The aftermath of the first lockdown in 2020 was an opportunity to make choices, to learn from the global experience of the first months of the pandemic, and to plan for the coming winter. Serious people all over the world were working all hours to understand what had happened, what was happening then, and what could happen in the future under various public health measures. The emerging evidence from the Covid inquiry shows that this seriousness did not make it into Britain’s government.
Testimony from members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), the former chief scientific adviser to the government Patrick Vallance, civil servants, and Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings reveal that the UK was governed by people making up policy as they went. The government ignored much of the evidence assembled by its own scientific advisers, turning to those outside the consensus when it didn’t like the conclusions. Their testimonies reveal a government that didn’t foresee issues that were eminently foreseeable, that didn’t learn lessons that were eminently learnable.
More than 50,000 people had died from Covid by the end of June 2020 but over 90 per cent of people had not yet been infected. There were precious few treatments and there was not at that time a vaccine. The UK’s population was highly susceptible to the virus and the potential for new, devastating, exponential growth hovered in the background. By July 2020, infections, hospitalisations and deaths were very low, and we had an opportunity to take stock, reset and do things differently. It was an opportunity largely wasted.
We had hard evidence from countries avoiding the first wave – and lockdowns – through methods such as tight border controls, rapid population-wide testing and a high-quality contact tracing system, as Dominic Cummings acknowledged in the inquiry last week. But our test and trace system started late, did not reach enough people, and did not support people to isolate. Instead, we went headlong into an entirely foreseeable test availability crisis in September 2020 while Rishi Sunak, as chancellor, ignored scientific advice to provide financial help for Covid sufferers who needed to isolate. Vallance wrote in his diary: “CX [chancellor] blocking all notion of paying to get people to isolate despite all the evidence that this will be needed.” We saw proof of the efficacy of good contact tracing again in the autumn of 2020, as a host of countries were able to slow down and reverse waves without locking down.
By the end of July 2020 we knew from other countries that keeping cases low while opening up was hard, and that Covid certainly wasn’t over – despite what Boris Johnson chose to believe. We knew that significant increases in other countries were linked to super-spreading settings such as bars and restaurants.
What did we do? Rishi Sunak launched the Eat Out to Help Out scheme to encourage people to spend money in restaurants. The scheme was active in August 2020. The policy was not run past Sage and had no scientific support. One scientist nicknamed Sunak “Dr Death”, the inquiry has heard. In September 2020, 10pm curfews were introduced to pubs and restaurants, despite very little scientific evidence that limiting opening hours would have significantly limited infection. By October 2020, curfews were judged by Sage to be ineffective, while many of the measures suggested by Sage were ignored. The curfews continued.
Also by the end of July 2020, we knew that outdoor environments were much safer than indoor ones, and that good ventilation was key in crowded indoor settings. Despite little evidence for transmission from contaminated surfaces, the government guidance prioritised hand-washing while “fresh air” was not added until 2021. Meanwhile, Japan was already promoting open windows, air filtration and tight-fitting masks from mid-2020.
These misjudgements fed directly into preparations for a return to in-person education in September 2020. Schools were known as a potential contributor to transmission, but not enough effort was made to make indoor spaces safer. For instance, we learned last week that Gavin Williamson actively discouraged masks in secondary schools because it was suggested by teaching unions. The impact of school closures, and later, isolation requirements, were most felt by pupils in disadvantaged communities, from the foreseeable fiasco of A-level results in 2020, to higher infection and school absence rates in deprived areas, to the need to provide learning spaces, laptops and free internet. Instead, laptop allocation for disadvantaged pupils was cut in October 2020.
More broadly, by the summer of 2020, it was evident that ethnic minorities and those from deprived areas were hit hardest by the pandemic. They were more exposed to infection and more at risk of severe illness once infected. Covid created an even greater need for better housing, better sick pay, better work environments, better support for isolation in these communities but precious little was done. We watched it happen again in the second wave, particularly for south Asian communities.
Finally, if we were to learn anything from the first wave in March 2020, then surely there were two key points: the importance of acting early in the face of rapid exponential spread; that any action needed to come alongside policies to sustainably reduce transmission – otherwise cases could bounce back straight away.
We did the lockdowns – local and national – but too late, and far too little changed in the meantime. Most tragic was the failure to delay the second wave just as extremely effective vaccines became available, resulting in thousands of avoidable deaths.
The Sage minutes and reports from 2020 tell their own story, but so do the academic papers and the different policies in other countries. I highlighted a lot of these issues at the time, too. I wasn’t special – I was just trying to learn from others. Our leaders did not. Instead, we’ve heard this month how Johnson’s “flip-flopping” derailed policy, how the government system was dysfunctional, how Sage scientists were ignored, and how Johnson was motivated more by helping the Daily Mail and, according to Cummings, the Evening Standard and the Telegraph than controlling the pandemic.
As the inquiry continues, we must be sceptical when policymakers say that no country did better or that no one could have known. There were better international responses and better options for the UK throughout the pandemic. And these better options were knowable at the time.