Perhaps it should first be pointed out that the Lockdown Files are not, strictly speaking, a leak in the traditional sense of the term. Britain’s former Covid-era Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, decided to write a self-exculpatory memoir of his time in the spotlight, and—not himself naturally gifted with literary prowess—he sought an experienced collaborator to help him.
Enter Isabel Oakeshott, a political journalist with several scoops to her name who has co-written or ghost-written half the political books of the past decade (or so it often feels). To help her gain a better understanding of events as she co-wrote his book, Hancock handed over a WhatsApp archive of relevant messages between him, fellow ministers and government officials. (The book, Pandemic Diaries: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle Against Covid, has rather satisfyingly proved a total flop when it comes to sales.) Oakeshott, eventually, decided to share them with the press as information worthy of public scrutiny.
The exposé in London’s Daily Telegraph has provided a unique insight into the everyday operations of a modern government during a time of crisis. Aside from the civic and democratic benefits which might obviously accrue from this instance of (accidental) transparency, it is also a gift to the caste of historians, who will be sifting through the more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages for some decades to come, deploying arguments in scholarly journals citing the contents of these messages.
This report appears in the latest Quadrant.
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The coronavirus crisis is now over—though its after-effects linger—and one wonders how ministerial behaviour will be affected by this revelation. Will WhatsApp groups be set to automatic deletion? Or moved off WhatsApp altogether? What are the implications for the necessity of government records? And the thirty-year rule on government documents? Will governments create secure networks for communications between ministers and officials that will be understood as informal and impermanent? Or will documentary evidence be avoided wholesale, for fear of leaving dangerous evidence that can be leaked? Only time will tell. For now, we can only draw conclusions on the actions and behaviours revealed from this massive cache of information.
The wisdom of a cabinet member sharing such an archive with a savvy and well-connected political journalist does not, so far as evidence is available, seem to have been questioned by Matt Hancock. Alas, the poor judgment he exhibited in the drafting of his memoir is only matched by his actions as Health Secretary, acting in co-ordination with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (now PM), and informed by the Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance.
The measures introduced, and mirrored to varying degrees across most of the Western world, are all too familiar to those of us who lived through them: lockdowns, strict enforcement of arbitrary rules, little room for the milk of human kindness, and threats of massive fines for anyone caught breaching the regulations.
Politicians, introducing measures more and more extreme and unprecedented, claimed they were merely “following the science”. Their aim was obviously to excuse themselves and pretend they were deferring to independent experts when in fact the decisions were still being made by themselves. Claiming to “follow the science” is scientifically illiterate, misunderstanding the very nature of science and its place in human society. Simply put, when it comes to government, that’s not how science works. Science can inform, but decision-making requires wisdom—or rather, it ought to.
Never mind the reality that independent experts, however qualified, lack the most fundamental credential of all: a democratic mandate from the voters and the perpetual Sword of Damocles of being chucked out at election time that we hope (often too naively) clarifies the minds of our legislators and decision-makers. The men and women of science are incredibly useful and in some sense fundamental to our sense of ourselves as modern societies. But they are not—for good reason—endowed with the political and legislative authority that comes from democratic election.
The decision to introduce the UK’s first lockdown was largely influenced by the modelling provided by Professor Neil Ferguson, epidemiologist and professor of mathematical biology at University College London. His team’s projections suggested the UK could face hundreds of thousands of deaths from Covid unless strict control measures were introduced immediately. This meant social distancing, self-isolating for those potentially exposed, and rigorous enforcement of strenuous public health measures by the authorities. It was later revealed he had broken the strict regime of rules to visit his married lover—several times—and he resigned from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
More damaging than Professor Ferguson’s personal predilections were his ostensibly scientific projections that convinced ministers to introduce the lockdown. Projection modelling can be useful, but it is essentially informed guesswork. It is only as good as two factors: those who create the models, and those who form the decisions based on the projections the models put forward. If one, or the other, or both are flawed (as basic human nature would suggest) then we have to radically lower our estimation of it.
In reality, data shows that infections in the UK were already beginning to fall by the time the lockdown was introduced. The overwhelming majority of people have an instinct for self-preservation. Most people in the UK were voluntarily limiting their social interactions and taking active mitigation measures like more frequent washing of hands. But despite the falling number of infections—actual, reliable data, as opposed to the projections of modelling—lockdown was introduced with disastrous results. Hospital admissions peaked on April 11, 2020, but the restrictions continued for another two months. What was promised as a “circuit breaker” measure became open-ended, with Hancock bragging in his WhatsApp messages that a new strain would “frighten the pants off everyone” and graphs predicting (falsely) 4000 deaths per day.
Instead of informing the public, ministers spread fear, panic and alarm. Having created a monster, they then felt subject to the public opinion they had helped form and began to be led by it instead of leading it back to saner pastures through explanation and information. When the Chief Medical Officer advised a slight loosening of restrictions, it was the Prime Minister’s media advisers—not SAGE or other scientists—who vetoed it with the rationale that it was “too far ahead of public opinion”.
