Did "genius" or fatal flaw guide the UK's Prime Minister to abandon pandemic plans?
The mythology of the lockdown-that-happened-too-late
The Sunday Times writes today that Marc Warner is the “genius” who finally persuaded Boris Johnson to lock down.
If the name rings a bell, it is because this “little-known data scientist” is no mere genius but also the man Dominic Cummings wanted to manage the Covid epidemic in the capacity of “a kind of dictator”. When Cummings gave evidence to the House of Commons in May 2021 he said,
“If I'd been prime minister I would have said Marc Warner is in charge of this whole thing” with “kingly authority”.
Well, that is not how we do things here in the UK, where we have a democratically-elected government, civil service and expert advisers. Or do we? If this article is correct, it would appear that Warner emerged from almost nowhere and persuaded the Prime Minister to impose a new, experimental and authoritarian policy upon the UK. Perhaps Johnson acted with a little of that “kingly authority” himself, when he diverted from the guidance of existing pandemic plans and established scientific advisors. Why weren’t experienced disaster planners, doctors, epidemiologists and sociologists ‘in the room’?
The article’s claims rest upon the premise that lockdowns work and that locking down earlier would have saved many thousands more lives. This builds upon a cross-party report into the epidemic management, Coronavirus: lessons learned to date, which the author of the Times article, Matthew Syed, described as “thorough and forensic”. The report arguably contains 145 pages of opinion, very little evidence and certainly no cost benefit analysis of lockdown.
Does lockdown have demonstrable net benefits, let alone work?
Let us start before lockdown. Deaths in England and Wales peaked on the 8th April 2020, which (given the lag between infection and death), implies that infections peaked and started to decrease before the lockdown on the 23rd March 2020. This has been acknowledged by Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, who said that the R-number was decreasing before the national lockdown.
Professor Simon Wood, Chair of Computational Studies at the School of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh, authored a peer-reviewed paper published in Biometrics, which found that Covid-19 levels were probably falling before each of the UK’s three lockdowns.
The lockdown jury is split, but perhaps only on ideological grounds since there is increasing empirical evidence globally that lockdowns don’t work. You can read about that in a short article on my substack, in this thorough response on Daily Sceptic, and in this article by epidemiologist Dr Raghib Ali.
Lockdowns also cause great harms. Perhaps this is why a quantifiable cost benefit analysis of lockdown has yet to materialise. As one government advisor told me last year, the government “will fight like weasels in a bag” to avoid admitting lockdown was a mistake.
In the vacuum left by government, Civitas attempted to quantify some of the known costs in a working paper, What price lockdown? in December 2020. Day by day, the news rings with frightening stories of NHS waiting lists, mental health problems in children, late diagnosed and untreated cancer, 70,000 non-Covid excess deaths in the home, educational disruption, business closures, national debt, broken tax pledges, the list goes on.
This was foreseen. Veteran disaster planner Professor Lucy Easthope is involved in planning for excess death and she told me,
“For every Covid death we would estimate another four deaths over two to five years, and that is how we plan body storage. You see extra deaths for domestic violence and obstetrics, delayed or missed oncology diagnosis, no admission to A&E, sepsis and suicide.”
On the 22nd March 2021, just one day before the anniversary of lockdown, Chris Whitty acknowledged in a press briefing that the government had known “right from the beginning the lockdown was going to have really severe effects on many people’s health” and that “for many people, physical or mental wellbeing have been very badly affected by this. Ranging from increased levels of domestic abuse, loneliness – particularly in older people who felt very much isolated in their areas – physical health, people maybe exercising less, greater amounts of alcohol consumption.” He also said that coronavirus restrictions would affect livelihoods for years, with government able only to “reduce and not eliminate” those effects.
Crisis management plans were abandoned in a crisis. Perhaps the enactors of this U-turn are now feeling twitchy about the harms of lockdown which are coming to light with each day.
The Sunday Times casts Marc Warner as the “genius” hero in the story of the lockdown-that-happened-too-late. He is “one of the most ethical people” Dominic Cummings has met. There you go then.
But heroes often have fatal flaws. Was it genius or fatal flaw that enabled him to deliver his presentation with a reassuring “Don’t worry, prime minister,” and persuade Boris Johnson that the UK should lockdown? Lives may have been saved, but other lives have been and will be lost as a result of lockdown.
One danger, as more details of that crucial period in March 2020 emerge, will be in mythologising heroes and villains and looking for convenient plot twists to support ideological positions. The greatest danger for the UK would be the transformation of this myth into textbook for the next pandemic.