Last week, Tory MPs planning to rebel over the 10pm rule were offered the chance to hear from one of the Government’s most senior scientific experts about why the curfew was vital to the fight against coronavirus.
‘The whips arranged a conference call with Jonathan Van-Tam [Deputy Chief Medical Officer],’ one rebel explained.
‘He was supposed to convince us to back the Government. But when we asked if 10pm would make a major difference, he said, ‘Not really. I’d prefer 6pm. Or even earlier.’ ‘
We are supposed to be ‘following the science’. But this morning, more than half the UK population is living under some form of ‘local’ lockdown. And there isn’t a shred of epidemiological evidence their incarceration will prove effective.
The scientists have basically given up on their own science. Their attitude is no longer to adopt an evidence- based approach to tackling the pandemic. Instead, they are resorting to chucking whatever they can at Covid in the hope something – anything – might just work. Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance are pictured above
Van-Tam destroyed the fiction surrounding 10pm. Just as his colleague, Professor Peter Openshaw, of Imperial College, did last month for the Rule of Six.
‘It does seem somewhat irrational in some of the detail,’ he admitted. It was left to the Chief Medical Officer himself, Chris Whitty, to blow apart the Government’s shiny new three-tier ‘traffic light’ lockdown system.
‘I am not confident, nor is anybody confident, that the Tier 3 proposals for the highest rates, if we did the absolute base case and nothing more, would be enough to get on top of it,’ he said only hours after Boris had unveiled them.
To the Government’s critics, this is further evidence of how Boris and his Ministers have let the Covid crisis spiral out of their control. Or even worse, have callously and belatedly opted to use the British people as a human shield for the economy.
But as the coronavirus second wave begins to take the nation in its steely grip, something else has become tragically apparent.
It’s impossible for Boris to follow the science, because the scientists themselves haven’t got the faintest idea what the science actually is
It’s impossible for Boris to follow the science, because the scientists themselves haven’t got the faintest idea what the science actually is.
On Monday, Westminster was rocked by the release of the latest Sage minutes. They revealed that on September 21, the panel of experts had determined Covid was spiralling out of control and a new host of measures was required, including a ‘circuit-breaker lockdown’. Yet Ministers had rejected their counsel.
For Keir Starmer, this was the moment to stop the flip-flopping and strike. ‘You know that the science backs this approach,’ he taunted at PMQs.
‘You know that the restrictions you’re introducing won’t be enough. You know that a circuit-break is needed now to get this virus under control.’
Except that the science doesn’t back this approach. Tucked away at the bottom of the bombshell Sage minute is the following passage about circuit-breakers: ‘The evidence base into the effectiveness and harms of these interventions is generally weak. However, the urgency of the situation is such that we cannot wait for better quality evidence before making decisions.’
It then details what needs to be done to produce some actual science to support a circuit-breaker.
Collection and analysis of contact-tracing data. More detailed data on the places where people are interacting and what they’re doing. A proper study on the harms and impact of different interventions in different settings.
But as Sage makes clear, none of that has actually been done. In its own words, we cannot wait for the science.
As a result, ministerial patience with their scientific ‘experts’ is wearing thin.
Last week, Rishi Sunak attended a meeting with Chris Whitty and NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens.
‘They were trying to push for a stricter lockdown on hospitality,’ a Minister reveals. ‘But Rishi pushed back.
‘He started digging deeper into the numbers. And they didn’t stand up. He said, ‘Sorry, but you’re being too selective with these figures.’ ‘
Other Ministers are becoming concerned about how the scientists increasingly seem to view their role as being that of pro-lockdown spin doctors, rather than objective experts.
They point in particular to the infamous graph ‘projecting’ 50,000 infections by mid-October. And their increasingly fast and loose use of headline-grabbing language.
‘What’s all this circuit-breaker rubbish?’ one Minister asked. ‘It’s not a circuit-breaker. It’s switching off the current. And if you do that you also switch it off to the entire economy. And then what happens when you turn it back on again?’ There is also growing anger at the way Ministers are having to carry the can for decisions effectively made by their advisers.
‘Take care homes,’ said one Government aide. ‘Why did we move people out of hospitals? Because the scientists told us we had to create new capacity. They told us there was only minimal risk of asymptomatic transmission. And they told us even if there wasn’t, we didn’t have a test that could pick up asymptomatic infection anyway.
‘So with that advice what Minister is going to say, ‘Let’s keep them all in hospital anyway?’ ‘
And there is one other significant thing that has knocked ministerial confidence in their advisers. It’s called the ‘Caprice Factor’.
On March 16, the former model appeared on the Jeremy Vine show. Why weren’t we opting for a snap two-week lockdown and insisting everyone wore a mask, she asked. And was promptly lambasted.
Last week, Rishi Sunak attended a meeting with Chris Whitty and NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens. ‘They were trying to push for a stricter lockdown on hospitality,’ a Minister reveals. ‘But Rishi pushed back. ‘He started digging deeper into the numbers. And they didn’t stand up. He said, ‘Sorry, but you’re being too selective with these figures’
‘If we stop everything, if everybody was electronically tagged to their homes for the next two weeks, we would stop the cases for two weeks, and the moment everyone left, we’d see an enormous spike,’ insisted fellow guest Dr Sarah Jarvis.
Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries warned that wearing a mask was ‘not a good idea. You can actually trap the virus in the mask and start breathing it in’, she said.
Her views were echoed by Jonathan Van-Tam. There was ‘no evidence that general wearing of face masks by the public who are well affects the spread of the disease in our society’, he said. Now it looks like Caprice was right. And the experts were wrong.
When the pandemic started, Ministers had no option. Indeed none of us had any option. The science and the scientists had to be followed.
But we can no longer ignore the facts. The scientists told Ministers if they locked down too early it would cost lives. And those same scientists are now queuing up to say we locked down too late.
The scientists told Ministers there was a low risk of asymptomatic transmission of the virus. And they now admit it occurred, and ran rampant through our care homes.
The scientists told Ministers masks wouldn’t work. Now they are telling us all they are a vital part of the fight against Covid.
On Thursday, I spoke to a Conservative MP from the East of England whose local hospital currently has a single Covid patient.
‘The scientists want a two-week circuit-breaker for the entire country,’ he said.
‘Fine. So can they show me the science that proves locking down my seat will help protect NHS capacity in Manchester and Liverpool?’
The answer is no. Because the scientists have basically given up on their own science. Their attitude is no longer to adopt an evidence- based approach to tackling the pandemic. Instead, they are resorting to chucking whatever they can at Covid in the hope something – anything – might just work.
When it doesn’t, we should all remember the time when Britain’s finest scientific and medical minds told the nation: ‘We cannot wait for better quality evidence before making decisions.’
And then someone should call Caprice.