A week ago, we said there was a whiff of Tony Blair about the Government’s case for a second lockdown. It felt rather too much like the launch of the 2003 dodgy dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, which was used to stampede the nation into the Iraq War, to the eventual regret of almost everyone.
We were more correct than we knew. In the following days, it became clear that graphs and projections used to justify the renewed shutdown were decidedly dodgy, and should never have been published.
Predictions of 1,500 Covid deaths a day by early December were wrong when they were flashed on to the nation’s TV screens on the night of Saturday, October 31. Even more alarmist figures, apparently suggesting a horrifying 4,000 Covid deaths a day by the end of December, also turned out to be based on outdated models. The independent Office for Statistics Regulation was unimpressed, saying with acid understatement that ‘the use of data has not consistently been supported by transparent information being provided in a timely manner. As a result, there is potential to confuse the public and undermine confidence in the statistics’.
Westminster sources say the leak of a lockdown plan which appeared in the newspapers of Saturday, October 31, came as a nasty surprise to Boris Johnson, who angrily launched enquiries to discover who was responsible
Former Prime Minister Theresa May seems to have had right on her side when she asked in the Commons if figures were being chosen to support the policy, rather than the policy being based on the figures.
There is certainly a strange air of manufactured panic and rush to judgment in Downing Street. The process leading to the national shutdown was dubious and furtive. That is partly why the British people entered the new lockdown in a spirit of resignation and doubt. Most will observe it, but many will do so unwillingly and with a feeling that they have reached the end of their endurance.
Does this crude bludgeon of a policy even work? If it does, why are we doing it again? What is the ultimate aim?
One thing is beyond doubt. If it is extended one second beyond its planned four weeks, there will be major discontent not only among the public but in the Tory party and in Parliament too. Attempts to sustain a lockdown in disguise, by imposing the tightest possible restrictions under the tier system in every locality, will not get the Government off the hook.
Many MPs feel they were pressured and hurried into a decision that will damage their constituents – and one that is simply not suited to large parts of the country. This is not surprising. There also appears to have been a concerted effort to bounce the Prime Minister into a lockdown he did not really want.
Westminster sources say the leak of a lockdown plan which appeared in the newspapers of Saturday, October 31, came as a nasty surprise to Boris Johnson, who angrily launched enquiries to discover who was responsible. He had hoped to use the weekend to consider the evidence. As it turned out he was pushed into making the announcement at a repeatedly postponed, misleading and chaotic press conference that evening.
This shambles should trigger a complete change in the way such decisions are taken.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak is pictured attending a news conference in March
The so-called ‘Quad’ of senior Ministers who actually sign off on such matters is weighted in favour of lockdown zealots. It also seems to be receiving expert advice from only one direction. The Government is well aware of the growing numbers of front-rank scientists who urge a less drastic response. It has even had some of them in for consultations. But until it gives them a permanent and regular place on the relevant expert bodies, and until they have just as much access to Mr Johnson’s ear as the existing heavily pro-lockdown advice groups, there is a constant danger of a new Dodgy Dossier.
The main source of scientific counsel to the Government, the Sage committee, must be reformed and reconstituted to reflect the real and important disagreements among experts.
Ministers will then have to choose consciously between different science-based options, rather than pretending there is just one ‘science’ which they must obey. New blood would also do much to prevent repeats of the recent dubious graphs and wild prophesies. Such things are far more likely to emerge from conclaves where only one view is held, than from open discussions between opponents.
Chinatown in London is empty of visitors due to trading restrictions of the second Covid-19 national lockdown
Mr Johnson must also dissolve the existing Quad, which is now an echo chamber of doom and alarm. He should create a new mini-Cabinet more representative of the differing currents of opinion and the differing interests – especially in business and employment – which are increasingly coming into play, as we enter the eighth month of the crisis. No doubt the idea of the Quad was to make swift decisions easier. But sometimes the urge for speed overrides common sense and caution. It is increasingly important that this does not happen again.
Amid the maze of conflicting and duplicated figures on tests, hospital admissions and bed occupancy, there appear to be signs that the initial autumn surge of Covid may be abating or at least levelling off. Some parts of the country have infection figures so low that they can hardly justify the measures now being taken.
We must be cautious about this, not least because this time of year is notorious for sharply increased incidence of respiratory diseases. A further rise is perfectly possible. But others must be cautious about it too.
What the British public needs is to be treated in a more adult way. In future, we – and Parliament – should expect and require a far more sober assessment of the information before us. Speculation and guesswork should not be presented as fact or even as officially sanctioned.
Two women wearing face coverings walk through the town centre in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales
The authorities should be more rigorous about attributing deaths to Covid when it may not have been the main factor.
They should be careful not to mix up positive tests of people who have few if any symptoms, with actual diagnoses of illness.
They should admit that the NHS has for years been short of acute beds, and that winter crises often lead to very high levels of occupancy without any need to shut down the economy. In short, they should stick to providing cool, clear information, allowing cool, clear heads to respond to it in a proportionate and effective way.
The decision of last weekend cannot realistically be undone, though plenty of businesses must now wish heartily that it could be.
What matters now is that it is not needlessly repeated or extended, as Cabinet Minister Michael Gove has already hinted that it will be, just a day after the Prime Minister said it would not be. Business cannot flip-flop and zig-zag as politicians do. It has to meet serious tests in real life. It must plan and be ready, and stick to its chosen course, or it fails, and jobs and livelihoods fail with it. Business must be open again for the vital few weeks before Christmas, and hope must be rekindled. We have had enough punishment and misery.
If the Government repeats this mess, it does not deserve to survive. If Boris Johnson does not free us from lockdown on December 2, his future – and that of the Conservative Party – will be in doubt.