Robert Peston

The truth about the government and ‘herd immunity’

The truth about the government and ‘herd immunity’
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I spent much of the 1980s and 1990s reporting on company chief executives who didn’t understand the distinction between mine and theirs. They enjoyed lavish lifestyles — company flats, art collections, huge expense accounts — without the owners of the company (you and me through our pension funds) having a clue. Then came the corporate governance revolution, and much of this was cleaned up. So I had déjà vu earlier this week when reporting that the Tory party had loaned tens of thousands of pounds to lavishly decorate and refurnish the PM’s home in Downing Street. Maybe Tory donors and members think this is an appropriate use of their money. But did anyone bother to ask them?

To add insult to Tory party injury, the Electoral Commission says it may have committed ‘an offence or offences’ in the way it used donors’ money to pay for the gold doorknobs and wallpaper. The corollary is that the PM may have broken the ministerial code in taking the loan and not telling us about it. That would normally be a resigning matter, except for one wrinkle. As we learned recently when Priti Patel stayed in her post after she was ruled to have bullied officials, it is the PM himself who decides whether the code has been breached. And if the PM ends up marking his own homework, we know what the outcome will be. In fact he’s already told us he’s done nothing wrong, which is a sentiment he’s expressed in various contexts more times than any prime minister in history, and he’s only just started the job.

Johnson blames his estranged former aide Dominic Cummings for the ignominy of having to defend his home furnishings in parliament. But for all the messiness of their divorce, they initially fell out over an issue of more important principle: almost from the start of the Covid catastrophe, Cummings wanted more and stricter restrictions on our freedoms — tougher lockdowns, earlier lockdowns — than the Prime Minister did. And yes, I know most of you find that impossible to believe, given that the PM was hospitalised with Covid-19 and it was Cummings who was accused of playing fast and loose with the rules in his Barnard Castle adventure. But it is so. Obviously, if the rumoured ‘smoking tape recording’ exists of the two men’s increasingly fraught encounters, what we’d most like to hear is Cummings shouting: ‘It nearly killed you, what are you on about?!’

And because Cummings is about to go on the record about his Covid advice to the PM, I can at last reply to the many angry people who wrongly accused me of being a mouthpiece for him when I wrote a blog for ITV and The Spectator on 12 March last year about how Johnson and his scientific advisers were at the time resisting full lockdown. The blog, which generated a lot of noise, said the government was pursuing a strategy of allowing the virus to pass through the population in a slow and steady way so that we acquired ‘herd immunity’. What I wrote was the prevailing view of the PM, his ministers and his scientific advisers. I still can’t tell you who briefed me but it was not Cummings (and my briefing was witnessed, in case you care). As Cummings will testify to MPs, this was the moment the penny dropped for him, and his ally Ben Warner, that the NHS would struggle to cope. They began to pressure a reluctant PM to shield the elderly, restrict our movements and lock down.

Ministers to this day falsely deny that ‘managed herd immunity’ was ever the policy. It is almost as though they haven’t bothered to read the minutes of their own experts on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). The minutes of a Sage meeting on 13 March, the day after I published the blog that caused such a furore, say: ‘Sage was unanimous that measures seeking to completely suppress spread of Covid-19 will cause a second peak. Sage advises that it is a near certainty that countries such as China, where heavy suppression is under way, will experience a second peak once measures are relaxed.’ The scientists were unanimous. And they were unanimously wrong. China and other Asian countries that went for early brutal lockdowns and suppressive measures have fared incomparably better than us. But since the two scientists who at the time were steering the response to the pandemic, the chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and the chief medical officer Chris Whitty, were sceptical about Chinese-style full lockdown, perhaps the PM is off the hook. As usual. Those ten days, from ‘nudged’ social distancing to police-state lockdown on 23 March, are probably the most important ten days in modern British history. Cummings’s testimony about this to MPs on 26 May will matter.