In a 2,000-word essay published over the weekend, Michael Gove sought to win round Tory rebels by arguing that ‘lockdown was the only way to stop the NHS being broken’. In the article, the cabinet minister paints a picture of an NHS all set to be flattened until lockdown 2 was introduced: 'Infections were doubling fast’ at the time of lockdown — and only lockdown saved the day. Gove uses this to make his new argument: the only strategy for stopping the NHS from being overwhelmed now is the government's new tougher three-tier system.
While the article won some applause online it has also irritated several of Gove's colleagues. Colleagues who the government hopes will vote for the new tier system come Tuesday. Gove insists that cases were doubling just before lockdown — only there is plenty of data to suggest that cases were actually coming down. For many MPs, Gove’s article has had the opposite of the intended effect. It has proved incendiary.
They argue that it shows the danger of parliament giving carte blanche to the government. Their concern is that if MPs vote to back the system then they could lose the power to scrutinise many decisions, including questionable data used to make key decisions as well as conjecture mistaken for evidence.
So, in the interest of fairness — and as MPs mull over Tuesday's vote — Mr S thought it best to perform a fact check of the Gover’s claims. And the evidence:
1. Gove admits that the decision to implement the second lockdown was rushed
“ That Friday morning I was in Surrey, looking forward to a trip later to an award-winning business in my constituency, the Hogs Back Brewery. But a cloud already hung over my day. I knew that the data coming in from the frontline of the fight against the virus was ominous. So I was not surprised, although I was certainly chilled, by the summons to an action meeting to consider the difficult steps that might now be required. Of course, I’d change my diary: was the meeting tomorrow, or Sunday? No — please get back to London as soon as possible.
Gove here confirms what has been reported elsewhere. On the Thursday, ministers had been told there might be a bit of tightening to the regime. Then, on Friday, they were blindsided by some supposedly terrifying new information suggesting that the virus was surging and lockdown was needed urgently. The Treasury later admitted it did not even have time to estimate the cost of the second lockdown that the scientific advisers were suddenly urging. So the decision to lockdown was rushed. Which makes it all the more important that scrutiny is applied now.
Crucially, ministers were hit not by ‘data coming in from the frontline’ but by out-of-date ‘scenarios’ that had been drawn up weeks ago, then sprung on the cabinet without warning - all of which wrongly suggested a second wave of daily deaths higher than the first. This conjecture was then used to make an incendiary claim that, without urgent lockdown, hospitals would have to turn away even urgent cases. In his Times article, Gove writes a lot about apocalyptic NHS scenarios. We know what he was referring to as the below graph was leaked to the BBC as pressure mounted on Boris Johnson to go back on his word and enforce a second lockdown.
— Laura Kuenssberg (@bbclaurak) October 31, 2020
And this is the document that suggests NHS capacity on course to be overwhelmed ... pic.twitter.com/vsbPAfCkmq
Mr S understands that the leak inquiry has so far identified around 70 people could have known that a second lockdown was on the cards (and who could, ergo, have leaked it the press). But far fewer people had access to the above chart. This was not your usual civil service presentation of options. It was an urgent warning saying (in bold): ‘the window to act is now’.
Below is the better-known of the leaked charts, suggesting up to 4,000 deaths a day. How accurate was it?
— Laura Kuenssberg (@bbclaurak) October 31, 2020
This is one of the key slides - comparison of possible scenarios compared with peak of first wave ... pic.twitter.com/MK1WQd8kNJ
Some of the modelling had already been superseded by a more recent (and less dramatic) update. The decision not to include the update in the televised version of the graph was extraordinary. And the real situation? The black line below shows what actually happened.
Since the middle of November, actual deaths have been beneath the lowest bound of the forecast. Is this due to lockdown? Nope: it takes three to four weeks for policy changes to show in Covid fatality figures. So what we see would largely reflect pre-lockdown infections. Things were nowhere near as bad as ministers - and the country - had been led to believe. But Gove still sticks to the original, now-disproven story.
2. Gove claims that ‘infections were doubling fast'
He writes 'The number of days taken to see that increase was open to question. But the trend was not.’ Really? Covid infections doubling? Another way of sense-checking this claim is to look at NHS numbers. He writes that ‘as the numbers infected increased so, with iron logic, did the numbers in our hospitals’. If it takes three weeks for policy changes to affect hospital numbers, and they peaked at about 11 November (as government data currently suggests), that would suggest the old system of more restrained tiers was working.
Of course, this data would not have been available at that cabinet meeting. But they would have seen the growth in positive Covid cases was slowing — and on that day, the seven-day average was just 2 per cent higher week-on-week. It would not have been clear then but it’s hard to talk, now, about a ‘doubling’ rate.
