities to respond rapidly to any resurgence or new variant.

It is time that we got our confidence back. We do not need laws to compel people to be considerate to others. We can rely on our sense of responsibility towards one another, providing practical advice in the knowledge that people will follow it to avoid infecting loved ones and others. So let us learn to live with this virus and continue protecting ourselves without restricting our freedoms. In that spirit, I commend this statement to the House.

I watched the Coronavirus Briefing at 7 p.m. and sincerely hope it would be the last one.

Boris was flanked by Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Officer, and Sir Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer.

Boris spoke first, then we had Chris ‘Next slide, please’ Whitty’s presentation. I do not understand why Downing Street couldn’t have given him a clicker to advance the slides himself.

Listening to Whitty and Vallance, however, gave me a different impression. I wondered if I was alone:

Then I found a Guido Fawkes post, and one of his readers wrote:

Chris Whitty is literally stood there contradicting everything Johnson just said in Parliament. He is advising wearing face masks and self isolation. Emphasising this a ‘gradual series of steps’.

Vallance emphasising the next variant could be more severe. I can’t believe what I am hearing. It’s quite clear they do not agree at all with the announcement. They still quite clearly want a very slow and gradual lifting of restrictions and mass surveillance testing all the way to summer with rapid lockdown again if we a get any rise in infections.

They need to be removed.

I agree that SAGE needs disbanding or a deep reorganisation. Everyone on it is in lockstep. SAGE needs a variety of voices from the medical establishment, with more libertarians. They exist. They just haven’t been invited. It seems as if SAGE nominates its own members, all like-minded people.

I was most surprised to see Whitty say that the vaccine was good for pregnant women and their babies:

As expected, reporters were clearly unhappy with Boris’s announcement. A few accused him of playing politics in order to keep his job.

Later that evening, Toby Young told Dan Wootton of GB News that journos have comfortable houses and gardens to enjoy. They don’t need to worry about lockdowns or self-isolation:

On Monday, Wootton launched his own lockdown inquiry, which he says will be a recurring topic on his show for some time. He rightly blames the media for stoking fear every minute of the day:

Top oncologist Prof Karol Sikora agreed with Wootton about Project Fear:

Public health official Prof John Ashton and Dr Steve James, the unvaccinated consultant anaesthesiologist, joined Wootton. Having just returned from France, Ashton championed masks and asked what the problem was in wearing them. It doesn’t seem he understands the full picture there:

Dr James said that he is not against vaccines. He supports those who want to take them:

Dr. Jay Bhattacharya told Wootton that ‘lockdown’ should become a ‘dirty word’:

Freedom Day feels a bit like Groundhog Day. We’ve been here before:

Still, let’s hope it is definitive this time.

Thanks go to Boris but, more importantly, to the 101 rebel Conservative MPs who opposed an Omicron lockdown before Christmas. They put the frighteners on Boris — and with good reason.

The UK had another big weekend of news, which, as I said last week, is unusual, given that Christmas is just around the corner.

One of the big scoops was The Spectator‘s revelation as to why every SAGE scenario is based on a worst-case outcome.

Fraser Nelson, the magazine’s editor, had an online exchange with Graham Medley from SAGE, which can be seen in his article, ‘My Twitter conversation with the chairman of the Sage Covid modelling committee’, which is a must-read.

Excerpts follow, emphases mine.

Medley is a professor at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). Last week, LSHTM published another alarming set of figures for the Omicron variant that, naturally, make the case for more lockdowns.

By contrast, JP Morgan came up with a different conclusion after looking at LSHTM’s data:

JP Morgan had a close look at this study and spotted something big: all the way through, LSHTM assumes that the Omicron variant is just as deadly as Delta. ‘But evidence from South Africa suggests that Omicron infections are milder,’ JP Morgan pointed out in a note to clients.

JP Morgan concluded:

Bed occupancy by Covid-19 patients at the end of January would be 33% of the peak seen in January 2021. This would be manageable without further restrictions.

Fraser Nelson says:

So JP Morgan had shown that, if you tweak one assumption (on severity) then – suddenly – no need for lockdown.

Nelson went online to find out why LSHTM didn’t do the same thing:

Medley seems to imply that the Government wants the worst case scenario:

Nelson says:

Note how careful he is to stay vague on whether any of the various scenarios in the Sage document are likely or even plausible. What happened to the original system of presenting a ‘reasonable worse-case scenario’ together with a central scenario? And what’s the point of modelling if it doesn’t say how likely any these scenarios are?

From what Prof Medley says, it’s unclear that the most-likely scenario is even being presented to ministers this time around. So how are they supposed to make good decisions? I highly doubt that Sajid Javid is only asking to churn out models that make the case for lockdown. That instruction, if it is being issued, will have come from somewhere else.

He concludes that there is an ethical issue with SAGE’s pronouncements:

Prof. Robert Dingwall, until recently a JCVI [Joint Committee on Vaccines and Immunisation] expert, has said that Medley’s candour reveals “a fundamental problem of scientific ethics in Sage” – ie, a hardwired negativity bias.  “The unquestioning response to the brief is very like that of SPI-B’s behavioural scientists,” he says and suggests that the Covid inquiry looks into all this.

At a time when we have just been given a new set of ‘scenarios’ for a new year lockdown it might be good if someone – if not Prof Medley – would clear up what assumptions lie behind the new 6,000-a-day-dead scenario, and if emerging information from South Africa about Omicron and its virulence have been taken into account. And how probable it is that a double-jabbed and increasingly boosted nation (with 95 per cent antibody coverage) could see this worst-case scenario come to pass.

In my view, this raises serious questions not just about Sage but about the quality of the advice used to make UK lockdown decisions. And the lack of transparency and scrutiny of that advice. The lives of millions of people rests on the quality of decisions, so the calibre of information supplied matters rather a lot – to all of us.

Too right.

I haven’t believed SAGE at all, from the beginning. I am also still angry about how much taxpayers’ money has been pumped in for a pandemic that needed a common sense solution in March 2020, such as, ‘There are a lot of unknowns here. We will provide updates. However, we advise that anyone who feels sick to get a test then isolate at home for 10 days. Keep your distance from those outside your household. Keep your hands clean. Above all: use the same precautions you would in any potentially contagious environment.’

That’s it in a nutshell. Not a lot more needed to be said.

But no.

We plebs couldn’t have that. We cannot be trusted.

Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Whitty implied that we do not know what we are talking about.

This video is from Whitty’s appearance before a parliamentary Select Committee on Thursday, December 16. Dean Russell MP (Conservative) asked him whether the NHS risks prioritising the virus over cancer. While it might not be Dean Russell’s view, this is a prevailing opinion among many members of the public.

