BY WILL JONES
Matt Hancock was enraged by what he called the “f***ing Sweden argument” and told his aides to “supply three or four bullet [points] of why Sweden is wrong”, leaked WhatsApp messages from the Lockdown Files have revealed. Fraser Nelson in the Telegraph has more.
Sweden was doing pretty well, in spite of having kept schools, pubs and restaurants open. Rather than ask what there was to learn, Hancock became enraged by what he called the “f—–g Sweden argument” and wanted it quashed. “Supply three or four bullet [points] of why Sweden is wrong,” he asked of his aides. Not whether it was wrong: why it was wrong…
It’s a classic study of groupthink, but decades of study into so-called cognitive dissonance in political leadership shows we should expect this. The bigger the stakes, the stronger the denial. At a certain stage in a high-stakes drama, the politician starts to see their policies as not just correct but heroic and their critics as confused, malign or ideologically-motivated. A poor backdrop for error correction.
Public opinion also exerted a huge gravitational pull. The original pandemic plans imagined ministers being guided by science but did not envisage a situation where panic would see people demanding lockdown, as they saw happening in other countries, and resisting any relaxation of rules. The temptation to follow public opinion even led to the collapse of parliamentary opposition, as Sir Keir Starmer rubber-stamped every decision. Just a handful of voices were asking difficult questions or arguing for restraint: a small enough number to be easily dismissed as cranks.
There are signs of Boris Johnson growing alarmed at the lockdown machismo of his advisers. To Hancock’s horror, he ended up taking advice from two academics, Raghib Ali and Carl Heneghan, who spotted that the graphs used to sell the second lockdown to the public were based on out-of-date data. “If this illustrates anything,” Johnson says, “it is that red teams can work, but need to be formally established.”
He was right. An effective “red team” was the missing element in Britain’s pandemic response: a unit of experts to identify and flag up flaws in the government’s argument. This was the only way of getting through what had become, by then, a powerful clique of pro-lockdown ministers and officials out to rubbish minority reports. If decisions are made in secret with the Cabinet left in the dark and the opposition having abandoned its post, there is no one to scrutinise. The whole democratic apparatus was suspended. So nothing to stop big mistakes from becoming bigger.
The problem with ignoring all lockdown questions until the official Covid Inquiry reports is that no lessons are learned and nothing will get fixed – leaving the country vulnerable to repeating the same mistakes. The new pandemic response needs to factor in not just the behavioural response of the public but of politicians – especially if they think no one is looking.