The most comprehensive is the weekly sample taken by the ONS which also picks up asymptomatic infections (about 40 per cent of those who are positive have no symptoms). Its survey estimates that new infections peaked between 17 and 23 October at 51,900 and had fallen to 45,700 by 25 to 31 October. So another dataset suggests infections falling. The data takes time to come out, so it was the Friday after lockdown was introduced that this was clear (to the public, at least, ministers might have had earlier sight of the data). It’s odd for Gove to miss this out.
The final piece of information is the Zoe-King’s College London study which tracks a million people and produces live estimates of the number of people with symptomatic Covid. That data, seen by ministers, would also have pointed to a big slowdown in case growth. Like the hospital data and ONS study, it points to cases falling by lockdown.
Professor Tim Spector, who runs the project, wrote about it here on Coffee House. King’s College publishes the estimate with a four-day lag, so the decline in cases on 27 October would have been in the 31 October report to the government. By lockdown, on 5 November, it would have been clear that the slowing increase in the numbers had turned into a decline.
The fourth data source — arguably the most reliable — is Covid deaths. Data for deaths takes a while to settle but, like almost everything else, points to a peak in Covid infections a week before lockdown. More evidence that Boris Johnson was right to resist Keir Starmer's call for a circuit-breaker. Had he been given the extra time he sought, the daily info would have shown him he was right first time.
So where was the data, ‘from the frontline’ or anywhere else, to back up the thesis that Gove promotes in his article? Which makes it all the stranger that he has doubled down on this evidence-free thesis in his piece. Let’s consider the following points he makes:
a. 'Before the lockdown, the increase in infections was like a tap filling a bath faster and faster with every day that passed.'
Data showed that the bath had been filling up at an ever-slower rate for at least a week before lockdown. By the time lockdown came, the bath was probably emptying.
b. 'These are, of course, uncomfortable truths. Not least for those of us who argued that these measures, on their own, would be enough.'
The actual truths, as now shown by the data, are uncomfortable for those like Gove who now argue that the old tier system wasn’t effective enough. He was wrong and the PM was right the first time. In 2,000 words, Gove does not manage to produce much in the way of evidence for his thesis — perhaps why he seeks to strengthen it verbally.
c.'But we cannot ignore the evidence.'
On the contrary, ignoring the evidence is precisely what Gove appears to do throughout his essay.
d. 'In Liverpool, the mayor Joe Anderson bravely adopted measures above and beyond the old basic Tier 3 and championed mass testing. The result: falling infections, reduced hospitalisations and a smooth transfer to the new Tier 2.'
Cases in Liverpool had been falling for a month before mass testing. Matt Hancock’s claim that mass testing suddenly turned things around in Liverpool is contradicted by the below: the only set of Liverpool infection data.
e. 'Learning from that experience, we are confident that our new, tougher tiers will have a real impact.'
Gove’s article is so disconcerting because it suggests that ministers are not learning from experience, instead doubling down on what Theresa May referred to as the ‘dodgy data’ on which the second lockdown was based.
3. Gove on Sweden
“ Some have argued that you can avoid restrictions on everyday life, let the young in particular go out and about, and build up collective or herd immunity — 'Just look at Sweden'. But Sweden, which has in fact always placed restrictions on its population, has found that even the battery of measures it adopted was not enough. Infections rose dramatically in October and early this month, and hospitalisations continue to rise as its government has, reluctantly but firmly, introduced new measures to keep households apart, restrict commerce, stop people visiting bars and restaurants and comprehensively reduce the social contact that spreads infection.
Yes, do let's look at Sweden. Contrary to what Gove claims, it has placed hardly any 'restrictions on its population'. The only law it ‘reluctantly but firmly’ introduced was a rule of eight for public places (private properly exempted) and a 10 p.m. limit on serving booze. No tiers. It has not 'stopped people visiting bars and restaurants'. No ‘battery of measures,’ just non-binding advice. Sweden believes that people, if treated like adults, tend to heed advice — so compulsion and lockdowns are not needed to control a virus in a mature democracy. Yes, Sweden has taken a similar Covid hit to Britain. But its strategy always was to treat Covid as a manageable risk while minimising collateral damage: on society, personal liberty and the economy. The latest forecast for Sweden’s economy is a fall of 2.9 per cent this year, versus Britain’s 11.3 per cent.
In Gove’s defence, the fog of data means it was hard — in that fateful lockdown meeting — to see the figures as clearly as we do now. But when the facts changed, did he change his mind? Or, at least, his narrative? This is precisely the issue unnerving MPs. Michael Gove is now asking MPs to sign off democratic control and scrutiny of the tier system for several weeks — perhaps even months. But would he really relax restrictions if the data changed?
It’s the job of parliament to provide a check on government, to shake out errors and tease out the real ministerial thinking. On that front, Mr S suspects MPs still have much work to do.