Whitty wasted no time in shooting that down, saying that we do not understand ‘health’ and insisting that lockdowns helped to save the NHS, which would have collapsed otherwise. Along with Prof Gordon Wishart, I also beg to differ, but here is the exchange:

People are frustrated:

General practitioners are wrapped up in this, too:

Coronavirus has overtaken their surgeries. It was already nearly impossible to get an online appointment, never mind one in person. As of last week, GPs’ priority from the Government is to dispense boosters:

No, pandemics are not a regular occurrence, but the NHS should be prepared to deal with one.

On Monday, December 20, Boris convened the Cabinet for a two-hour meeting to discuss the possibility of imposing a Christmas lockdown in England. Sir Patrick Vallance presented a doom-and-gloom scenario.

Bear in mind that Boris is skating on thin ice at the moment politically. A lockdown might have caused some of them to resign their Cabinet positions.

In the end, they decided not to go for a lockdown in England, at least over Christmas weekend:

Well, five of them did, at least.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss had to leave early:

https://image.vuukle.com/72d3fbbd-8a54-4bac-865c-3fd342d8e2b7-0450edce-1519-43f8-8417-b493691b9f15

Guido Fawkes has more (red emphasis his, the purple one mine):

The Times and Telegraph have the most comprehensive write-ups, reporting Rishi, Steve Barclay and Grant Shapps were those leading the sceptics’ charge. The Times reports Jacob Rees-Mogg had a prolonged argument with Vallance about their modelling, telling Boris to trust the people rather than the scientists. Truss, Kwarteng, Alister Jack, Nadhim Zahawi and Nigel Adams are all also reportedly sceptical about the threat of Omicron…

On the other side of the divide backing restrictions, according to The Telegraphare (unsurprisingly) Javid and Gove; Nadine Dorries and Chief secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke. We can only presume the PM also errs towards this group. There’s set to be one more Cabinet before Christmas day that could still decide to recall MPs before New Year.

Katy Balls of The Spectator reports that this is the first time in ages that the Cabinet has been consulted on coronavirus policy:

So what happened in that meeting? ‘Boris did a great job and encouraged a proper discussion and respected other views,’ says one minister. ‘He had quite a lot humility’. Michael Gove was, as usual, leading the arguments for more lockdown. But this was based on Sage forecasts of what might happen which have lost some credibility in the eyes of Cabinet members who were — for the first time in a while — genuinely being consulted.

Boris knows he’s in trouble:

Several members of Johnson’s Cabinet are vocally opposed to new restrictions. They argue that there needs to be clearer data before any restrictions are brought in – with whispers of resignations if Johnson pressed on without this. These members of government hope that more time will offer clarity that could show omicron is milder than previous variants.

Behind the scenes, the Chancellor is understood to have played a key role warning against rushing into decisions that could cost billions. Other ministers keen to see more modelling include Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps (“although it was never quite clear what he was saying,” I’m told.) Other ministers have been pressing on Johnson the idea of limiting any new measures to guidance.

But when Johnson emerged talking about the need to observe the data, and questions about Omicron’s severity, he was using the language of those who opposed lockdown. They argue, in effect, that Sage models cannot be trusted as they are composed of hypotheticals – and that we need to wait for real-world data. The next few days of hospital data, it’s argued, will tell us much about how severe Omicron is and if lockdown is needed. Data is emerging not just from South Africa (where cases now seem to be falling) but Denmark where Omicron has been found to be significantly less likely to put patients in hospital. At least some Sage modellers produced figures on the assumption that Omicron is no less likely to hospitalise or kill: one scenario talks about deaths peaking a day

Johnson faces a parliamentary party filled with MPs vehemently opposed to any new restrictions and who could question his ability to lead as a result. When the Whips office sent a note around this afternoon telling MPs that the parliamentary away day has been cancelled, one messaged me to say:

‘It’s probably for the best. If we were all in one place for a few days, we could work out a successor’

But there are Tory MPs who believe action is required. One senior Tory concludes:

‘This is a Prime Minister paralysed between science and his backbenchers. It’s depressing.’ 

The Times reports on Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg’s words of wisdom. He, too, read Fraser Nelson’s article. Good man:

Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the Commons, said the government should trust people to do the right thing rather than introduce further restrictions. He said many people had voluntarily changed their behaviour as the threat posed by Omicron became clear.

The prime minister said Rees-Mogg’s argument was interesting but asked how he would justify his approach at a press conference. He said that as prime minister he had to look after everyone’s health. Rees-Mogg is understood to have responded: “I would stand up and say I respect them for doing the right thing.” The prime minister is said to have suggested that this would not be enough if the NHS were at risk of being overwhelmed.

Rees-Mogg is also understood to have criticised official modelling suggesting that without further action 3,000 Omicron patients a day could need a hospital bed. He asked if Johnson had read an article by Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, questioning the assumptions behind the data.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, is said to have responded directly to Rees-Mogg that the modelling had included scenarios where the Omicron variant was deemed less severe than the Delta variant.

If so, why did Vallance not present those data?

Boris made a brief announcement after the Cabinet meeting, saying that he is still keeping all options open after Christmas:

On Wednesday, December 22, Health minister Gillian Keegan told LBC’s Nick Ferrari not make firm plans for New Year’s parties because of ongoing ‘uncertainty’:

As people have been cancelling dinner reservations and reneging on trips to the pub, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has had to come up with a £1bn compensation plan for the hospitality sector, which amounts to £6000 per business. A nightclub owner says it’s ‘insulting’. I agree with the person replying — just drop any remaining restrictions:

When is this going to end?

Oh, well. At least we’re not in the socialist nations of Scotland or Wales, where things have been far worse and continue so to be.

Christmas has arrived in England.

On Saturday, November 27, 2021, the Parliament Christmas tree arrived from Northumberland and is standing in New Palace Yard:

Here’s the video of it being lifted and placed into position:

In other news, scaffolding around the Elizabeth Tower will be coming down over the next six weeks, revealing the newly restored Big Ben. The new colour scheme is actually the original from the Victorian era and will be more colourful:

Juxtaposed against this good news is the new coronavirus variant, Omicron.

Saturday press conference

Prime Minister Boris Johnson wasted no time in giving a press conference on Saturday evening, November 27 (start at 8:19), flanked by Sir Patrick Vallance and Prof Chris Whitty:

Ahh, just like the old days of the near-daily coronavirus briefings …

Boris announced preliminary measures; the return of face coverings came into effect on Tuesday, November 30. These are for the next three weeks (emphases mine):

So yesterday we took steps to protect the UK against the variant coming here from southern African countries – and earlier today added four more countries to the red list.

