How Boris Johnson’s desire to lift lockdown was thwarted by public opinion
Boris Johnson considered lifting lockdown restrictions early but decided against it after being told that doing so would be “too far ahead of public opinion”.
The former prime minister and his government always swore they were being “led by the science”, but messages between him and others have shown this was not exclusively the case.
Public opinion also played its part in determining policy and strategy in the face of the pandemic. At the heart of decision-making, it now appears, were two former journalists – neither with any known scientific background – whose job was to brief journalists and advise the prime minister on media strategy.
It was their advice that persuaded Mr Johnson to hold back on his idea of an early easing of some lockdown rules.
Lee Cain, the Downing Street director of communications, had previously worked at the Daily Mirror - where he had dressed as a chicken to taunt David Cameron in the run-up to the 2010 general election. James Slack was Mr Johnson’s official spokesman and is now deputy editor of The Sun newspaper.
But in June 2020, the pair told Mr Johnson he would be “too far ahead of public opinion” if he ended lockdown sooner than previously announced.
On May 10 2020, Mr Johnson outlined a roadmap towards an eventual “Freedom Day”, with tentative steps to finally unlocking Britain.
On the afternoon of Saturday, June 6 2020, Mr Johnson messaged Matt Hancock, his health secretary, to say he was thinking about speeding up the plan to unlock.
Freedom Day had been inked in for July 4, when virtually all restrictions would end. Non-essential retail premises were due to open sooner than that, on June 15.
But Mr Johnson wanted to do more. Seemingly, he wanted to expand the number of restrictions to be lifted on June 15. He wanted “some more for families” and to open up “a bit of outdoor hospitality”.
But his press advisers – “Slackie” and “Lee”, as Mr Johnson called them – were apparently strongly opposed to it because of public opinion. In the event, outdoor hospitality did not reopen in England for another three weeks. Only on July 4 could two households in England meet for the first time since the pandemic, provided social distancing measures remained in place.
On the day Mr Johnson exchanged messages, there were 129 deaths recorded from Covid in England and just 723 recorded cases - the lowest number since the peak of the first wave. Mr Hancock persuaded his boss to stick with the original plan and desist from reopening non-essential retail too soon. Schools too remained on the backburner and, on the whole, did not reopen until September.
At the press conference on Oct 31 to announce the Nov 5 lockdown, the public was shown alarming graphs based on modellers’ predictions that, if no action was taken, there could be 4,000 deaths a day. It was a startling figure and enough to make almost everyone agree that action was needed.
Once again, businesses were forced to close, the vulnerable were told to shield and families were separated. The only substantial difference to the situation in March 2020 was that schools remained open.
Unknown to the public, the very next day Mr Johnson questioned the data used to justify the decision.
In a WhatsApp conversation with Prof Sir Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer; Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser; Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s then chief adviser; and Mr Hancock, Mr Johnson raised concerns about the death data used, describing it as “very wrong”.
Mr Johnson wrote that two scientists – Dr Raghib Ali and Dr Carl Heneghan – warned that the modelling the Government had been using was “already very wrong”.
The “nowcast” death data – the term used to describe estimating the number of deaths that occurred on each day from the deaths so far reported – suggested the modelling for 4,000 possible deaths per day was out of date, as it had been drawn up three weeks previously.
Mr Johnson appeared to conclude that the new information showed having a so-called “red team” – a system of having two separate teams arguing opposite positions to avoid “groupthink” – should be formally started.
As the group discussed an increase in deaths in England, the prime minister warned “the attack is going to be that we blinked too soon”.
To understand how the second lockdown was justified at the end of 2020, it is worth turning the clock back three weeks to a conversation between the health secretary and Baroness Harding, the head of Test and Trace.
On Oct 10 2020, Mr Hancock and Baroness Harding discussed how local lockdown measures in Liverpool - which they had discussed on WhatsApp previously - could be used as a “benchmark” nationally.
After quickly discussing issues over recording test results, the health secretary suggested the need for a “do nothing death toll”, which Baroness Harding agreed to provide.
It appears that this forms the basis of the projected 4,000 deaths three weeks later – raising questions about whether Mr Hancock was hoping to push the country into a second lockdown.
June 2020 was not the only time that public opinion was used to formulate policy, or at least to inform it rather than purely relying on the science.
On April 23 2020, when the UK was in the midst of its first full lockdown, the health secretary wanted to do a briefing on polling using research provided by Isaac Levido, the Tory Party’s polling guru and 2019 election mastermind. It was a plan that got the thumbs up from Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser at the time.
Then in Jan 2021 – at a time when the vaccine was being rolled out – Mr Hancock again turned to polling to reinforce the latest lockdown in a conversation with Michael Gove, a Cabinet minister who had been a member of the so-called “quad” of ministers directly advising Mr Johnson on Covid.