When Britain was being locked down, the country was assured that all risks had been properly and robustly considered. Yes, schools would close and education would suffer. Normal healthcare would take a hit and people would die as a result. But the government repeatedly said the experts had looked at all this. After all, it wasn’t as if they would lock us down without seriously weighing up the consequences, was it?
Those consequences are still making themselves known: exams madness, the NHS waiting list surge, thousands of unexplained ‘excess deaths’, judicial backlogs and economic chaos. Was all that expected, factored in, and thought by leaders to be a price worth paying? Right at the start of lockdown, ministers had already started to worry that the policy was being recklessly implemented without anyone thinking about the side-effects. Only a handful of key players at the very top made the decisions: among them Rishi Sunak, the chancellor. He has now decided to go public on what happened.
When we meet at the office he has rented for his leadership campaign, soon to enter its final week, he says at the outset that he’s not interested in pointing the finger at the fiercest proponents of lockdown. No one knew anything at the start, he says: lockdown was, by necessity, a gamble. Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser, would openly admit that lockdown could do more harm than good. But when the evidence started to roll in, a strange silence grew in government: dissenting voices were filtered out and a see-no-evil policy was applied.
Sunak’s story starts with the first Covid meeting, where ministers were shown an A3 poster from scientific advisers explaining the options. ‘I wish I’d kept it because it listed things that had no impact: banning live events and all that,’ he says.