But we now need to go further and implement a proportionate testing regime for arrivals from across the whole world.

So we are not going to stop people travelling, I want to stress that, we’re not going to stop people travelling, but we will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival, and to self-isolate until they have a negative result.

Second, we need to slow down the spread of this variant here in the UK.

Because measures at the border can only ever minimise and delay the arrival of a new variant, rather than stop it altogether.

So in addition to the measures we are already taking to locate those who have been in countries of concern over the last ten days, we will require all contacts of those who test positive – with a suspected case of Omicron – to self-isolate for ten days, regardless of your vaccination status.

We will also go further in asking all of you to help contain the spread of this variant, by tightening up the rules on face coverings in shops and on public transport.

And third – and most importantly – we need to bolster our protections against this new variant.

We don’t yet exactly know how effective our vaccines will be against Omicron, but we have good reasons for believing they will provide at least some measure of protection.

And if you are boosted – your response is likely to be stronger.

So it’s more vital than ever that people get their jabs, and we get those boosters into arms as fast as possible.

So from today we are going to boost the booster campaign.

We are already planning to do 6 million jabs in England alone over the next three weeks.

The ten red list countries are all in southern Africa: South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia.

Omicron symptoms

Omicron’s symptoms are slightly different to those of the previous variants.

On Monday, The Sun reported more, citing Dr Angelique Coetzee, chairwoman of the South African Medical Association. She also has her own private clinic in Pretoria and has seen Omicron patients:

“Their symptoms were so different and so mild from those I had treated before,” she said.

“We had one very interesting case, a kid about six years old, with a temperature and a very high pulse rate, and I wondered if I should admit her. But when I followed up two days later, she was so much better.

What we have to worry about is older, unvaccinated people. If they are not vaccinated, we are going to see many people with a severe form of the disease.”

The Omicron strain, or B.1.1.529, is feared to be more transmissible and may be able to avoid vaccines.

It has 50 genetic mutations, most of which have been identified in previous variants, along with three brand-new changes.

Prof Lawrence Young, of Warwick Medical School, said: “This new variant is very worrying. It is the most heavily mutated version we have seen to date.

“This variant carries some changes we’ve seen previously in other variants but never all together in one virus. It also has novel mutations that we’ve not seen before.

“Some of the mutations that are similar to changes we’ve seen in other variants of concern are associated with enhanced transmissibility and with partial resistance to immunity.

“We need laboratory studies to determine whether the antibodies induced by current vaccines are able to block infection with this variant.” 

Today, another case of the super-strain was identified in the UK – bringing the total to three.

The person tested positive after travelling to Britain from southern Africa where the variant originated.

The individual is no longer in the UK, but the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is carrying out urgent testing in areas they visited when they were likely to have been infectious.

This includes Westminster in central London, officials said.

Two of the original symptoms do not apply to Omicron: loss of smell/taste and breathing problems.

Reaction to restrictions

It is unclear how many people in England will comply with the face covering rules.

Richard Walker, the managing director of the Iceland supermarket chain, said that his staff will not be policing face coverings in their shops. Good man. Co-op have said the same thing with regard to their stores. Excellent news.

Saturday night’s GB News commentators had much to say about the return of restrictions.

Mark Dolan said that we comply with restrictions, believing they will end, but, in fact, our compliance only makes them easier to reinstate at the whim of government. He says that Boris wants to be seen to be doing something and is invoking politics rather than science:

Neil Oliver had much more to say, noting: ‘With that fear on the wane it was plainly time to cast another spell’. It’s an excellent editorial worth reading and sharing:

Oliver says that science and freedom have been consigned to the dustbin over the past 19 months. Excerpts follow:

… Let me put it this way – for a while there, those scientists given the spotlight and the microphone had a good go at driving a single narrative. It almost, almost made sense for a while, in a twisted, not quite right, something funny going on there, sort of a way. Not anymore, though. Now the cracks are starting to show, the wheels coming off the state-sponsored wagon.

I’ve said all along that this would prove, when all was said and done, to be a tragic lesson in the hubris of some humans – the sort that wear white coats, or that like to give press conferences – which is to say overconfidence from those that said they had all the answers and that everyone else should just shut up and do what they’re told. As the months go by, hubris seems more and more like the explanation for so much that has gone awry.

But enough about the virus – whatever it is, wherever it came from and whatever it’s doing right now while I speak. Tragically, this process of unlearning science, forgetting, replacing true with false, did not begin with Covid-19. Strange to say, Covid is just a symptom of something much more dangerous – and that is the deliberate dismantling of so much that our ancestors learned and built and handed on to us, in trust. It enabled an acceleration of something we really should have been aware of for years – the taking apart of so much of the world of science and reason and enlightenment, by those who might have been expected and trusted to be its inheritors. Over the last few months, in their efforts to craft a narrative with the power to dupe the unwary, governments, scientists, academics and others have, at best, lost their way, and at worst they have knowingly vacated, walked away from the vast cathedral that has been the home of history, science, culture, beauty, indeed all that is good and worth preserving.

In their hell for leather scramble to grab and then secure powers previously undreamed of, our leaders and their advisors have turned their backs on decades, centuries in fact, of wisdom carefully acquired by the ancestors. Some of those that went before them – in the age of reason, the age of enlightenment – laid the foundations for the civilisation with which we have been blessed.

Those that came after built upon the foundations, carefully and painstakingly furthering our understanding of the world, and of our own species.

They learned many things – the ancestors – by observation, by careful development and application of the scientific method

All of this learning and wisdom was raised up like a cathedral, or the grandest colosseum. But cathedrals and colosseums depend upon solid foundations. When the power of Rome waned, their great structures fell into disuse. The barbarians, for the most part hardly knew what to make of them, those towering edifices, and so ignored them as they fell into decline – amphitheatres, great bridges, viaducts, aqueducts, entire cities.

It is up to those of us who care to conserve and to maintain the wonders raised by our ancestors, to re-occupy the space made of reason and enlightenment and left vacant by those who have, on account of wishing to push a new ideology that mocks and seeks to undo the past, wandered away into the wilderness of the social justice warriors, of the so-called woke. They have turned their backs on so much that was learned after great effort and often at great cost. That grand and lofty space, that cathedral of our culture and our civilisation, is still there, at least for now, but it requires constant maintenance, and love. Those of us who care should go about the business of looking after the old place. Only then might we continue to benefit from the shelter it has long provided from the cold, confusing world outside.

