Today
Wed 3 March 2021

Sam Bright reports on new evidence about a decisive moment in the pandemic when the Prime Minister defied his advisors and rejected a circuit-breaker lockdown

Remember last Summer? It seems impossible to envisage a time when the outside world wasn’t accompanied by frostbite and pangs of guilt, yet there was indeed a moment not too long ago when people frolicked in parks and touched pint glasses with friends. The cost of this is now palpable. We failed to suppress the deadly COVID-19 virus when we had the chance and, instead, our fleeting return to relative normality incubated more contagious strains of the disease.

Yet there was a tipping point in this national calamity – when the Government and its scientists foresaw an impending resurgence of the virus and had an opportunity to act. This moment came in mid-September when the particles of the Summer fun had settled.

Whereas on 31 August there were 1,406 new cases of COVID-19 logged in the UK, this figure had climbed steeply to 4,422 on Saturday 19 September.

Boris Johnson was faced with a dilemma – one that has been recurrent during this crisis. Either impose restrictions early and aggressively, as the Government’s advisors recommend, or attempt to blindside the virus with a series of creative yet epidemiologically questionable half-measures.

So the Prime Minister sought counsel. The Government’s official experts – the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – recommended a rapid, time-limited ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown to restrain the growth of the virus. This option, according to reports, was backed by Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock, as well as (now former) Downing Street chief aide Dominic Cummings and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak, architect of the nation’s Summer binge, disagreed. According to reports, he organised a summit between Johnson and several lockdown-sceptic scientists, in an attempt to broadcast another point of view.

Government records, released in recent days, firmly confirm the existence of this meeting – and reveal its full cast.


The Summit

First on the guest list was Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine. Speaking to Sky News on 20 September, Professor Heneghan warned against a circuit-breaker, claiming that lockdowns slow down the progression of the virus “slightly,” and then lead to a “resurgence”. Instead, he advocated allowing COVID-19 to pass through the population so as to build up natural levels of immunity, while in theory shielding the vulnerable.

“What happens in the population is that there has to be a level of immunity for this to become manageable,” he said.

This strategy, commonly known as ‘herd immunity,’ has several fundamental flaws, as repeatedly observed by experts on Byline Times. Namely: in a highly mobile society, it is virtually impossible to shield the vulnerable. That’s why deaths remain high, even during lockdown. There’s also a lack of evidence about the endurance of immunity levels after infection, and whether people can be reinfected with the disease. What’s more, a rampant virus increases the likelihood of variants emerging that evade immunity and vaccines.

Yet some scientists still subscribe to the herd immunity mantra – including Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology at the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford – who was also present at the 21 September summit.

On the same day, Gupta and Heneghan had co-authored a letter, published by the right-wing Spectator magazine, calling on the Prime Minister to “urgently rethink” his Coronavirus strategy.

The letter said that Boris Johnson’s approach, of suppressing the virus until a vaccine becomes available, is both “unfeasible” and would lead to “significant harm across all age groups”. Instead, the letter proposed, the Prime Minister should apply “targeted measures” to protect the vulnerable – such as those in care homes – while avoiding lockdowns. The letter did not explain how or why the authors believed care home residents had not been protected during the pandemic up to that point, or what more could be done.

Gupta is one of the three lead signatories to the Great Barrington Declaration – a document that codifies the antipathy of some scientists towards lockdowns – and a bible for lockdown-sceptics across the West. As Nafeez Ahmed has documented for Byline Times, the Great Barrington Declaration was incubated by a libertarian think-tank based in the United States that is part funded by right-wing climate sceptic billionaires.

An international outlook was provided at the meeting by Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell. Under the direction of Tegnell, Sweden has been an international outlier during the pandemic and has imposed only relatively mild public restrictions. Despite becoming an icon among British right-wing commentators, Tegnell’s approach has produced disastrous outcomes. More than 12,000 people have died in Sweden from COVID-19, compared to 600 in Norway, 700 in Finland, and 2,200 in Denmark.

