The UK Covid19 Inquiry, promised by the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the early days of the pandemic, is meeting and pouring over what happened with a view of learning lessons for next time. And yes, there will be a next time. Science and politics are on the stand and both are coming under intense scrutiny. Its terms of reference; “to examine, consider and report on preparations and the response to the pandemic in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, up to and including the Inquiry’s formal setting-up date, 28 June 2022” is a mammoth task indeed.
The proceedings are attracting significant media attention and in the current part of the inquiry, Part 2, the chair Lady Hallett seeks to assess government policy response in the early part of 2020, the Autumn/Winter of 2020 and up to the end of 2021 when vaccination started and we all gave a collective sigh of relief.
What is clear is that the main scientific advisors to government – the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) -were very clear in their consensus early in 2020 that significant non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) would be required. Those who delivered SAGE’s views to government, mainly the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer, have given evidence and are pretty scathing of the politicians of the time. Boris Johnson has come in for particular criticism as someone who had great difficulty understanding the science and as a consequence making the important decisions. According to the advisors, the main decision he dithered too long over was to mandate a lockdown requested by SAGE as early as March 12th. This did not happen until March 23rd. SAGE had a firm consensus that, to save lives, stay safe and not overstretch the health service we needed a mandated lockdown earlier. The Inquiry seems focused on how the politicians finally got to and implemented this decision and it seems to have been a chaotic and messy affair.
The Inquiry is surprisingly uninterested in asking another question; was a mandatory lockdown the right policy in March 2020 and then again in the autumn of 2020. The composition of SAGE was heavily biased towards infectious disease experts who saw a mandatory lockdown as the only solution given the ferocity of this new virus. SAGE saw only viral deaths and an overwhelmed health service and that narrow perspective ignored other consequences many of which we now are living with. When asked about the composition of SAGE the CMO Sir Chris Whitty said that there needed to be a consensus and if the number of members and the range of expertise of the committee was extended it would be less easy to get a consensus. So SAGE was blinkered from the start and anyone with a different view or prediction was shunned. It was a very bad time for science.
Early epidemiological studies based on scientific modelling predicted large effects from a mandatory lockdown. One model simulation study predicted that lockdown would reduce COVID-19 mortality by up to 98%. These predictions were questioned by many scientists at the time but their concerns about the models were dismissed. Indeed, there was no clear negative correlation between the degree of lockdown and fatalities in the spring of 2020. Given the large effects predicted a simple negative correlation between COVID-19 deaths and the degree to which lockdowns were imposed, should have been observed but was not. A study on-line has estimated that the reduction in deaths due to mandated lockdowns over the pandemic was 0.2% and following significant criticism of the methodology by those who supported lockdowns, the methodology was modified and the figure revised up to 3.2% of total deaths, hardly inspiring. (1)
What seems forgotten is that people’s behaviour was much influenced by what was going on and well before we were forced by law to stay a home we were doing so and observing social distancing and wear face covering. Indeed, in Sweden this is what happened and it faired better than the UK in terms of covid19 deaths. It is said that Sweden was much worse than other Nordic countries but that might be down to its decision, similar to the UK, to send elderly patients out of hospital untested and into care homes where the virus spread rapidly.
Mandatory lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic have had devastating effects. They have contributed to; reducing economic activity, raising unemployment, reducing schooling, political unrest and domestic violence. They are a key contributor to extended waiting-lists for essential medical interventions and a driver for global non-covid excess deaths which we are currently experiencing.
These costs to society must be compared to the benefits of mandatory lockdowns but they are being ignored by the Inquiry. Carl Heneghan, an epidemiologist and someone who has given evidence at the UK Covid19 Inquiry, has voiced his concerns on the Inquiry’s direction and purpose (Spectator 4th November 2023). He wonders if the Inquiry is not just a whitewash to keep those in positions of power where they are.
In his 1922 book Public Opinion, Walter Lippman talked about “manufacturing consensus” as a way of running a democracy. He proposed two classes in society; the specialist class who plan and execute laws for the spectator class (the Bewildered Herd) who are so stupid they should be managed by judicious use of propaganda once the spectator class has reached its consensus. In this way they can be trusted every four years to vote for the system and largely they do. The specialist class consists of a highly intelligent elite who supposedly have the real interests of the democracy at heart and therefore should be allowed by whatever means to get on with it. In the specialist class there are those with real power – the politicians in a democracy – and those who advise – the civil service – and between them the consensus is manufactured.
What we are seeing at the UK Covid19 Inquiry is just another bolstering of the system by supporting those “who protect us from the trampling and the roar of the Bewildered Herd”. We should have been trusted to take the steps necessary to protect ourselves, our families and our communities with much lesser mandated rules. The consensus to impose mandatory lockdowns arrived at in March 2020 was wrong, it did not follow, rather it cherry picked the science and for which the Bewildered Herd will pay a very heavy price yet no specialists will be made accountable and the politicians, as is their purpose, have moved on.
- A LITERATURE REVIEW AND META-ANALYSIS OF THE EFFECTS OF LOCKDOWNS ON COVID-19 MORTALITY RTALITY SAE./No.200/January 2022 /October 2021 Jonas Herby, Lars Jonung, and Steve H. Hanke
I am a pharmacist in Belfast.