The composition of SAGE itself undermined public confidence in the judgment of some of its experts. It was revealed the one SAGE member, Professor Susan Michie, had been a card-carrying communist for more than four decades—first in the Soviet-backed Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and then, since 1988, its more orthodox Marxist-Leninist offshoot the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) when the former body had been taken over by its Eurocommunist wing.
As the director of the Centre for Behavioural Change at University College London, Professor Michie was, like Professor Ferguson, eminently credentialled. Nonetheless, there is something deeply sinister about an expert in behavioural change being a member of a group that advocates the overthrow of democracy and its replacement with a totalitarian form of government. A parallel might be drawn with Hendrik Verwoerd, the South African prime minister and architect of apartheid, who was himself a professor of applied psychology. But perhaps Michie’s politics should come as no surprise: it has been pointed out that in 1930s Germany those with doctorates were disproportionately likely to sign up to Himmler’s SS. (C.P. Taylor’s play Good explored this concept interestingly, if somewhat unconvincingly.)
It certainly should come as no surprise that a communist professor advocated greater state involvement in the lives of citizens. When questioned about face masks, Professor Michie told Channel 5 News, “We will need to keep this going in the long term.” When pressed further about how long face masks should be worn, she admitted: “I think forever, to some extent.” Aside from her membership in SAGE—so far as we know the only opponent of democracy appointed to the body—she has also been named to the World Health Organisation’s Technical Advisory Group on Behavioural Insights and Sciences for Health.
The other fundamental flaw in understanding science is the premature declaration that scientific consensus on a given subject or matter has been achieved. Citing scientific consensus, as is often done in the discussions over the anthropogenic origins of climate change, can be a means of shutting down a meaningful scientific debate. It is comparable to declaring science over and achieved, just as Nicolae Ceaușescu declared socialism had achieved in communist Romania, or East Germany’s boasts of “truly existing socialism”.
Leading scientists drew a variety of conclusions that dissented from the supposed scientific consensus regarding Covid. Professor Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University, Professor Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford and Professor Martin Kulldorf of Harvard Medical School expressed their concerns about lockdowns and the pandemic in an open letter of October 2020. The three professors argued that health and social outcomes would both be improved if protection was shifted to those most vulnerable to the coronavirus, such as the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. Instead of engaging in this debate, opponents tried to shut down the three scientists, with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organisation, going so far as to call their conclusions “unethical”.
Theories regarding how this particular coronavirus originated in Wuhan were also not considered a legitimate matter for debate. The authorities in the People’s Republic of China had informed the WHO that it originated in a wet market in the city, and had nothing to do with the virology lab also located in Wuhan, about which safety concerns had previously been raised.
Oxford University’s Anton van der Merwe, professor of molecular immunology, argues that scientists used articles in leading journals to create the impression that there was a scientific consensus behind the “natural spillover” origin thesis against the Wuhan lab leak theory. Virologists, van der Merwe says, were worried that if the lab leak theory gained credence (as indeed it now has) the future funding prospects for their gain-of-function experiments would be threatened. He suggests there is “little justification for doing such experiments, except scientific curiosity and the desire for prestige”.
Scientists are just as human—and therefore have just the same capabilities for virtue and for cravenness—as the rest of us. Human beings are endowed with minds and intelligence. There is a huge variety in types of skill or intelligence, and levels within those varieties. I am reminded of the Oxford city councillor, a Labourite, who professed a certain relief in witnessing a Fellow of All Souls struggling to operate an automatic checkout machine in a shop. Someone well qualified to explain quantum mechanics or the Homoousion might not be as qualified in repairing an M1 Abrams battle tank—or the other way round.
It is fundamental to democracy—and I can’t help but think a result of the Christian conception of human dignity—to value the adult individual’s ability to judge and decide matters, entirely separate from any credentials, qualifications or experience. A sixty-five-year-old school teacher about to retire may be infinitely wiser than an eighteen-year-old about to vote for the first time, but after centuries of organic development our civilisation has granted them a political parity of esteem.
This is not solely an argument from liberal individualism but something more pre-modern. It is why the farmers and craftsmen of the Swiss valleys long ago formed political societies in which the head of every household had an equal say in determining the shape and future of their community and making decisions for it. The primary ingredients for democracy are far older than the liberal democrats would have us believe.
Representative democracy as it has developed, however, relies on the accountability that is provided by a process in which decisions are made by known and named individuals who are accountable to the voters. The Lockdown Files have revealed how dangerous it is for our elected representatives to abdicate their own powers and responsibilities—however grave the crisis or temporary the abdication.
Andrew Cusack’s most recent Letter from London, in the March issue, was on the current British housing crisis.