Covid advisor’s Cheltenham amnesia

Covid advisor’s Cheltenham amnesia
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Steerpike finally got his hands this week on a copy of Failures of State by the Sunday Times Insight duo Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott about Britain's experience of Covid. While not exactly a barrel of laughs, Mr S did enjoy one contribution from SAGE member Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at University College London and a Communist party member of 40 years. Reflecting on the decision to allow Cheltenham racing festival to go ahead in March 2020, Michie told the authors:

I thought Cheltenham should definitely not have been allowed to go ahead. I remember looking at the television images of what was happening there and feeling slightly nauseous about it, just feeling: 'God, this is awful.' Given what was happening in Italy and we could see what was happening here, it just didn't seem appropriate.'

But was this really the case? As the eagle-eyed Dominic Lawson notes, Michie was sufficiently content with the decision to let Cheltenham go ahead to defend it on the Andrew Neil show. Asked by the host: 'What did you think when you saw the pictures of tens of thousands at the Cheltenham races this week? Did it make you wonder if we were doing the right thing?' a smiling Michie replied:

Well you always have to think about, if you cancel things, what are the alternative? So if you cancel say, the audience, spectators, coming into a football match, you end up instead of having thousands of people in the open air with groups of 300 people crammed together in warm pubs, then you may have a bigger problem on your hands so this is why it's not just simple, stop people getting together and that's the end of it... you have to think through the unintended consequences and realise that this is a very complex decision.

Calvert and Arbuthnott record Michie as now supporting 'not just a Government inquiry but an independent public inquiry' as  'immediate interventions at an early stage would have made far more sense' and that the failure to do so 'as among many mistakes the government has made, one of the bigger ones.' Steerpike wonders what such an inquiry will make of SAGE's own role in the failures of the pandemic, given the failure of Michie and her colleagues to forsee the problems for which she lambasts the government.

Written bySteerpike

Steerpike is The Spectator's gossip columnist, serving up the latest tittle tattle from Westminster and beyond. Email tips to or message @MrSteerpike

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