The full two-hour long show is on YouTube:

The first 45 minutes are devoted to Oliver’s editorial and a discussion about Omicron, coronavirus and the vanishing of civil liberties.

The next hour is reminiscent of the classic Oliver from his Coast days on the BBC. There is a new Yorkshire Atlantis, a coastal city that was washed away in a tidal storm in 1362. Sonar images have recently been done and more investigation will take place in the months to come. A number of the structures still exist, so this will be a fascinating discovery.

Another story concerns a farmer in Rutland who discovered a large Roman floor mosaic of the Greek legend, The Iliad, a rather rare cross-cultural find. Archaeologists have uncovered most of it, which is in a field.

From this, one can understand Neil Oliver’s respect of our history and our past.

Let’s not allow politicians and scientists to obliterate it or our freedoms for the sake of a virus that has a 99.9% recovery rate for the most part, even in the unvaccinated.

Previews of a 151-page report from two parliamentary select committees appeared on October 12, 2021.

Jeremy Hunt, chairs the Health and Social Care Committee, and Greg Clark is chairman of the Science and Technology Committee. The report represents the unanimous conclusions of the 22 Conservative, Labour and SNP MPs serving on them.

Whilst one can appreciate the hours of work it took to create a report out of many hours of testimony since 2020, it might as well have been compiled from newspaper reports.

I have not yet found the full report online, but media reports have been appearing throughout the morning.

In summary, although the vaccine rollout was a great success, the Government made a lot of mistakes: not locking down sooner (!?!), neglecting the elderly, being late in creating a test and trace system and relying too much on SAGE:

Guido Fawkes looked at the criticism of SAGE (emphases in the original):

… What caught Guido’s eye in the report, however, was how critical it is of the scientific advice that dictated the government’s response at the start of the pandemic:

“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…

The Times picked up on ‘group-think‘:

“Group-think” among ministers, scientific advisers and civil servants meant that a lockdown was not brought in quickly enough early last year, ranking as “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”.

However, the Daily Mail reports that Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance hit back, especially about ‘following the science’ (emphases mine):

Ministers shouldn’t have said they were being ‘led by the science’ throughout the Covid pandemic, Sir Patrick Vallance has said.  

No10’s chief scientific adviser claimed science doesn’t decide nor does it ‘lead the way’, insisting that there were other complex matters that needed to be factored in for crucial decisions.

He said No10 should have stuck to the phrase ‘informed by science’, rather than implying they were ‘slavishly following’ evidence ‘because science doesn’t have all the answers to these things’.

In his first in-depth interview since the virus hit the UK, he also said he doesn’t ‘sugar coat’ information for the Government.

Sir Patrick, who became a household name during the course of the pandemic due to his frequent appearances at daily televised press briefings in Downing St, said he views his job as ‘giving scientific advice, like it or not, to the Prime Minister and Cabinet to enable them to make decisions’.

And he revealed that his mantra has always been to act early when adopting lockdown restrictions to thwart the spread of coronavirus.

Did Vallance ever advise the Prime Minister and Cabinet ministers against saying ‘follow the science’ or similar? It would appear not, as they said it dozens of times in press conferences and in Parliament.

Dominic Cummings took advantage of the report to lambaste Boris again. The Mail reported:

Speaking to Sky News outside his home, the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser said: ‘Me and others put into place work to try to improve the system in 2020 after the first wave.

‘Unfortunately, the Prime Minister being the joke that he is has not pushed that work through.

Mr Cummings, who has been a vocal critic of Mr and Mrs Johnson since he left Downing Street, added: ‘Now we have a joke Prime Minister and a joke leader of the Labour party, and we obviously need a new political system.’

The report recommends better planning for the future. Ho-hum. The Government had a chance to do that following a 2016 report and the three-day-long Exercise Cygnus on how better to manage influenza. Jeremy Hunt, one of the authors of today’s report, was Health Secretary at the time. He didn’t do anything about the recommendations then. Therefore, it’s a bit rich for him to criticise now, yet, he heads the Health and Social Care Committee and that’s part of his job. 

A formal inquiry on the UK’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is expected to begin in 2022.

On Monday, June 14, Prime Minister Boris Johnson postponed Freedom Day from Monday, June 21 to Monday, July 19.

Quelle surprise!

Although the data for hospitalisations and deaths look better than ever thanks to the vaccine rollout, SAGE modelling shows that if figures of cases — positive tests — continue to increase ‘exponentially’, then we could be in for a big problem:

However, the reality is more like this:

Incredibly, Britons support the delay:

Protest at Downing Street

Earlier in the afternoon, when it became clear that Boris was going to delay England’s reopening, a protest took place outside of Downing Street.

The BBC’s Nick Watt got caught up in it on his way to the mid-afternoon press briefing for journalists. I have no idea why the crowd harassed him, but the Metropolitan Police did not seem bothered:

Coronavirus briefing

Boris held his televised coronavirus briefing at 6 p.m.

Boris should have had Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, go to Parliament first to make this announcement, then give his press conference. Hancock poled up in the House of Commons two hours after Boris’s press conference. More on that below.

At the coronavirus briefing, Boris was accompanied by Sir Patrick Vallance and Prof Chris Whitty. Here are the highlights:

Sure, just as he announced June 21 would be a few months ago. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Some restrictions have been lifted for weddings and funerals:

The delay is partly because of the Delta variant from India:

Sure thing, Chris. By July, there could be another variant:

Even though Boris is trying to keep us hopeful, there is no way we would open in two weeks’ time instead of four:

This is because — as has been explained at previous coronavirus briefings — it takes four weeks for a full cycle of effects to complete before a decision can be made: cases, hospitalisations, deaths.

Keep in mind that our vaccination programme has been wildly successful. The elderly and vulnerable have had their second shot and 18-24 year olds are now invited to get their first inoculation.

The vaccines used thus far — AstraZeneca and Pfizer — are said to be highly effective against the virus, especially after two injections:

One of the three men said that we would have to ‘learn to live with this virus’. We know that, fellas, so open up.

We know that people are going to die, just as they do from flu:

That’s exactly what they said in April.

Labour are quite happy with an extension of restrictions. No surprise there:

Matt Hancock’s statement in the House of Commons

Matt Hancock announced the delay in the Commons that evening at 8:30.

Once again, the Government evaded going to Parliament first, followed by the media and public.

The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, was not happy. This is not the first time Hoyle has reprimanded Hancock:

Sir Lindsay said that he is ready to arrange a private meeting with the Prime Minister to discuss these continuing evasions of Parliament:

Hancock said:

That tweet is spot on. In March 2020, it was about ‘squashing the sombrero’ of hospital admissions, as Boris put it.

Then we had the rest of the list in that tweet.