Yet at this pivotal moment in Britain’s supposed war effort against COVID-19, it was these three scientists who yanked the ear of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor – joined on the call by SAGE member Professor John Edmunds, and Professor Angela McLean, chief scientific advisor to the Ministry of Defence.


Enter the Right-Wing Press

We don’t know the contents of the meeting – the minutes are not publicly available – but we know the outcome. Not for the first time during the crisis, the Prime Minister’s pendulum swung.

Rather than favouring a short, sharp lockdown, Johnson spoke to the nation on 22 September and announced peripheral alterations to the Government’s rules – banning more than six people from meeting and announcing a 10 pm curfew on pubs and restaurants. The latter policy was soon ridiculed, after hundreds of people were seen flocking onto pavements and trains at closing time, like school children bouncing out of a classroom.

We are now living with the devastating impact of that decision, or rather lack of decision. A month later, by 21 October, the number of new COVID-19 cases in the UK had hit 26,687. Daily deaths had risen to more than 200.

During this period – first identified in September – a new, more contagious variant of the disease made an appearance in the south of England. Left to multiply in the fertile conditions of London shopping centres and stuffy pubs, the variant fuelled burgeoning daily case rates – standing at 35,028 on 20 December, when thousands of people were pictured desperately evacuating the capital ahead of Christmas.

On 4 January, the Prime Minister announced a new national lockdown that looks unlikely to be released until the late Spring, when all at-risk groups have been vaccinated. Contrary to the beliefs of Heneghan and Gupta, suppression and mass vaccination has ultimately been the only course of action available to the Government, to stave off unconscionable death and the implosion of the NHS.

Nearly 60,000 people have died with COVID-19 in the UK since September. Unimaginably, that figure would have been a lot higher, if the Government hadn’t, belatedly, imposed tougher restrictions in December and January. Alternatively, it seems likely this figure would have been considerably lower, if Johnson had avoided the allure of ideology and had instead followed the science – as he so frequently promised at the outset of the pandemic.

Herd immunity has not been achieved, nor was it ever going to be.

In an additional quirk of the Johnson oligarchy, the Prime Minister spent the days before and after his non-announcement on 22 September meeting with right-wing newspaper editors and proprietors – one of the most vocal lobbies against lockdown restrictions. Indeed, in addition to their libertarian leanings, media moguls realise that papers don’t sell if people don’t venture outside.

Byline Times can reveal private meetings between Boris Johnson and multiple senior right-wing media figures, while the Prime Minister weighed up the merits of a circuit-breaker lockdown. The BBC was the only other outlet to gain access to Boris Johnson in this period – via a meeting with director general Tim Davie and director of BBC News Fran Unsworth.

Meetings held with Prime Minister Boris Johnson

18 September – Rupert Murdoch, News Corp
21 September – Aidan and Howard Barclay, the Telegraph
21 September – Rebekah Brooks, News UK
21 September – Lord Rothermere, Daily Mail
21 September – Victoria Newton, The Sun
21 September – Geordie Grieg, Daily Mail
21 September – Tony Gallagher, The Times
21 September – Chris Evans, the Telegraph
23 September – Fraser Nelson, the Spectator

Dominic Cummings is not known for his receptiveness to public scrutiny. The man behind the Vote Leave campaign is still in contempt of Parliament for refusing to testify before a committee investigating fake news. The only time Cummings popped out of his bunker, during his 16-month stint in Downing Street, was after his Barnard Castle lockdown controversy dominated the news for several days. And even then he answered questions from the media begrudgingly.

Yet, ITV political editor Robert Peston says that Cummings is willing to testify before a public inquiry that Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak rejected his pleas for a new lockdown in September.

The day of the 21 September was a seminal moment in Britain’s COVID tragedy-farce. A moment that, by all accounts, Boris Johnson unambiguously failed to seize.

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