PROFESSOR CARL HENEGHAN and DR TOM JEFFERSON: We warned about lockdown
We warned lockdown would bankrupt us, and so it proved… Next time a pandemic hits, our leaders can’t make the same mistakes, writes PROFESSOR CARL HENEGHAN and DR TOM JEFFERSON
The release of a trove of private WhatsApp messages — the so-called ‘Lockdown Files’ — has shone a badly needed spotlight on the Government’s mishandling of Covid.
In devastating detail, the messages — between former health secretary Matt Hancock and other ministers and officials — have demonstrated the chaotic and frequently inhumane response of some of our elected leaders.
Yes, they were human beings faced with an unprecedented emergency. But their arbitrary decisions were all too often based on unreliable data and political expediency.
Even as they claimed to be ‘following the science’, they were gripped by dogma.
As scientists with over 50 years’ experience between us in respiratory virus epidemiology and medicine, we watched events unfold from March 2020 with dismay, almost despair.
The messages — between former health secretary Matt Hancock and other ministers and officials — have demonstrated the chaotic and response of some of our elected leaders
From our own careful studies, we believed that locking down Britain would inflict lasting damage on society — without preventing the spread of the virus over the long-term.
In April 2020, we wrote: ‘Lockdown is going to bankrupt all of us and our descendants and is unlikely at this point to slow or halt viral circulation.’
So it proved. Covid restrictions have left Britain with a £400 billion bill and the highest tax burden since the war.
What the Lockdown Files show most vividly is that anyone who dared to question the long, hard restrictions favoured by Hancock and other officials found themselves vilified.
We were treated as dangerous subversives, accused of spreading ‘misinformation’.
In the climate of Covid fear, our reputations were traduced and we were even banned from some social media groups. Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the Government’s Sage scientific committee, absurdly accused us of being ‘responsible for a number of unnecessary deaths’.
Yet it is the lockdown obsessives, Hancock among them, who got it wrong — and who pursued a course of action with near-fanatical obession.
When Professor Sir Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, recommended compulsory testing for ‘all going into care homes’, for example, Hancock decided against, telling advisers it ‘muddies the waters’.
Pictured: Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre For Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University (left) and Dr Tom Jefferson, epidemiologist with a special interest in acute respiratory infections (right)
When it became clear Sweden was coping well with the pandemic despite keeping schools, pubs and restaurants open, Hancock was enraged by what he called the ‘f*****g Sweden argument’ and told his aides to produce ‘three or four bullet [points] of why Sweden is wrong’.
In another WhatsApp message to his media adviser about a new variant, the minister urged: ‘We frighten the pants off everyone.’
But none of the revelations offer us much solace. We always knew we were right.
Frankly, we despair at what has been done to this country by wrongheaded Covid policy. At the height of the pandemic, the nation was told that one of the prime reasons for lockdown was to ‘save the NHS’.
Yet the service is now in a bigger mess than ever, with waiting lists of seven million and a workforce in turmoil.
Meanwhile, the education of millions has been ruined, social care remains mired in neglect and mental health problems have worsened significantly.
All this was foreseeable. Especially in the absence of vaccines, lockdowns just delay virus cases. Even the Government’s own Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance seemed at first to grasp this.
On March 13, 2020, when the pandemic was beginning in earnest in Europe, he wisely observed: ‘If you locked down absolutely everything, probably for a period of four months or more, then you would suppress the virus. But when you do that and then release it, it all comes back again.’
At the height of the pandemic, the nation was told that one of the prime reasons for lockdown was to ‘save the NHS’
But ministers, eager to be seen to be doing something, decided they knew better. To back up their assumption of social control — unprecedented in peacetime — they peddled empty propaganda and dodgy statistics that helped create a climate of fear.
One example of their approach was generating anxiety in October 2020 to bring in a second lockdown, amid lurid claims that, without it, the death toll could reach 4,000 a day by Christmas.
Knowing this figure was a wild overestimate, we provided Government advisers with less terrifying data — which demonstrated that their fatality estimates could be four times too high. Carl even managed to make our case in a Zoom call with Boris Johnson, then the prime minister.
Our efforts were to no avail. A fixed ideology had rooted itself in Downing Street and the second lockdown in November 2020 went ahead.
As we said at the time: ‘The idea that a month of economic hardship will permit some sort of ‘reset’, allowing us a brighter future, is a myth.’
Hancock’s leaked messages damningly reveal a chronic lack of judgment among those in charge, coupled with contempt for dissenting evidence and the wider public.
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case joked about travellers being ‘locked up’ in quarantine hotels. ‘I just want to see some of the faces of people coming out of first class into a Premier Inn shoe box,’ he chuckled.
We learn, too, that face masks were introduced in English schools only after Nicola Sturgeon did so in Scotland and Boris Johnson was told it was ‘not worth an argument’ to persist with a different policy.
A fixed ideology had rooted itself in Downing Street and the second lockdown in November 2020 went ahead
Informed debate went out the window. In one telling exchange in November 2020, Sir Chris Whitty suggested to Hancock that the 14 days of isolation imposed on individuals ‘pinged’ by the Government’s testing system could be replaced by a far less onerous testing system over five days.
Hancock’s main concern was not the effectiveness of the proposal, though — but the maintenance of the Government’s tough image. Such a change, he replied, ‘would imply that we were getting it wrong’. So the 14-day period stayed for another month before it became ten days.
In July 2021, in one week alone, half a million people were ‘pinged’. Retailers were forced to close shops and transport firms to cut services due to staff shortages.
With decisions based on such flimsy evidence, contradictions abounded. Incredibly, the rules on restrictions, contact and travel were changed no fewer than 200 times in 2020.
The reporting of deaths was inconsistent, too. There was a huge difference between dying from Covid — where the virus was the direct cause of death — and dying with Covid. It suited the Government’s fear-mongering agenda to lump them all together.
Face masks were introduced in English schools only after Nicola Sturgeon did so in Scotland and Boris Johnson was told it was ‘not worth an argument’ to persist with a different policy
And far too much reliance was placed on dubious models. Faith was placed in experts who, in the past two decades, wrongly predicted 136,000 UK deaths from new variant CJD contracted by eating meat infected with BSE (or mad cow disease); 65,000 deaths from swine flu; and 700,000 deaths from bird flu.
We were vilified for our scepticism in 2020, but the essence of science is to challenge data, re-examine evidence and question assumptions.
Instead, during Covid, disrespect was piled on incompetence and alarmism. There was a different path to be taken, but with Hancock and his deluded associates at the helm, the Government did not take it.
As a consequence, it was the children who suffered, the frail and the elderly who were abandoned, and the most disadvantaged who were harmed. The next time a pandemic strikes, our leaders cannot make the same mistakes.
- Professor Carl Heneghan is director of the Centre For Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University and a GP. Dr Tom Jefferson is an epidemiologist with a special interest in acute respiratory infections.
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