Was the Government Really Following “the Science”?

A few weeks ago I linked to an excellent Newsnight report by Hannah Cohen which asked whether the Government really was following “the science”? Now that the Government has released the minutes of the SAGE meetings in the period leading up to the lockdown announcement on March 23rd – this was on Friday as a direct result of Simon Dolan’s lawsuit – we can get closer to answering this question.

The former barrister Paul Chaplin has gone through the minutes in a lengthy blog post and concluded that placing the entire country under virtual house arrest was a political decision and not “based on the science”. His analysis is compelling.

Chaplin finds plenty of evidence in the minutes that various different containment measures were discussed by SAGE, but at no point before March 23rd did the group recommend the quarantining of the whole population. The measures SAGE considered were home isolation of symptomatic individuals, the isolation of everyone in a symptomatic individual’s household for 14 days and the cocooning of those over 70 and those with underlying health conditions – the three measures introduced by the Government on March 16th. But at no point did SAGE discuss anything resembling a full lockdown. Indeed, SAGE noted at a meeting on March 10th that banning public gatherings would have little effect since most viral transmission occurred in confined spaces, such as within households.

The last SAGE meeting before the lockdown was on March 18th where it was noted that the impact of the social distancing measures introduced thus far would not be known for two or three weeks. The attendees did not at that stage know whether those measures would be sufficient to prevent the NHS’s critical care capacity being overwhelmed and in the absence of more data could not offer any advice on whether additional measures – such as closing bars, restaurants and entertainment centres, and limiting use of indoor workplaces – would be necessary. The only further measure SAGE recommended at that meeting was closing schools.

SAGE advises that the measures already announced should have a significant effect, provided compliance rates are good and in line with the assumptions. Additional measures will be needed if compliance rates are low.

Minutes of the 17th SAGE meeting on COVID-19, March 18th 2020

The attendees discussed locking down London but no conclusion was reached. However, they did say that if additional measures were going to be necessary, it would be better to bring them in sooner rather than later. According to the minutes: “If the interventions are required, it would be better to act early.”

In other words, Boris Johnson and his advisors were not following “the science” when they took the decision to lock down the country on March 23rd – they weren’t acting on any specific recommendations by SAGE. Nor can the Government claim this is one of the options that was discussed at SAGE meetings and it was basing its decision, in part, on SAGE’s analysis of the impact of a full lockdown. That option was not discussed at any of the meetings before March 23rd. In this respect, it was a political decision.

This dovetails with Christopher Snowdon’s analysis of the decision-making in the period leading up to March 23rd published in the Critic last week, although Snowdon only had access to the broad summaries of the SAGE meetings that the Government has released, not the more detailed minutes released on Friday. Snowdon concluded that the Government’s scientific advisors never explicitly recommended a lockdown; on the contrary, at various stages they recommended against it.

Snowdon says that even Neil Ferguson’s March 16th paper, predicting 510,000 Covid deaths if the Government took no measures to stop the spread of the virus and 250,000 if it stuck with its “mitigation” strategy, stopped short of recommending a full lockdown:

Contrary to popular belief, the infamous study did not call for a full lockdown, nor did it model the effects of a full lockdown. It looked at school closures, social distancing and household quarantine for suspected cases and those living with them. It concluded that the greatest benefit would come from a combination of social distancing and household quarantine, with further benefits likely to come from closing schools, although it conceded that school closures would prevent many people from working.

There is no doubt that Ferguson’s model was impactful. It suggested that hundreds of thousands of people would die from COVID-19 if the Government continued to pursue a policy of mitigation. This put containment back on the table and gave legitimacy to more coercive action from Government, but the measures it recommended did not amount to a full lockdown. Its social distancing recommendations were far from trivial and yet they seem modest after nine weeks of genuine lockdown (the authors anticipated most people still going to work, for example). The only time Ferguson and colleagues use the word “lockdown” in the text is when they are making a distinction between their proposals and an actual lockdown. They implicitly dismiss a lockdown as being too extreme for the UK, saying that their favoured policies are “predicted to have the largest impact, short of a complete lockdown which additionally prevents people going to work”.

Snowdon’s conclusion is remarkably similar to Chaplin’s:

The founding myth of the lockdown is almost the opposite of the truth. Science did not triumph over politics on March 23rd. It would be more accurate to say that the strategy which preceded the lockdown, unpopular though it now is, was based on science whereas the decision to go into lockdown was political.

Snowdon’s article – and Chaplin’s analysis – is in some ways helpful to the Prime Minister since it debunks the myth that he was told to lock down the country by SAGE long before March 23rd and failed to act on that advice due to “dither and delay”. That was the story told by the Sunday Times in its May 23rd article entitled: “22 days of dither and delay on coronavirus that cost thousands of British lives.

But if you’re a sceptic, this analysis isn’t helpful to the Prime Minister since it lays the blame for the lockdown squarely at the door of 10 Downing Street.

Stop Press: I emailed Christopher Snowdon to see if he’d had a chance to look at the SAGE minutes and he got back to me to say he had and they did indeed corroborate his analysis:

The minutes fully support what I wrote in the Critic. The social distancing measures discussed by SAGE – and modelled separately by Neil Ferguson et al. and John Edmunds et al. – are not well described in the documents, but it is clear that they are more moderate than the lockdown that was introduced on March 23rd. Even at the late stage of mid-March, SAGE was never seriously entertaining a full lockdown, nor did the attendees expect their more modest measures to be in place for more than 12 weeks. To claim otherwise is to rewrite history.


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