The initial strategy was endorsed by the government’s science advisers, laid out publicly by its senior science advisers, and was, in essence, the consensus of the elite in Westminster and in the science establishment.
None of this is news! The explicit conclusion of the government’s wargame on its pandemic plan was that a lot of people would die and so more effort was needed to procure body bags and increase body capacity. He only abandoned this plan in light of the consequences for the NHS. I – and about 60 million other people – wrote about this at the time. Again, none of this is new.
The reason this matters is that the UK state will at some point face another pandemic, as well as other catastrophic but low probability events. The solutions are often quite difficult: for example, the person who first made me realize that I had underestimated the importance of the story I was covering about a new respiratory illness in Wuhan was a civil servant. They weren’t (on their own!) Particularly exceptional, a talent unique in a generation or something. It just so happened that he was an experienced observer of China, who from there knew two things: the first was that the movement’s closure during the Chinese New Year, the largest annual migration of people in human history, and the equivalent of the Christmas shutdown here, was an important and disturbing sign of the transmissibility of the novel coronavirus; and that the Chinese state has a history of being less than outspoken with foreigners.
Putting the two together, they thought, meant that we had to assume that Covid-19 was much more transmissible than was then believed. I thought back to that conversation today when Dominic Cummings spoke about the problem during the pandemic as a “group thinker” in Downing Street. This is true, but it is a problem which in itself leaves an obvious question: “to whom the group? Because the group thought among even the most mediocre China watchers was that “the Chinese state tends to lie and the New Year’s lockdown is really, really worrying.” The group thought among most restaurant goers in early March, 12 days before Cummings and other government lockdown hawks sounded the alarm, was “Actually, you better not risk this” .
I think some relevant questions regarding the pandemic are: how to make the voice of the 57th rank Chinese civil service expert at least have some weight compared to that of the government scientific and medical advisers ? Another is: why, given that every restaurant in the UK was essentially empty after the first week of March, was the central government still unsure whether a foreclosure was worth at least a punt? How could Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane’s “quick data” on, for example, restaurant reservations (or rather the lack thereof) lead to more informed discussions on whether the British public would tolerate the lockdown? Finally, there is the question of why there was no presumption of “OK, we might as well try the lockdown.” You never know, we might get lucky. “
I’m not saying Boris Johnson or Matt Hancock were blameless. But I am not convinced that “Boris Johnson is a fit and suitable candidate for the post of Prime Minister?” – especially when the man answering it is almost the definition of an unreliable witness – is the most useful question when it comes to the challenge of responding to the next pandemic.
[see also: Dominic Cummings is quick to blame – but he fails to understand how government works]