Now it seems to be about zero COVID.

That’s quite a leap.

Hancock’s statement and the subsequent debate are available on Hansard. Excerpts follow. All MPs below are Conservative.

Jeremy Hunt MP, the chair of the Health and Social Care Committee and former Health Secretary, said (emphases mine):

May I start by saying that I totally agree with your expression of disappointment, Mr Speaker, that in a parliamentary democracy Parliament heard about this news after the media, and much as I respect my right hon. Friend it should be the Prime Minister who is here this evening?

I happen to support these measures and the caution the Government are showing, but may I suggest to my right hon. Friend that one of the reasons for the disappointment many people feel is the use of words like “irreversible”? Tonight, Sir Patrick Vallance said that we will be living with covid for the rest of our lives. If there is a vaccine-busting variant that threatens another 100,000 lives, these measures will not be irreversible, and we have a duty to be completely honest with people about the bumpiness of the road ahead. So may I urge the Health Secretary to be as cautious with the language we use as he rightly is with NHS bed capacity?

Mark Harper is one of the few MPs who wants England to open up now. He said:

Before I ask the Secretary of State my question, I should just say—as a former Government Chief Whip, it does not give me any great pleasure to do so—that I wholly associate myself with your remarks earlier, Mr Speaker. This statement should have been made to this House by the Prime Minister before it was made to the media. I hope that we do not see a recurrence of it and I wish you well in your meeting with him.

The Secretary of State has set out that it is not the Government’s policy to get to zero covid—indeed, that is not possible. Can he say whether it is the Government’s policy to maintain a low prevalence of this virus? If it is not, can he confirm the Prime Minister’s sentiments today that 19 July is a terminus date, and can he rule out bringing back restrictions in the autumn and winter when we see an inevitable rise in what is a respiratory virus?

Hancock replied:

Well, it is not inevitable—I do not think it is inevitable. It may happen, but it is not inevitable because we also have the planned booster programme to strengthen further the vaccination response. But it is absolutely clear, based on all the clinical advice that I have seen, that a goal of eradication of this virus is impossible. Indeed, there is one part of this country that tried it for a bit in the summer and found it to be impossible. Therefore, we must learn to live with this virus and we must learn how we can live our normal lives with this virus, so I reflect the Prime Minister’s words, which, of course, I concur with entirely, on 19 July. Our goal is to make sure that we get as much vaccination done between now and then—especially those second doses—to make sure that we can open up safely, even if there is a rise in cases, by protecting people from hospitalisation and especially from dying of this awful disease.

Steve Brine was, rightly, unhappy:

Last week, the Secretary of State told me:

“Our goal…is not a covid-free world…the goal is to live with covid”.—[Official Report, 7 June 2021; Vol. 696, c. 678.]

Well, you could have fooled me, and many of our constituents. There is dismay out there tonight. The reopening of the wedding industry is not a meaningful reopening and I think it is cruel the way some are being misled. The Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend have been very clear today that 19 July is not a new “not before” date but an end to all this, so will the Secretary of State tell the country his assessment of risk and personal responsibility and whether he feels that as a country we remotely have that right at this time?

Hancock replied (in part):

Once we have the offer of a vaccine to everybody, and once we have protected and mitigated the large part of that risk, we do need to move back to a world based on personal responsibility. That is right, and that is where we intend to go. I think that we have made steps already in that direction in steps 1, 2 and 3. This country is freer than almost any other in Europe in terms of our economy and of our society. That is partly because of the very rapid vaccination effort here, but I hope that my hon. Friend can take from that the direction we intend to go.

Peter Bone made excellent points on the Government’s disrespect for the Commons:

I am sure, Mr Speaker, that the Secretary of State for Health heard what you said at the beginning of this statement. May I ask the Secretary of State how we got ourselves into this position? He has been very good at coming to the House and making statements on covid, but on the biggest, most important day, the press were given an embargoed statement at 3 o’clock and the Prime Minister had a big showy press conference at 6, yet he could not be bothered to turn up until 8.30. This is a clear breach of the ministerial code. How did it happen? Who thought it was a good idea, and who actually broke the ministerial code?

Hancock had little to say in response but said he would continue answering questions.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown asked on what basis the decision to delay was made. Hancock said:

Central to the judgment today is the fact that we are seeing a rise in hospitalisations, especially over the past week, and especially among those who are unvaccinated or have just had a single jab. Those people are not largely those who are unvaccinated out of choice; it is those who are unvaccinated because they have not yet had the opportunity because they are younger.

Until about a week ago, hospitalisations were basically flat. We thought that the link might have been completely broken between cases and hospitalisations or that it might be a lag. Sadly, hospitalisations then started to rise. For deaths, we have not yet seen that rise, which I am very pleased about; hopefully they will never rise, in which case the future will be much easier. It may still be that there is an element of it that is a lag, and we will be looking out for that very carefully over the couple of weeks ahead, but nevertheless our goal is to get those vaccines done in the five weeks between now and 19 July in order to make sure that this country is safe. I will commit to publishing anything further that we can that underpinned the decision, but I can honestly say to my hon. Friend that most of it is already in the public domain.

The morning after with talkRADIO’s Julia Hartley-Brewer and guests

On Tuesday, June 15, Israel ditched its mask mandate:

They vaccinated quicker than the UK, which they could do as a much smaller country:

TalkRADIO’s Julia Hartley-Brewer interviewed three interesting guests, whose videos are all worth watching.

Clearly frustrated by this delay, she asked her audience about their mood:

She opened her show with an editorial on selfishness, because many people say that her civil liberties stance is ‘selfish’. She turned the tables on her accusers:

She interviewed David Paton, the Professor of Industrial Economics Nottingham University Business School. He has been running his own models and studying the national statistics since the early days of the pandemic last year.

This is his take. He observes that we are doing much better than SAGE models suggest:

He also told Julia that we are doing much better than the SAGE models purport:

Next up was Hugh Osmond, the founder of the Punch Taverns chain. He said that the medical experts wanted to remove all joy from our lives. He also pointed out that hundreds of pubs have closed because of the government’s handling of the pandemic and that if the pub summer season is short this year, hundreds more will go to the wall by the end of 2021:

Julia’s next guest was Mark Harper MP, chairman of the parliamentary Covid Recovery Group, quoted in the aforementioned Hansard excerpt. I agree with him in that these restrictions might never end:

He cannot understand why the Government is not more positive about the success of the vaccine rollout. He also discussed the negative fear-mongering from the media. Note the reply tweet which is spot on re the G7 get-togethers:

Julia’s third guest in her coronavirus segment was barrister Francis Hoar, who has been anti-lockdown from the start:

Before his interview, he reiterated his concern about increased government control via a (Chinese style) social credit system:

He also retweeted the following:

This appears to be a quote from Sir Charles Walker MP (Conservative), who is also against lockdowns:

It is hard to disagree with him as the Government keeps moving the goalposts:

Francis Hoar told Julia Hartley-Brewer that Boris looked as if he had been taken hostage at last night’s coronavirus briefing and that he is deeply concerned about the future of young people today because of continuing restrictions. He is very much a supporter of having our personal freedoms restored yesterday:

Conclusion

I really do hope that England reopens on July 19. I wanted the nation to reopen on June 21.

