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Britain may well repeat its lockdown blunders sooner than anyone thinks


From Sweden and the WhatsApp leaks, it’s clear what needs to be changed. But will anyone do it?

A true lockdown hero: Sweden’s Anders Tegnell CREDIT: Magnus Andersson/Shutterstock

Almost exactly three years ago, Chris Whitty explained the trouble with lockdowns. Pandemics, he would say, kill people in two ways: directly – and indirectly, via panic and disruption. It’s hard to measure the latter but you can count the total number of deaths, from all causes. Such figures are coming in now. The country with the smallest rise isn’t Australia or New Zealand, who closed their borders. Nor is it Italy or Canada, who had some of the toughest lockdowns. The winner, with the smallest rise in “excess” deaths since the pandemic began, is Sweden.

For those who had accused the lockdown-rejecting Swedes of pursuing a “let it rip” policy that left people to die, this is all rather baffling. And it raises some interesting questions. Australia had hardly any Covid: just lockdowns. So how did it end up with “excess deaths” – at 7 per cent – more than twice the level of the Swedes? If choosing lockdown was to “choose life” (as Matt Hancock put it) then where, in the world’s data, is the correlation between lockdown severity and lives saved?

It may suit the Government to delay the Covid inquiry reckoning until after the general election, but the conversation needs to be had now. There is more than enough evidence to update the pandemic plan, given that a new pathogen could emerge at any moment. And a harder, perhaps even more important question: how to restore trust in public health? What rules need to be in place to ensure that, next time, data is not misrepresented and science is not abused by politicians?

The Lockdown Files give three main insights into what went wrong. First, we have firm examples of “the science” being invoked to impose various measures that turn out to be politically motivated. Then we see the slapdash method in which major decisions were made: how WhatsApp replaces normal government. And finally, the tone. How after taking emergency powers, this group of men go from being thoughtful and open-minded to being flippant and gung-ho. Once again, we see how power corrupts – and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

There is one fascinating exchange where Ben Wallace, who as Defence Secretary has seen his share of emergencies, is roped into one of the WhatsApp decision-making groups. He seems appalled and explains that, if they don’t mind, he will leave them to it and keep operating through normal government methods. If others had reacted the same way, things could have been very different.

By showing us the psychology of a group in a crisis, the Lockdown Files explain why previous pandemic planning failed: it didn’t factor in human nature. The public panic was so deep that there was huge pressure to impose restrictions, whether they worked or not. This created a gravitational pull that sucked in the government, opposition and much of the media – crushing the normal safeguards (cost-benefit analyses, etc). No one wanted to go against it. Even academics found a huge pressure to be quiet if they had doubts. Oxford’s Carl Heneghan calls this the “silence of science”.

Sweden had the unflappable Anders Tegnell as chief epidemiologist, who went all-out to argue against what he saw as populism: lockdowns that were not backed by science and could cause more harm than good. He never stopped arguing, giving television interviews while waiting on train platforms and publishing study after study. He won people over. Sweden ended up with middling Covid but among Europe’s least economic damage and lowest increase in deaths. In an interview last week, Tegnell offered advice for his successor: “Have ice in your stomach.”

Must our next pandemic response be so dependent on personality? Must the fate of nations depend on musical chairs – whether the seat is held by a 63-year-old epidemiologist like Tegnell (whose CV included hands-on experience with Ebola) or a couple of WhatsApping 41-year-olds like Matt Hancock and Simon Case?

Safeguards can – and should – be put in place now. There is no need to wait for an inquiry.

The Prime Minister can, at any time, order that from now on modelling needs to follow Treasury standards of transparency and robustness, stating main assumptions and uncertainties. Likely trade-offs (long and short-term) must be clearly acknowledged for every public health response. Complexity must be recognised. Critics should be welcomed, not hounded. Sage, whose very name is now synonymous with spin and bungling, should be disbanded.

It could all be needed sooner than we think. Some 130 million birds now are understood to have died from the latest variant of bird flu, which has already jumped to mammals with a human fatality in Cambodia. We can imagine what could very well happen next: Public Health England starts to do some “scenario” planning for it becoming a human pandemic, with a bias towards the worst case.

Sage is exhumed. Professor Neil Ferguson comes up with some doom graphs. The whole merry-go-round could easily start again.

But will politicians be taken seriously next time they say “trust the science”? Polls in the US show that trust in public health bodies has taken a major hit since Covid. While no similar studies have been done here, we do see worrying signs in falling rates of childhood vaccination. Overstating the scientific case during Covid – where the science was genuinely mixed – risks reducing confidence in other areas where the science really is clear.

And the brutal truth? The science on Covid still isn’t clear. On masks, on social distancing, even school closures – it’s hard to say what difference they make to the spread of a virus. The UK hasn’t commissioned a single high-quality study into what works and what doesn’t. Even the excess deaths count is complicated – but Sweden is at or near the bottom, whichever way you cut it. But even now, no one seems very interested in the actual science, or learning lessons any time soon.

It’s now 20 years since the boring old coronavirus mutated into a killer in the Sars epidemic. Asian countries updated their pandemic emergency plans – but Britain didn’t, sticking with its flu-based approach. Are we seeing the same complacency yet again? We have now seen, in the Lockdown Files, much of what went wrong.

We have also seen, in Sweden, what can go right. We will now see whether Rishi Sunak can put the two together.

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