Throughout the various Covid meetings, Sir Patrick Vallance was scribbling in his notebook almost as much as Michael Gove, leading Boris Johnson to assume that he was keeping a diary to be published afterwards. This made sense to Johnson who started to tell friends that Vallance knew ‘more about arse-covering than face-covering’ (Vallance had refused throughout the crisis to say whether the policy of police-enforced mask mandates had any basis in science). Now, we see some scribbles in Vallace’s diary via the Covid inquiry: not very illuminating and some expected insults about those who questioned lockdown. But there is one point that I’d like to take issue with.
Vallance says that science was given too much weigh over economics. ‘The science was there for everyone to see. The economic advice wasn’t.’ The asymmetry of advice is is not a new point. Imperial College’s now-notorious studies breezily admitted that they did ‘not consider the wider social and economic costs of suppression, which will be high’. Rishi Sunak told me in summer last year that as Chancellor he was not allowed to even refer to the side-effects of lockdown. The No. 10 ‘script’ – the briefing notes given to ministers giving interviews – was quite clear. ‘I wasn’t allowed to talk about the trade-off,’ Sunak said. ‘The script was not to ever acknowledge them. The script was: oh, there’s no trade-off, because doing this for our health is good for the economy.’
Sage should have reported to a higher committee that would have considered the educational, social and economic impact of lockdown. But I don’t think Vallance is right to say the science reigned supreme. I’d say the real problem is that politics was given too much weight over science, which is why Vallance ended up speaking culture-wars language when he should have been thinking like a scientist: sceptical, data-driven, always questioning, keeping calm.
In his diaries, Vallance accuses Boris Johnson of wanting to ‘let it rip’ which is not a scientific term but a political insult for those asking questions of lockdown policy. His diary extract read:-
PM meeting – begins to argue for letting it all rip. Saying yes there will be more casualties but so be it – ‘they have had a good innings’,” before later saying: “DC says ‘Rishi thinks just let people die and that’s okay’. This all feels like a complete lack of leadership.”
If Vallance, as chief scientific adviser, had come to see lockdown scepticism as “letting it all rip” then that shows just how politicised he had become by that stage. As for Sunak, his scepticism is being rapidly vindicated as we see the side-effects of asking people to ‘protect the NHS’ by not using it – with almost ten million missed appointments. Then there are wider consequences of higher disease burden and excess mortality that are only now becoming clear.
Vallance says that he differed from Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, in that he wanted to lock down earlier. He made no reference to the fact that, contrary to what they believed at the time, the virus had been sent into reverse before lockdown as people stayed at home. The behavioural response was enough all along. The below graph is one of many studies to make this point – a crucial point, not recognised by the Covid inquiry.
So yes, economic advice was not taken seriously enough. A failure to commission an all-round cost-benefit analysis was unforgivable. No minister was able to make an informed decision if they were not informed of all of the implications of a policy: but this was a deliberate strategy by the pro-lockdown faction in the Cabinet Office.
We also learned yesterday that the 4,000-deaths nonsense graph was shown by Vallance at the Halloween press conference because it had been used by Johnson’s advisers to scare him into action – and he felt the public should be shown what he had seen.
The story here (which the Covid inquiry missed) was that Johnson was being spun by his advisers and shown misleading data. Vallance said Johnson was ‘bamboozled’ by charts – I’m not surprised about this if he was fed nonsensical charts that Vallance should never have allowed to circulate even internally.
Vallance said of Johnson:
“He would look at the peaks of waves and infection and ask: ‘Are the interventions we’re making doing that or is this what would have happened anyway? And he did come back to that point, often. We had talked him through what the evidence was, that the interventions made the difference. Of course it is true that at some point they come down because at some point, public behaviour changes. But the point was that clearly these were being manipulated down by interventions.”
Johnson, surely, was bang on. Would the infections have fallen without lockdown? Correlation is not causation, so why does Vallance think the NPIs worked? And if they so “clearly” did, could he kindly cite the evidence making this clear? Again, politics triumphs over science. Vallance is using the debating technique of making a large, unsubstantiated claim by saying it is clear and obvious – when it is anything but. The below chart shows Covid deaths in Britain and Sweden, which is just as urbanised but did not lock down. If lockdown pushed UK rates down, what was responsible for the fall in Sweden?
This makes a larger, more important point: science was sidelined during lockdown. Science is defined by the need to resist tribalism, to rigorously test conjecture and refutation, to accept most conclusions as provisional and to keep testing. To quote a recent paper, "The fundamental principle of science is that evidence—not authority, tradition, rhetorical eloquence or social prestige—should triumph."
By October, the actual evidence (from the death data and the experience of Sweden) could have shown Neil Ferguson’s lockdown theory was (to put it politely) not supported by the data and that society was about to be closed yet again on a false premise.
Vallance backed lockdown for Omicron on what now stands exposed as junk advice from Sage, which you'd think would make him question the value of the advice he was given so far.
It's Chris Whitty's turn to give evidence today. We'll see what, if anything, he can add to the story.