However, if it does not, then it is unlikely to reopen until Spring 2022. That could be June 2022.

My reasoning is as follows. September is the month when schools reopen, so that is a risk factor. Then comes flu season when coronavirus will worsen. The experts and the Government will say that we shouldn’t have big Christmas celebrations at home, in the pub or in a restaurant because it’s just too risky. Winter is always a bad time for illness, and we don’t want to overburden the NHS, so we have to wait until sometime during the springtime.

Therefore, if reopening does not take place on July 21, 2021, then the next possible date is between mid-March (after the Cheltenham Festival, likely to be a ‘pilot’ event) and June 2022.

I hope I am wrong. I truly do.

Early in March 2020, my far better half and I were optimistic that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his government and his advisers would not be too proscriptive about coronavirus restrictions.

In the end, they were, but the following timeline shows how quickly their thinking on herd immunity changed.

In light of Dominic Cummings’s testimony to the Science and Technology Select Committee on Wednesday, May 26, and his lengthy Twitter thread prepared beforehand (continuing afterwards), I offer a short and a long version of what happened.

Short version

The Government denies that natural herd immunity — catching the virus — was ever government policy.

Yet, here is Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, at a coronavirus briefing on Thursday, March 12, 2020:

It seems that Cummings might have advised the government to backtrack and deny it was policy, however briefly:

As Cummings said on Wednesday, once he received numbers from an NHS specialist/mathematician who extrapolated scenarios on what could happen, the Government changed tack:

Long version

I haven’t missed a single coronavirus briefing since they started in March 2020. As regular readers will know, I have been deep-diving into the pandemic since then.

February 2020

Lessons From The Crisis has an excellent article on how the herd immunity plan unfolded and changed. ‘It’s bizarre that this needs saying, but *of course* the UK had a Herd Immunity plan’ is well worth reading.

It includes a capture of SAGE minutes from February 4, 2020, advocating that policies for influenza be followed. The article summarises this as follows (emphases in the original):

On the 4th of February, at the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’s fourth Covid meeting, influenza planning, with its assertions that spread was “inevitable”and halting the virus “a waste of resources” was adopted as the official recommendation- tragically this was about ten days before Chinese covid cases peaked, never return to their early 2020 levels …

The scientific consensus presented to ministers was: mass infection of the population was inevitable, a vaccine would not be available in time, so the only choices were about how to manage the mass infection of the population until the country had accumulated enough cases to get to herd immunity

The alternative being attempted by governments elsewhere, trying to stop the disease from infecting the population, was regarded as folly; the UK government’s scientific advisors were certain that countries attempting suppression would fail …

March 2020

In his testimony on Wednesday, Cummings claimed he broke rank with the Government on Wednesday, March 11:

Publicly, however, he was still on board with the Government plan:

Vallance gave his aforementioned briefing on herd immunity on March 12. This is what appeared afterwards:

This is a summary of an interview Vallance gave to Sky News the next day (full video here):

The Independent quoted a BBC interview with him on March 13:

Sir Patrick told the BBC that the advice the government is following for tackling coronavirus is not looking to “suppress” the disease entirely but to help create a “herd immunity in the UK” while protecting the most vulnerable from it.

Asked if there is a fear that clamping down too hard on its spread could see it return, Sir Patrick said: “That is exactly the risk you would expect from previous epidemics.

“If you suppress something very, very hard, when you release those measures it bounces back and it bounces back at the wrong time.

“Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it.

“Those are the key things we need to do.”

That same day, SAGE’s Professor John Edmunds also advocated natural herd immunity in this Channel 4 interview:

Nigel Farage was outraged by the policy:

The Lessons From The Crisis article says that the turning point happened almost immediately:

Partly in response to this outrage, the government changed course; Boris Johnson swapped strategies and began locking down the country just 3 days after the herd immunity plan became public, with new priorities built around suppressing the virus with blunt instruments such as lockdowns to buy time for building countermeasures- testing and tracing capacity, vaccines, treatments.

That is not to give Nigel Farage single-handed credit. The media also helped a lot, especially with frequent footage of what was happening in northern Italy at the time.

On Monday, March 16, Prof Neil Ferguson released his (spurious) numbers from Imperial College London, which changed the Government’s policy. 

UnHerd reported on it the following day — ‘Why the Government changed tack on Covid-19’:

The Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, and the government’s science adviser Dr David Halpern indicated that the government’s strategy was to allow the virus to pass through the population, to allow individuals to “acquire herd immunity” at a delayed speed, while vulnerable groups were “cocooned.” This strategy, however, was subsequently contradicted by health secretary Matt Hancock, who insisted that “herd immunity is not our goal or policy”.

The quick reversals did not end there, as a ban was announced on mass gatherings just a day after the government’s initial claims that it was not the right time for such measures. On Saturday, the government briefed select journalists on “wartime measures” to quarantine the elderly at home or in care homes, away from any contact with the rest of the population; earlier than such measures were expected to be announced.

Finally, it was revealed yesterday afternoon that the Prime Minister had decided to dramatically step up countermeasures, and switch entirely to a strategy of containment as a result of advice from an expert response team at Imperial College London, which concluded that the strategy of delay would likely cause “hundreds of thousands” of avoidable deaths.

The initial plans — to establish herd immunity based on research on social fatigue and assumptions that effective vaccines would not be developed — contradicted the guidance from the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the wealth of evidence in the fields of epidemiology, behavioural science and immunology, so it is unsurprising that countless experts have already questioned and criticised the strategy, including epidemiologists, immunologists, and behavioural scientists.

On Saturday, March 21, Alex Wickham from Buzzfeed summarised a tense and confused week inside No. 10, and the road to lockdown (emphases mine):

While the scientific debate was raging last week between experts, officials, and ministers in face-to-face meetings and over emails and text messages, Johnson’s government was publicly insisting that the scientific advice showed the UK did not yet have to bring in more stringent measures to fight the virus.

