Stephen Colegrave and Peter Jukes13 July 2020
With mounting scandals and inconsistencies over the Government’s handling of COVID-19, Stephen Colegrave and Peter Jukes have compiled a list of its biggest falsehoods so far
Since the Coronavirus arrived in the UK, Boris Johnson’s Government has often contradicted itself, often within days, from one press conference to the next. Some of these contradictions were half-truths, U-turns on policy, or the result of missed targets. But among these contradictions were lies so big they are symptomatic of an entire populist political project. Here are the ten biggest so far.
Lie 1: The Government Never Pursued ‘Herd Immunity’
Downing Street has denied that ‘herd immunity’ was Government policy. However, on 13 March, the Government’s Chief Scientific Officer Sir Patrick Vallance joined other members of SAGE (the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) and the Behavioural Science Unit by telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the Government’s approach to tackling COVID-19 had the benefit of creating ‘herd immunity’ across the UK.
On the same day, according to Channel 4’s Dispatches, Boris Johnson told the Italian Prime Minister during a phone call that ‘herd immunity’ was the UK Government’s aim. The Italian Health Minister Pierpaolo Sileri said Guiseppe Conte had recounted the conversation to him: “He told me that he’d spoken with Boris Johnson and that they’d also talked about the situation in Italy. I remember he said ‘he told me that he wants herd immunity’.” At the time, up to 500,000 deaths were being forecast in the UK.
Lie 2: The Government Initiated a Speedy Lockdown
At the first Coronavirus COBRA meeting Boris Johnson attended on 2 March, he was told there were already 11,000 COVID-19 infections in the UK and that Imperial College modelling indicated that 250,000 people could die without a severe lockdown. The Government ignored the call for another three weeks
Meanwhile, Imperial College and Oxford University modelling indicates that infections soared to 1.5 million before social distancing measures were introduced.
In the week before lockdown, large events such as the Cheltenham racing festival – attended by 250,000 people over four days – went ahead. On 18 March, Johnson was still prevaricating. When asked when the virus’ epicentre London would be shut down, he said: “We’ve always said that we are going to do the right measures at the right time”.
Lockdown was eventually enforced on 23 March. Statisticians have argued that, if the Government had instituted these measures just seven days earlier, as many as 27,000 deaths could have been avoided.
Lie 3: The UK Wanted to be Part of the EU’s Ventilator Scheme
On 19 March, the Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said that the UK had joined the European Union’s procurement scheme for ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE). He told BBC’s Question Time that the Government had “engaged with that process today”.
However, on 26 March, the Government said it was not part of the scheme because “well, we are no longer members of the EU”. That was amended later the same day by a Downing Street statement that claimed an email inviting the UK to join the scheme had not been received. On 21 April, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office reported to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that “it was a political decision”. That evening, Hancock stated at the daily COVID-19 briefing that there had been no political decision. Later that night, the Permanent Under-Secretary issued a retraction, stating that ministers had not been briefed by the mission in Brussels about the scheme.
Lie 4: 100,000 Tests A Day
On 2 April, Matt Hancock stated that the Government would conduct 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day by the end of April. He said that the 100,000 target was “audacious” but that testing was required to get Britain “back on her feet”.
By the end of April, the Government claimed that it had miraculously reached its target. However, 40,000 of the tests included in its figures had been sent out to people’s homes and not yet taken. Soon after, official testing numbers dropped below 100,000.
In July, the Government quietly published figures revealing that it was regularly overstating figures by as much as 200,000 tests during May.
Lie 5: ‘World Beating’ PPE Procurement
The Government’s handling of PPE procurement is at the centre of multiple scandals and allegations of incompetence.
On 20 April, Matt Hancock boasted that he had secured 400,000 gowns from Turkey. It turned out that he had not received clearance from the Turkish authorities and, when they finally arrived in the UK, many of the gowns were revealed to be faulty.
A promise of procuring four million pieces of PPE was only reached by the Government counting gloves as two separate pieces, for example. It also continues to use emergency procurement rules to pay large amounts of taxpayers’ money to dozens of companies with no track records of producing PPE.
Lie 6: A ‘World Beating’ Test and Trace System
In mid-May, the Prime Minister promised a world-beating ‘test and trace’ system by 1 June. An NHS team spent four months and nearly £12 million developing a centralised version of a contact tracing app and trialled it on the Isle of Wight. Matt Hancock then announced that the Government’s new focus would be on a decentralised app using the Google Apple toolkit, but it was unlikely to be ready for months.
On the manual element of the ‘test and trace’ system, statistics indicated at least a third of people were not providing their contacts to contact tracers. Only 10% of the people that the Office for National Statistics calculated were infected had been contacted.
Lie 7: COVID-19 Death Statistics are Accurate and Transparent
For the first month of the Coronavirus pandemic, daily death reports from the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England only recorded hospitalised COVID-19 deaths. Care homes were not included in that figure until 16 April.
For seven weeks, the Government publicised slides comparing UK death tolls with other countries. These were dropped on 12 May when they showed that Britain had the highest death toll in Europe and the second highest in the world.
Due to limited COVID-19 testing, initially confined to hospitals, the UK has an estimated 65,700 ‘excess deaths’ – 49% above the historical norm, one of the highest in developed countries. Most of these are likely to be unrecorded COVID-19 fatalities. Britain has the highest case fatality in the world according to a study by Johns Hopkins University.
Lie 8: Care Homes Didn’t ‘Follow Procedures’
With more than 20,000 of the UK’s confirmed COVID-19 deaths having been in care homes, the Prime Minister claimed in early July that this was because “too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures in the way that they could have”.
In late February, Public Health England said that it was “very unlikely” care homes would become infected. The guidance was not withdrawn until six weeks later on 12 March. By then, many untested patients had been discharged from hospital into care homes and the sector was at breaking point because of the number of infections and the lack of PPE for staff.
Up to 2 April, the Department of Health and Social Care confirmed that, when it came to hospital discharges, “negative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into the care home”. It was not until 3 May that the Government launched a national delivery system for personal protective equipment to care homes, admitting that it would not be operational until the end of the month.
9: Dominic Cummings has Poor Eyesight but Great Foresight
The Prime Minister’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings claimed that he drove 60 miles during lockdown from Durham to a nearby beauty spot at Barnard Castle and back, with his wife and child in the car, to check his eyesight after having suffered COVID-19 symptoms. The chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, John Apter, was forced to write on Twitter: “ If you’re feeling unwell and your eyesight may be impaired, do not drive your vehicle to test your ability to drive.”
Cumming was eager to return to work to combat the pandemic. In his Downing Street rose garden press conference, he told reporters: “Last year I wrote about the possible threat of coronaviruses and the urgent need for planning.” The only problem was that this was added to his blogjust after he broke lockdown on 14 April 2020. This rare case of retro-superforecasting was spotted by Jens Wiechers, a data scientist, using the internet archives’ ‘Wayback Machine’.
10: The Government Always ‘Followed The Science’
The Government promised to ‘follow the science’ at every turn. But the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies it relied upon had a shocking lack of relevant expertise with no molecular virologists, immunologists, intensive care experts and (more importantly) public health experts. A former World Health Organisation director Professor Anthony Costello said that “this could have cost thousands of lives”.
Most experts agree that there is no ‘one science’; that there is a continuing array of evidence that needs to be reviewed. However, SAGE was over-represented by modellers and experts who were not independent as they were paid by the Government. Until recently, the SAGE minutes were unavailable to independent scientists.