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‘Following the Science’ – My &(Y#

This new piece in The Specator by Fraser Nelson is not to be missed. In it, he reports the substance of his recent discussion about covid policy in Britain with British MP Rishi Sunak. Sunak is currently vying to replace Boris Johnson as Tory leader and, hence, now also as Prime Minister of Great Britain. From February 2020 until early last month Sunak was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Here are some slices from Nelson’s piece:

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. ‘It was saying: you should be careful not to do this stuff too early, because being able to sustain it is very hard in a modern society.’ So the scientific advice was, initially, to reject or at least delay lockdown.

This all changed when Neil Ferguson and his team at Imperial College published their famous ‘Report 9’, which argued that Covid casualties could hit 500,000 if no action was taken – but the figure could be below 20,000 if Britain locked down. That, of course, turned out to be a vast exaggeration of lockdown’s ability to curb Covid deaths. Imperial stressed it did ‘not consider the wider social and economic costs of suppression, which will be high’. But surely someone involved in making the policy would figure it out.

This was the crux: no one really did. A cost-benefit calculation – a basic requirement for pretty much every public health intervention – was never made. ‘I wasn’t allowed to talk about the trade-off,’ says Sunak. Ministers were briefed by No. 10 on how to handle questions about the side-effects of lockdown. ‘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.’


One of Sunak’s big concerns was about the fear messaging, which his Treasury team worried could have long-lasting effects. ‘In every brief, we tried to say: let’s stop the “fear” narrative. It was always wrong from the beginning. I constantly said it was wrong.’ The posters showing Covid patients on ventilators, he said, were the worst. ‘It was wrong to scare people like that.’ The closest he came to defying this was in a September 2020 speech saying that it was time to learn to ‘live without fear’ – a direct response to the Cabinet Office’s messaging. ‘They were very upset about that.’


Lockdown – closing schools and much of the economy while sending the police after people who sat on park benches – was the most draconian policy introduced in peacetime. No. 10 wanted to present it as ‘following the science’ rather than a political decision, and this had implications for the wiring of government decision-making. It meant elevating Sage, a sprawling group of scientific advisers, into a committee that had the power to decide whether the country would lock down or not. There was no socioeconomic equivalent to Sage; no forum where other questions would be asked.

So whoever wrote the minutes for the Sage meetings – condensing its discussions into guidance for government – would set the policy of the nation. No one, not even cabinet members, would know how these decisions were reached.


‘I was like: “Summarise for me the key assumptions, on one page, with a bunch of sensitivities and rationale for each one”,’ Sunak says. ‘In the first year I could never get this.’ The Treasury, he says, would never recommend policy based on unexplained modelling: he regarded this as a matter of basic competence. But for a year, UK government policy – and the fate of millions –was being decided by half-explained graphs cooked up by outside academics.

‘This is the problem,’ he says. ‘If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed.’ Sir Gus O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary, has suggested that Sage should have been asked to report to a higher committee, which would have considered the social and economic aspects of locking down. Sunak agrees. But having been anointed from the start, Sage retained its power until the rebellion that came last Christmas.

When the Omicron variant started to rise last December, the dance began again. A Sage analysis claimed that without a fourth lockdown, Covid deaths could hit 6,000 a day. That was out by a factor of 20. But we only know this because, for once, the government rejected Sage’s advice. This time, Sunak was taking soundings of his own – including academics at Stanford University, where he went to business school, and his former colleagues in the world of finance who had started to do some Covid modelling. Crucially, JP Morgan used South African data on Omicron to suggest that UK hospitals would not be overrun – contrary to Sage’s predictions.


At the time, No. 10’s strategy was to create the impression that lockdown was a scientifically created policy which only crackpots dared question. If word leaked that the chancellor had grave reservations, or that a basic cost-benefit analysis had never been applied, it would have been politically unhelpful for No. 10.

Only now can Sunak speak freely. He is opening up not just because he is running to be prime minister, he says, but because there are important lessons in all of this. Not who did what wrong, but how it came to pass that such important questions about lockdown’s profound knock-on effects – issues that will probably dominate politics for years to come – were never properly explored.


And the other lessons of lockdown? ‘We shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did,’ he says. ‘And you have to acknowledge trade-offs from the beginning. If we’d done all of that, we could be in a very different place.’ How different? ‘We’d probably have made different decisions on things like schools, for example.’ Could a more frank discussion have helped Britain avoid lockdown entirely, as Sweden did? ‘I don’t know, but it could have been shorter. Different. Quicker.’

There’s one major factor he doesn’t raise: the opinion polls. Lockdowns were being imposed all over a terrified world in March 2020 and the Prime Minister was already being accused of having blood on his hands by failing to act earlier. Surely whoever was in No. 10 would have been forced to lock down by public opinion? But the public, Sunak says, was being scared witless, while being kept in the dark about lockdown’s -likely effects. ‘We helped shape that: with the fear messaging, empowering the scientists and not talking about the trade-offs.’


To Sunak, this was the problem at the heart of the government’s Covid response: a lack of candour. There was a failure to raise difficult questions about where all this might lead – and a tendency to use fear messaging to stifle debate, instead of encouraging discussion. So in a sentence, how would he have handled the pandemic differently? ‘I would just have had a more grown-up conversation with the country.’