The Spectator got great publicity for its interview last week with Rishi Sunak. The Spectator’s lockdown-sceptical editor Fraser Nelson sees his interview with Rishi as a coup being the first, in advance of a public inquiry into Covid19, to suggest that democracy wasn’t working well during Covid19 and that too few unelected scientists were alone in deciding and making policy. Superficially it all sounds as if Rishi was against lockdowns just unable to influence things even though he was the second most powerful politician in the land.
Looking back now it can all seem confusing but there were three lockdowns and when in December 2021 the new variant Omicron started to surge in the UK, we nearly had a fourth but then, if we are to believe the ex-chancellor, the politicians rebelled and in spite of the scientific advisers forecasting death and devastation we didn’t go into another lockdown and things just worked out fine.
Scientists held too much power in policy decisions according to Rishi and this scientific advice was too focused on the impact of the virus in causing death and devastating the NHS. No one, he complains, was advising on the wider impacts of lockdown; on education, other public health consequences and the economy. Mr Sunak is now suggesting that he was the lone voice against an orthodoxy that claimed locking down the population was the best and only option for managing the pandemic. But it is untrue if not disingenuous to suggest that he, with his inside information from his old employers JP Morgan, was the one who finally put paid to the prevailing scientific advice.
The fact is that there was very little real science involved in lockdown policy making across the pandemic. From January to March 2020 we knew very little about the SARS-CoV-2 virus and how it behaved. We knew; it was transmitted from person to person, caused respiratory infection and that it could kill but weren’t sure who was at greatest risk and what its death rate might be. Because of our profound ignorance of the disease back then there might have been a case to support the first lockdown but it quickly emerged that the virus mainly affected the elderly and that, where considerable numbers became sick, the death rate was thankfully lower than was initially thought. The policy decision to restructure the NHS as a pandemic service and, as part of this, shift the elderly out of hospitals and into care homes will be shown to be one of the main drivers of the death rate from SARS-CoV-2 in this period of the pandemic. This happened across Europe and the UK was not an exception.
It was a strange time for science as, in the first six months of the pandemic, it appeared the advice coming from SAGE was a consensus agreed by all scientists. This was far from the truth. There was considerable disagreement among scientists it was just that dissenting views from credible scientists were crushed. Any scientist who had a view against the orthodoxy was threatened and abused. The media, to its shame, worked to keep the dissenting voices quiet and the message clean. To think scientifically at that time it seemed was verging on the criminal. So the consensus from SAGE was not science it was orthodoxy and, as with all orthodoxy, it did not easily change when new data emerged. Change when new data emerges should be a fundamental if we were indeed committed to “following the science”.
The Great Barrington Declaration of October 2020 was a statement by a group of eminent scientists and sociologists on the merits of “Focused Protection”, keeping a ring of steel around those most at risk of dying from infection; mainly the elderly but also those who were obese with co-morbidities and the immunocompromised. This declaration stated that national and regional lockdowns were wrong policy because they were too damaging to society for the small overall gain they achieved. Their views were valid and history will, I believe, decide they were right. Dr Jay Bhattacharya working in the US and Dr Sunetra Gupta working at Oxford were lead authors on the paper and these scientists were victimised by national governments across the globe and some of the 16,000 scientists who signed the declaration even lost their jobs. They dared challenged the orthodoxy, they dared follow the science. So it was wrong to claim justification for the second and third lockdowns, when we had a much better understanding of the virus.
Rishis Sunak was right to stand up and speak out against this orthodoxy but he did so some 15 months after a very large number of scientists had already made the case some of whom paid a price for doing so. It would have been better had he supported those who were victimised for their science.
I am a pharmacist in Belfast.