Political aides tacitly criticised other countries who had taken more dramatic steps, claiming Britain was being “guided by the science” rather than politics.

Towards the end of last week, some ministers and political aides at the top of the government were still arguing that the original strategy of home isolation of suspect cases — but no real restrictions on wider society — was correct, despite almost every other European country taking a much tougher approach, and increasing alarm among SAGE experts.

The thought of months or even a year of social distancing was simply not feasible, some in Johnson’s team still thought at that point. They continued to privately defend the controversial “herd immunity” approach outlined to the media by Vallance, even as other aides scrambled to claim the UK had never considered it to be policy.

And there was fury behind the scenes among members of Johnson’s team at the likes of Rory Stewart and Jeremy Hunt, who had been publicly saying the government had got it wrong.

But data from Italy — presented to the government before it was published by experts at Imperial College on Monday — changed all that. Their report confirmed the earlier fears of the epidemiologists who had been calling for more drastic action.

On Monday, March 23 — the day Prime Minister Boris Johnson took away every Briton’s civil liberties in five minutes by announcing the first lockdown — Byline Times posted a must-read article, ‘COVID-19 SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Part Three — Behavioural Scientists told Government to use “Herd Immunity” to Justify Business-As-Usual’.

SPI-B is our behavioural, or ‘nudge’, unit and is part of SAGE. Dr David Halpern, a SAGE member, runs the unit. This was allegedly their role in the herd immunity discussions:

A SPI-B document dated 4 March, which rejected the need for school closures, went on to refer to the medical concept of immunity. In a discussion about how the public might be confused about the disparity between the Government’s approach of “not applying widescale social isolation at the same time as recommending isolation to at-risk groups”, the document acknowledges disagreement within the SPI-B.

The document explains: “One view is that explaining that members of the community are building some immunity will make this acceptable. Another view is that recommending isolation to only one section of society risks causing discontent.”

The idea of immunity does not come up elsewhere in the SAGE corpus. But, Professor Chris Whitty, the Government’s Chief Medical Advisor, claimed that 20% of the population of Wuhan, China, had contracted the Coronavirus and acquired herd immunity. He believed that this explained why new cases had begun to fall in China

This flatly contradicted data from China showing that, by end of January, after the crisis had peaked, just under 95% of the Wuhan population remained uninfected by the virus. This was, therefore, nothing to do with herd immunity, but a result of China’s emergency containment response. 

The UK Government, it seemed, had made a gamble: one that Dr Brian Ferguson, Director of Immunology at Cambridge University, described as “not scientifically based and irresponsible” because typically “Coronaviruses don’t make long-lasting antibody responses”.

Whether or not it was a specific goal of the Government, its network of behavioural science advisors had fielded herd immunity as a way of justifying to the public why the Government was not taking early action – despite having no scientific evidence behind the idea

Social media discussions on herd immunity began to appear:

On Tuesday, March 24, Byline Times posted another must-read article, ‘The Coronavirus Crisis: Oxford Model Touting “Herd Immunity” was Promoted by PR Agency Tied to Ministry of Defence and Nudge Unit’.

Excerpts follow:

On 24 March, the Financial Times claimed that as much as half of the British population may have already been infected by the novel Coronavirus, according to a new model by Oxford University’s Evolutionary Ecology of Infectious Disease group

The conclusion, according to the FT’s science editor Clive Cookson, suggested that the country “had already acquired substantial herd immunity through the unrecognised spread of COVID-19 over more than two months”. If true, this would vindicate the Government’s “unofficial herd immunity strategy – allowing controlled spread of infection,” he stated.

Although numerous epidemiologists and scientists had questioned the validity of the Oxford model – which had not been peer-reviewed – it was promoted to the press by a PR agency with ties to the Government, raising questions about how and why this model was published and disseminated at this time.

The draft paper, which was originally posted to Dropbox, included a disclaimer noting that its content was “not final” and could be “updated any time”. The disclaimer also contained a contact point for journalists: “Contact for press enquiries: Cairbre Sugrue, cairbre@sugruecomms.com.”

Dr Lewis Mackenzie, a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Discovery Fellow, commented: “Why on earth has this been sent to the media via a third party PR company instead of the Oxford University press team? Seems very irresponsible to encourage reporting on this topic before the scientific community had a chance to comment and peer-review it.”

When asked why its own press team did not release the study, Oxford University said: “All Oxford academics have freedom of expression regarding their areas of specialism, including communication through the media. It is therefore not uncommon for academics to make their own arrangements for contacting the press. The university cannot comment on individual arrangements that it is not party to.”

Caibre Sugrue is the founding director of Sugrue Communications, a technology PR agency. He is also a non-executive advisory board member of 100%Open, an innovation consultancy – which has worked for several British Government agencies, including the UK Ministry of Defence’s Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and a leading charity which co-owns the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) or ‘nudge unit’.

This seems to be the first appearance of Prof Sunetra Gupta, later of The Barrington Declaration (a libertarian approach to coronavirus self-isolation), who works at Oxford University:

The original FT piece had claimed that, if substantial herd immunity had been achieved, restrictions could be removed sooner than expected. The article added: “Although some experts have shed doubt on the strength and length of the human immune response to the virus, Prof Gupta said the emerging evidence made her confident that humanity would build up herd immunity against COVID-19.

I contacted Professor Sun[e]tra Gupta, one of the co-authors of the study, to find out what this emerging evidence is. She did not respond to a request for comment. However, the model was reported worldwide and some commentators in both the US and UK used it to suggest that strong social distancing measures may be unnecessary

Scientists are divided on the prospects for achieving herd immunity, but most agree that, while achieving it may be possible at some point, it is not clear how long it would last. In any case, whether or not it is achievable, the immediate focus should be on minimising fatalities.

By the end of the month, confusion among journalists reigned:

April 2020

In April, it appeared that dealing with coronavirus was becoming highly complex. Author Ian Leslie tweeted a considered an explanation from a Financial Times reader:

May 2020

Two months later, Sir Patrick Vallance denied that natural herd immunity was ever a plan:

Prof John Edmunds gave Channel 4 another interview, wherein he appeared to backtrack on his previous claims about herd immunity. The first video is from his March interview and the second from May:

I’ll have more on the UK’s approach to herd immunity next week.

On Wednesday, May 26, 2021, Dominic Cummings, former special adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared before the Science and Technology Select Committee for an inquiry that lasted over seven hours.

The full session is on Parliamentlive.tv.

As one might expect from someone the media portrayed as the power behind the throne between July 2019 and November 2020, this was a highly gripping interview conducted by a number of MPs.

