DAN HODGES: Professor Lockdown tried dropping a dirty bomb on Boris… and blew himself up
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The advisers shouldn’t really be out there,’ the No10 official conceded. ‘They’ve been pushed front and centre and that’s not where they’re supposed to be.
It’s the politicians who take the decisions. We’ve been shoulder to shoulder. But in the end it’s Ministers that make the call.’
Maybe the official is right. Perhaps the Government’s boffins should have remained in the shadows. The unseen and unheard hands guiding – if not controlling – the nation’s coronavirus response. But they are out there.
And last week they were making their presence felt. Or one in particular was. Professor Neil Ferguson, the virus modeller from Imperial College dubbed Professor Lockdown, has emerged as the star turn of the Covid-19 crisis.
Professor Neil Ferguson claimed the Covid R rate – the average number of people a Covid patients infects – would remain only marginally below 1 because staff were still carrying the disease out of care homes and hospitals
Thoughtful and languid, it was his analysis that there could have been 500,000 potential victims that was widely credited with accelerating lockdown, and saving countless lives. Until he popped up last Wednesday and dropped a dirty bomb on the Commons Science Committee.
If the UK had locked down a week earlier, approximately 20,000 people who are dead would be alive, he said. Although he was quite calculated in the way he made the claim. ‘I think the measures – given what we knew about this virus then – in terms of its transmission and its lethality, were warranted.
‘I wouldn’t second-guess them at this point,’ he smoothly opined. Before casually adding: ‘Certainly, had we introduced them earlier we would have seen many fewer deaths.’ The measures were sound. Ferguson certainly wasn’t going to second-guess them.
Oh, but by the way, we might be interested to know that if they’d been introduced seven days earlier, thousands of our loved ones would still be with us. Entirely coincidentally, this incendiary revelation spilled out a month after Ferguson had been forced to resign from his position on the Government’s SAGE advisory group after he was caught breaking his own rules by allowing his mistress to visit him.
Until then, equally coincidentally, he’d been one of the stoutest defenders of the Government’s strategy.
The Imperial College London scientist (top row, middle) made the comments to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee during his first public appearance since a series of public controversies
None of which stopped the Government’s critics seizing on his statement. ‘We did call for the lockdown before this Government took us into lockdown, and we did challenge the Government on mass gatherings and pubs and restaurants,’ said Labour Health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth, hastily rewriting his party’s broad support for the strategy at the start of the pandemic.
But, unfortunately for Neil Ferguson and his cheerleaders, we’re not simply forced to rely on self-serving hindsight. Thanks to his ubiquitous media profile, we can go back and see what the eminent professor was saying as the crisis was actually unfolding.
Shortly after the story broke about his study that triggered the Government into imposing full lockdown, Ferguson was asked if Ministers had been too late in safeguarding the nation.
‘Overall, I think we have got the timing about right,’ he responded. So whatever brought him to last week’s assessment that lockdown was too late, that wasn’t his view back in March, when it actually mattered.
But there is another major problem facing Ferguson and his fellow revisionists. For months the Government’s opponents have been demanding publication of the famous ‘SAGE Minutes’.
These tablets of stone would, we were told, finally reveal the truth about the extent to which Boris and his Ministers really were ‘following the science’, and how far the fight against Covid-19 had been undermined by political expediency.
Boris Johnson listened to the view of Professor Ferguson and imposed measures
And those opponents were right. When they were published a week ago – to little fanfare – they did reveal the truth. The Government had indeed followed the science. And the strategy had not been undermined by political interference at all.
Take the central claim propagated at the time – indeed, still being propagated – that the arguments relating to lockdown timing were finely balanced. That there were wildly competing views on SAGE, and that Ministers chose to follow the advice that best fitted their pre-conceived ideology.
But the minutes of the key SAGE meeting of March 13 are unequivocal. They state: ‘SAGE was unanimous that measures seeking to completely suppress the spread of Covid-19 will cause a second peak.’
The Government’s senior experts were united. If Ministers went for full lockdown, they would be guaranteeing a catastrophic second wave of the virus. And one of the experts who attended that meeting was a certain Prof Neil Ferguson.
Remember, too, that other great conspiracy. The supposed ‘herd immunity’ strategy that held that the virus should be allowed to sweep unchecked through the nation, culling the elderly and infirm as it did so.
Again, the SAGE minutes reveal the truth. On March 10, two days before the fictitious herd immunity plan was first ‘exposed’, the Government was putting in place a detailed timetable for ‘Home Isolation of symptomatic cases [within the next ten days… Whole Household isolation [1-3 weeks after]… Social distancing for 70+ and vulnerable groups [1-3 weeks after]’.
Ministers were never planning to let the virus tear through Britain. They couldn’t. They knew if they did, the NHS would cease to exist. But, again in this crisis, the facts are proving no obstacle to those assaulting the Government.
Even if sustaining that assault involves turning those facts on its head. On Thursday, former MP Rory Stewart – who can at least take credit for being consistent in calling for an early lockdown – claimed Boris should have ‘challenged harder’ the advice of his experts.
A cry that was immediately taken up by all the Lockdown Likely Lads. But remember what that cry was at the end of April? When it emerged that the PM’s most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, was observing the SAGE meetings?
Labour called for him to be banned, and luminaries such as former Chief Scientific Adviser David King raged that his attendance was ‘simply inappropriate and wrong’.
For the past few months the accusation has been that the Government has been ‘hiding behind the experts’. But the opportunistic interventions of Ferguson and other SAGE advisers reveal the reality.
What we are about to see is the experts trying to hide behind the coat-tails of Ministers. They’re aware what is coming. They know it was their advice that drove the Government’s strategy.
They know that strategy is about to come under sustained scrutiny and criticism. And, as a Minister accurately predicted to me last week, they are ‘going to try to buy themselves some cover’. They must not be allowed to.
The assorted members of SAGE are not elected representatives. But they are the most senior practitioners in their respective fields, with status and salaries to match. And as Ferguson has shown, many are not shy of basking in the media spotlight.
So now they, too, must be prepared to be held to account. Over the past three months their participation in SAGE has not been part of a seminar series, or a training exercise. They have been proffering the advice that has determined whether tens of thousands have lived or died.
That advice has been presented in good faith. But now they must stand by it. Or not. Like Ferguson, they are free to change their minds. But if they do so, they need to be crystal clear about why they are in the right now, but were in the wrong when lives were on the line.
And they need to hold up their hands, rather than try to wash their hands of Boris and his Ministers. Because this will not be the last crisis. It is not the last time Ministers will turn to the men and women of medicine and science.
It’s now almost four years to the day since Michael Gove infamously observed: ‘Britain has had enough of experts.’ How those experts conduct themselves over the weeks ahead will determine whether or not he was right.
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