The Sunday Times “Insight” team’s latest long read contains an audacious attempt to resurrect the old favoured critique of Boris Johnson’s opponents: namely, that he and his Government have been insufficiently activist in response to Covid-19. The charge is so far off that it would almost be amusing were the times not so grave — has any nominally libertarian, Conservative leader in history presided over more all-encompassing interventions and restrictions to peoples’ liberty than Boris Johnson has this past year?
The framing for this attack requires some key ingredients to be considered a journalistic “win” against the Government. First, it must be shown that the Prime Minister received scientific advice which he ignored, with negative effects; second, it must be shown that concerns about the economy drove the decision to ignore it (because evil, greedy Tories); and ideally, just for added colour, some evidence that he and his circle are still secretly entertaining a “herd immunity strategy” — which must go down as one of the most misleading phrases of this year (and there have been a few).
The Sunday Times piece does an impressive job of marshalling all three. It focuses on a briefing the PM received from Sunetra Gupta, Carl Heneghan, Anders Tegnell and John Edmunds of SAGE at the end of September and claims that he followed the advice of the first three scientists and therefore overruled John Edmunds’ calls for an immediate “circuit breaker” lockdown — with disastrous consequences. Twitter today has been predictably full of voices expressing dismay at this revelation.
But, quite apart from the absence of any mention of what we now know about “circuit breaker” lockdowns — the Welsh attempt seems to have failed terribly — the central assertion that the PM followed their advice is false.
We know that Gupta, Heneghan and Tegnell were invited to participate alongside Professor Edmunds, via zoom, in a Sunday evening “debate” format that was intended to test the logic of the Government’s strategy. The PM was on the call. Each expert spoke for around 15 minutes, and there were few questions. As prominent sceptics of the wisdom of lockdowns, the first three seem to have been there to show that all sides had been considered (and no doubt to demonstrate to anxious backbenchers that the Government was not being held captive by SAGE).
I am told that Gupta argued that, instead of continuing with community-wide restrictions such as the “traffic light” scheme or further lockdowns, resources should be diverted to better protecting the vulnerable during the inevitable seasonal increase in infection levels over the coming winter. It was, and remains, her belief that fewer people would have died if the Prime Minister had followed this advice, and done a better job of protecting highly vulnerable groups instead of the current one-size-fits-all approach.
Instead, he did precisely the opposite: continuing with community-wide restrictions before moving England back into a full nationwide lockdown a month later. The PM and his top ministers like Matt Hancock actively portray the so-called “Great Barrington” proposal (of which Gupta was a signatory) as an irresponsible “let it rip” approach that they cannot countenance. It’s not exactly following the Gupta method.
It is reasonable for people who have principled or practical objections to lockdowns to criticise the Government for remaining so closely aligned with the most interventionist voices on SAGE, and equally for people who support that approach to applaud it. But, despite its political attraction, the reverse attack (that they have not listened enough to these voices) just doesn’t wash. We’re almost a year into this pandemic and yet naked party politics and basic “gotcha” journalism tropes are still driving the discussion. Sigh.