Britain’s second lockdown was based on ‘very wrong’ Covid data, Boris Johnson feared
Boris Johnson was worried that he had “blinked too soon” in plunging Britain into a second national lockdown on the basis of data that scientists had warned him was “very wrong”.
The then prime minister made the observation on Nov 1, 2020 – a day after he had announced a lockdown to come into force on Nov 4. Despite his fears, the lockdown went ahead and lasted for a month.
In another exchange, he appeared to express a desire to lift the country out of lockdown earlier than planned, but said his media advisers – Lee Cain and James Slack – warned him that such a move was “too far ahead of public opinion”.
When Mr Johnson broached the subject of opening schools before the summer, his health secretary argued against doing so, saying that “everyone’s accepted there won’t be more on schools until September”.
The exchanges call into question the prime minister’s insistence that lockdown decisions were made on the basis of the best scientific evidence.
They also raise the prospect that Britain spent many weeks living under restrictions that could have been avoided.
The cache of WhatsApp messages obtained by The Telegraph includes group messages between Mr Johnson, Prof Sir Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser, Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, and Matt Hancock, the then health secretary.
In one exchange, on Nov 1, 2020, Mr Johnson explained that he had been on a video conference call with scientists Dr Raghib Ali and Dr Carl Heneghan.
He told the WhatsApp group that Dr Heneghan said “the death modelling you have been shown is already very wrong”, as it was out of date having been drawn up three weeks previously.
The previous day, Mr Johnson had announced an impending national lockdown and partly justified his decision by showing the public modelling predicting that 4,000 people a day could die if no action was taken.
Mr Johnson shared a link with the group that suggests the modelling, which had been drawn up three weeks prior to the press conference, was out by a factor of four. A newer Cambridge study suggested 1,000 deaths a day.
“The attack is going to be that we blinked too soon,” wrote Mr Johnson – a reference to the idea that he would be criticised for announcing a national lockdown too early.
The datahe used to justify his decision was modelling that predicted what could happen in the event of no restrictions being ordered.
Three weeks earlier, on Oct 10, separate WhatsApp messages show Mr Hancock asking Baroness Harding to create a “do nothing” death toll.
Earlier messages show how Mr Johnson was told that lifting lockdown restrictions earlier than planned was not what the public wanted.
On June 6, 2020, Mr Johnson sent a message to Mr Hancock saying he was “thinking hard about the 15th June”. On June 15, the Government was planning on opening non-essential retail, but Mr Johnson’s messages suggest he wanted to do more.
The prime minister then wrote: “At the moment we could do non-essential retail, some more for families, a bit of outdoor hospitality and announce that we can’t do all primary schools by July,” comments that suggest he believed opening these areas before the set date of mid-June.
However, Mr Johnson followed this by saying that James Slack, his official spokesman, and Lee Cain, his director of communications, “still think the whole package will be too far ahead of public opinion”.
Mr Hancock responded by saying the reproduction rate – known as R – was “very close to one” and therefore “I think Slackie and Lee have a point”.
The then health secretary continued: “I think it’s too soon for outdoor hospitality – and they’re not expecting it until next month.” On schools, he added: “Everyone’s accepted there won’t be more on schools until Sept.”
The health secretary concluded: “My view is the public are right and we need to hold our nerve.”
After being warned it was not what the public expected, the Government did not allow outdoor hospitality to open until July 4. However, he told the public that this was because it was as early as the evidence allowed.
Messages appear to be in contrast to public statements
The comments in the June 6 WhatsApp messages appear to be in contrast to what the Government said publicly.
Two days later – on June 8, 2020 – in response to a question about the opening of schools, Mr Hancock said there were “very difficult policy judgments based on the best available science, always guided by that science”.
Four days later, on June 10 2020, Mr Johnson gave the impression that the Government was not opening schools before September for scientific reasons – in contrast to Mr Hancock saying over WhatsApp that Mr Johnson should not be looking at schools again because “everyone’s accepted there won’t be more on schools until Sept”.
Responding to a question by Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC journalist, about schools, Mr Johnson said: “Of course we would have liked to have been in a position where we could have got the rest of primary back for a couple of weeks before the summer holidays. We wanted to do that if that was going to be possible.”