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How ministers were warned lockdowns could be worse than Covid itself

- THE TELEGRAPH - The Lockdown Files Team - March 10, 2023 -

Leaked WhatsApp messages reveal how leaders grappled with the impact of national shutdowns while trying to contain virus

Coronavirus lockdowns meant restrictions that were difficult for many people to cope with CREDIT: Tom Maddick/SWNS

As the third anniversary of the first national lockdown approaches, the true human and financial cost of the policy is still emerging.

Missed operations, economic scarring, compromised schooling and damage to people’s mental health were just some of the problems stored up for the future by shutting down the country three times in 2020 and 2021.

The ministers and officials behind lockdowns were well aware of the possibility - and then the reality - of collateral damage being caused to millions of lives as they pushed ahead with the controversial policy, despite warnings that the cure would be worse than the disease.

WhatsApp conversations contained in The Telegraph’s Lockdown Files show that those running the country privately acknowledged the “terrible” price of lockdowns and twice reimposed the national shutdowns, even as they discussed the damage they were causing to physical and mental health, children’s prospects and mental health.

In April 2020, a month into the first lockdown, Matt Hancock, the then health secretary, was already coming under pressure over cancelled NHS operations and became personally involved in an individual case described as “tragic”. It involved a 17-year-old girl who had had part of her skull removed in January 2020 following a brain haemorrhage and needed surgery to reconstruct her skull after developing life-threatening complications.

The case was garnering national media attention and Steve Baker, the girl’s local MP, asked Mr Hancock to step in.

Mr Hancock forwarded Mr Baker’s message to a colleague – also called Steve – and urged them to “get right on this”.

In December of that year, shortly after the month-long “circuit breaker” lockdown and with the four nations of the UK adopting a “tiers” system of graded localised restrictions, Mr Hancock was again getting involved in a case where Covid rules were causing a personal tragedy.

Jacob Young, the Redcar MP, had raised the issue of a boy with a brain tumour, who had been given no more than two years to live, being blocked from holidaying at Center Parcs with his family.

Mr Hancock forwarded Mr Young’s message to Allan Nixon, the then health secretary's special adviser.

Even before the lockdown restrictions had been reimposed following an easing of the rules over the summer of 2020, Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, was discussing the “terrible” cost of lockdowns in a WhatsApp group that included Boris Johnson, Mr Hancock, England’s Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser.

For many people, the worst knock-on effects of lockdowns were on children, whose physical and mental health and future prospects were all impacted by the closure of schools and the squeeze on the NHS.

By May 2021, when the last of the lockdowns were over, ministers were increasingly seeing the extent to which children had become collateral damage. One topic of conversation was child deaths in mental health units, raised by a civil servant on May 14.

Three days later, Ms Dorries raised the issue of deaths among children being seen by the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS).

Late that night, a civil servant sent in Mr Hancock’s private office sent him a WhatsApp message alerting him to a child respiratory virus that was expected to surge in the summer months as a result of the virus being suppressed during lockdown - known in Whitehall as an NPI, or non-pharmaceutical intervention.

The concerns proved to be well-founded. The virus, which usually causes symptoms similar to a common cold, causes an average of 29,000 hospitalisations and 83 deaths per year in the UK, mainly in infants.

Because so few children were exposed to RSV during lockdown, there was an “unprecedented” surge in cases in 2021, according to a paper published by Lancet Infectious Diseases.

During the summer of 2021, there were more than 12,000 cases of RSV, compared with the average of fewer than 900 in a typical summer.

Aside from the health problems being stored up for children, there were also discussions that month about university entrants “taking the hit” from the exams fiasco.

Ofsted has since warned that nearly all children fell behind during the pandemic and that loneliness, boredom and misery became “endemic” among children, whose physical and mental health declined as a result.

Lockdowns also contributed to an NHS backlog that the British Medical Association has said will take years to clear. By December 2022, there were 7.2 million people on NHS waiting lists, compared with 4.43 million in February 2020.

Meanwhile excess deaths – the number of deaths over and above a long-term average – were greater in October 2022 than during the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021.

Lord Bethell, then a health minister, warned about this in September 2020 but only made what he called a “gentle” challenge to a policy of cancelling an information campaign urging people to seek medical help even for minor symptoms of illness.

Lord Bethell, Mr Hancock, Ms Dorries, social care minister Helen Whately, junior health minister Jo Churchill and special adviser Emma Dean discussed the problems being stored up for the NHS in a lengthy WhatsApp chat in May 2021. Their conversation ranged from online GP appointments to NHS backlogs to receptionists triaging patients despite having no medical training.

Ms Dorries, whose brief as a health minister covered mental health and suicide prevention, was also concerned that as the authorities became increasingly stretched by the demands of the pandemic, the number of suicides was being underestimated – something the Government was reluctant to admit.

As early as July 2020, with the first lockdown still in place, Ms Whately was worried that one of the knock-on effects of lockdown was that care home residents would have been neglected following the suspension of inspections by the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

Ms Whately had hoped the issue had been avoided through emergency arrangements but Kate Terroni, chief inspector of adult social care, did not share her optimism.

There were also knock-on effects from a legal point of view. In April 2021 Allan Nixon, Mr Hancock’s special adviser, was worried about the Government being sued by the families of those who had died because of the backlog on cancer care and elective treatments.

The ongoing inquiry into the pandemic response, which will begin hearing from witnesses later this year, will consider, among other things, the impact of the pandemic on the mental health and well-being of the nation, and the impact of the pandemic on children and their education.

Its terms of reference do not, however, specify that the inquiry will examine the knock-on effects of lockdowns or whether using lockdowns was the right policy at all.

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