‘We could have got away with less if we had done it earlier.’ Those words to me from a scientific adviser to the government – about the lockdown of England the prime minister is planning to announce, probably on Monday – foreshadow a looming crisis of confidence in Boris Johnson’s stewardship of measures to tackle the Covid-19 crisis. Here is the chronology that is devastating for Johnson.
On 21 September, his advisers on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies recommended there should be a two-week circuit-breaking lockdown in England, to bear down on coronavirus infections that were rising but were still at a low level. The PM refused, misplacing his faith in a Test and Trace service that he created and which he wrongly hoped would allow him to identify local infection hotspots and bear down on them before they spread – even though Sage told him on the same date that Test and Trace at that juncture was not doing its job well enough. So on 12 October Johnson announced his ‘three tier’ approach to suppressing the virus in different regions, with measures supposedly designed for the differing relative and respective severities of the outbreaks.
But again, and the same day, his scientific advisers made clear they had significant doubts about the system he had designed: the chief medical office, Chris Whitty, responding to a question from me about why they weren’t going for the only measure they knew worked, namely comprehensive lockdown, disclosed that in his view even the highest tier of measures for acute regional outbreaks was not tough enough. And the reason for Whitty’s scepticism was that even in that very highest tier, hospitality venues stay open, so long as they serve proper food along with drink.
So here we are, with an estimated 1 in 100 people in England currently suffering from the virus, and the PM is set on Monday to announce that for a month all restaurants and pubs will be closed, though schools will remain open. If the scientists had their way, universities would cease all face-to-face teaching and revert to doing everything online. It is not clear whether the PM will at the last take their advice. But the big point is this – and it is one that his leading scientific advisers are completely explicit about: if Johnson had done the circuit breaker in late September, the prevalence and rate of transmission of the virus would have been suppressed to such a low level that Test and Trace today would be able to identify and address hotspots with a laser-like accuracy. By taking tougher action earlier, our way of life and economic activity could have been maintained in a more normal way for longer during this difficult winter. In other words, the prime minister’s biggest mistake was – arguably – to put his faith in the false dichotomy between fighting the virus and propping up the economy.
This means more lives will be lost than if there had been an earlier circuit breaking lockdown and the economic cost of bearing down on the virus will be greater than if there had been an earlier circuit breaking lockdown. Labour and Sir Keir Starmer, who called for a circuit breaking lockdown, will say ‘we told you so’. But much more damaging for the prime minister is that his own scientific advisers also said ‘we told you so’. The prime minister appears to have made a catastrophic misjudgement. He may argue that we are still living in world of hypothesis about the virus. But the physical health, mental health and economic costs of a disproportionately longer lockdown will be laid at his door.