Cummings discussed Boris, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and the coronavirus situation. With regard to the pandemic, he said that the Government, including himself, let the nation down at a time when Britons needed them the most. He apologised for not having insisted on urgent action sooner early in 2020.

Highlights follow.

Boris

Cummings’s opinion of Boris is not the highest at the moment. Cummings wondered whether to tender his resignation several times but decided to stay on to implement the reforms he thought would make No. 10 work better.

One of their big bones of contention was the way No. 10 — especially Boris — liaised with the media, especially during the coronavirus crisis.

According to Cummings, Boris wanted to please the media only to end up contradicting coronavirus policy.

At one point, Boris opposed parts of Cummings’s plan to reform the way No. 10 worked, admitting that he preferred the ‘chaos’ (his word) to giving Cummings the power to resolve said chaos and make it run more efficiently.

Cummings said that he does not think that Boris Johnson is a good Prime Minister.

The media

The media outlets, Cummings said, gave him a hard time because he wanted to manage — and perfect — the way that No. 10 interacted with them.

Cummings’s reforms would have distanced the media contact with the Prime Minister, something that they clearly do not want.

Cummings’s trip to Barnard Castle

Last Spring, Cummings and his family went to Barnard Castle (a town and a castle) in County Durham. It was a huge deal. Boris even made him hold a press conference to explain his actions around a year ago at this time.

Naturally, MPs wanted to find out why Cummings went so far from London when people were told to stay at home.

Cummings confessed that there was something he did not mention during last year’s press conference. He said that staying in his home in north London had become untenable for him, his wife Mary Wakefield (a Spectator journalist) and their little boy. People were outside their home threatening Cummings’s life.

He said that he had spoken to Boris about decamping to Barnard Castle, where his father lives. Boris said that he could either go there or to a Government-owned property in London. Boris then went into hospital with coronavirus and Cummings himself also had the illness.

Cummings and his wife spent a few weeks deciding what to do. Then a newspaper article alleged that Cummings said something about coronavirus deaths that was patently false. Once again, people appeared outside his home.

The couple decided to go to Barnard Castle by car. Cummings wanted to get back to work, even though he had not recovered from the virus. Cummings’s wife did not want him to go back alone, so the family left Barnard Castle to return to London.

The story ran and ran in the news, agitating an already distressed general public cooped up at home. Cummings said that, once Boris returned to Downing Street, he said, ‘This cannot stand’ and told his adviser to hold a press conference, which one MP at the inquiry described as a ‘witch hunt’.

Carrie Symonds

Cummings was also frustrated with Boris’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, who, on one occasion when coronavirus was critical, wanted Boris to have someone complain to a newspaper about a story involving the couple’s dog.

He also said that Symonds had too much say in hiring No. 10 staff.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock

On more than one occasion during the session, Cummings called Health Secretary Matt Hancock a liar for his lack of coronavirus plan.

Cummings said that Hancock should have been fired early last year for claiming that patients leaving hospital for care homes last year would be tested before discharge and for saying that a ‘protective’ (Hancock’s word) ring was placed around care homes.

Cummings said that neither claim was true. The Select Committee have asked Cummings to provide them with specific evidence for such serious allegations.

Barbara Keeley (Labour) was one of the MPs asking Cummings about the care home debacle:

The Science and Technology Select Committee will be interviewing Matt Hancock in a fortnight.

Afterwards, they will file their report from their many sessions on coronavirus. This can be used as evidence in a general inquiry into the Government’s handling of coronavirus, scheduled to begin sometime in 2022.

Coronavirus

Cummings answered a lot of questions about the 2020 coronavirus policy.

He said that a plan for lockdown should have been developed in January 2020. The general consensus in No. 10 was that it was a new type of SARS and that everything would blow over soon.

Cummings thought that air travel should be stopped, but that No. 10 and a number of Conservative MPs thought that would be seen as a ‘racist’ policy, therefore, nothing happened.

The idea of doing nothing was mooted and let people have ‘chicken pox parties’ so that there would be a natural herd immunity by September 2020.

By February, Cummings became increasingly concerned and wanted a southeast Asian style lockdown. In early March, he began consulting academics who had strong quantitative (number-crunching algorithmic) skills to project what would actually occur if there were no lockdown. Cummings referred to this as Plan B:

A specialist in the NHS who was also good with numbers advised Cummings that ‘chicken pox parties’ were out of the question. Coronavirus was too deadly.

Cummings said that he was reluctant to press for a lockdown at the end of January or in February because he was worried that his assumptions might have been wrong.

In any event, the scenario given to him in March helped him persuade No. 10 that a lockdown was necessary. Yet, even then, he said that SAGE members disagreed among themselves as to whether lockdown was a good idea.

After the first lockdown, he said, Boris had deep regrets as to whether it was the right thing to have done. He was worried about the economic impact on people’s lives at the same time he regretted the loss of so many Britons to the disease.

When autumn rolled around, Sir Patrick Vallance and Prof Chris Whitty alerted Cummings that a second lockdown was needed. Boris disagreed, because he did not want any more distress inflicted on the public or the economy. In the end, we had a very lengthy lockdown from Christmas 2020 through to April 2021.

Conclusion

Cummings said that many things need to change in No. 10 and Whitehall (civil servants).

Too few people want emergency processes that would streamline procurement, for example. Cummings managed to get some reforms in that area in times of crisis. He also managed to get a special situation room set up at No. 10, which he said that Downing Street officials like because electronic equipment can be taken in for meetings. The COBR room does not allow that option.

Cummings is also frustrated that civil servants cannot be fired easily. Some, he said, clearly need to go.

He also says that our political system needs a rethink. He said that the 2019 choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn was not good.

Although I do not agree — even now — about Cummings’s views on lockdown and masks, I am sorry that he will not be able to implement his changes in Downing Street and Whitehall.

Those interested can read detailed live coverage from The Guardian.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021, marks the first anniversary of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown and restrictions, many of which are still in place as I write.

We had a brief reprieve during the summer, but everything closed again on Saturday evening, December 19, 2020, just in time to put a stop to the promised Christmas family get-together.

I was and continue to be a lockdown and restriction sceptic. Others are free to decide for themselves.

The Telegraph has a lengthy Twitter thread on the past year. Excerpts follow:

Two areas of England have been locked down since July 2020:

Today, a number of commemorative events took place across the nation:

Still under COVID-19 house arrest, my far better half and I have not left our town since March 18, 2020.

Of course, Boris and the two most senior members of SAGE, Vallance and Whitty, gave a 5 p.m. coronavirus briefing.

When is one of the reporters going to ask one of the following questions?

I am too angry to write any more about this subject right now. I never imagined Western countries would become police states.

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