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8 July 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 11:02am

Why it’s absurd for Boris Johnson to claim “no one knew” about asymptomatic Covid-19 spread

If no one knew asymptomatic transmission was a risk, why did the government order us to stay at home?  

By Anoosh Chakelian

Boris Johnson has been under pressure all week to retract comments he made blaming care workers for Covid-19’s spread. The Prime Minister said: “We discovered too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures in the way that they could have.”

Amid anger and disappointment from the care sector, a No 10 spokesperson insisted afterwards that: “The PM was pointing out that nobody knew what the correct procedures were because the extent of asymptomatic transmission was not known at the time.”

Johnson repeated this excuse at Prime Minister’s Questions today, when asked to apologise to care workers by the Labour leader Keir Starmer:

“When it comes to taking blame, I take full responsibility for what has happened but the one thing nobody knew early on during this pandemic was that the virus was being passed asymptomatically from person to person in the way that it is, and that’s why the guidance and the procedures changed.”

This is odd reasoning.

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Firstly, because the risk of asymptomatic transmission (infection from people who contracted the virus but weren’t experiencing symptoms) was warned of by scientists towards the very beginning of the crisis.

As early as 28 January, for example, a meeting of the government Scientist Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) noted “there is limited evidence of asymptomatic transmission, but early indications imply some is occurring”, and Public Health England was already preparing a report on the matter by that time.

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By 28 February, an early study from China submitted to the World Health Organisation was published and linked to on its website, which indicated that the coronavirus “can be transmitted by asymptomatic carriers”.

The extent of transmission risk from asymptomatic carriers and pre-symptomatic carriers (those who have been infected and will go on to develop symptoms), is still being studied, and there has indeed been uncertainty over how infectious symptom-free carriers actually are.

However, that doesn’t explain the government’s slow action on care homes. It was still insisting by 12 March that the spread of the virus to care homes or the community remained “very unlikely”, waiting until 2 April to advise against care home visits from family and friends, and only requiring hospitals to test the patients they were discharging to care homes for the virus as late as 16 April.

This does betray a lack of understanding by the government, but it cannot be explained by confusion over asymptomatic transmission. After all, if there was no awareness that we could spread and catch the disease without realising, why did Johnson describe it as an “invisible killer” in the very second line of his lockdown speech on 23 March? Why, indeed, was everyone told to “stay at home” rather than just those experiencing symptoms if the latter were the only people assumed to be infectious? Why couldn’t symptomless workers carry on going into the office, or symptomless drinkers carry on going to the pub?

Those living with symptom-presenting people were instructed to self-isolate for 14 days even if they did not feel ill, and outwardly healthy doctors working on Covid-19 wards distanced or lived apart from their families, for the very reason that we could not see how the disease spreads. The government could, and should, have been just as alert to this risk in care homes.

[see also: How Britain’s essential but most vulnerable workers were exposed as the virus spread rapidly]