Why is the government insisting no one knew about asymptomatic spread of COVID-19?

Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson have both contradicted SAGE evidence about asymptomatic coronavirus transmission at the beginning of the outbreak. (Christopher Furlong/pool via Reuters)
Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson have both contradicted SAGE evidence about asymptomatic coronavirus transmission at the beginning of the outbreak. (Christopher Furlong/pool via Reuters)

In the past few weeks, as the spread of coronavirus infections has slowed down and the UK tries to avoid a so-called second wave, the emphasis has shifted towards understanding why England has one of the highest death tolls in the world.

Part of this has focused on care home deaths: almost 20,000 residents in England and Wales have died with the virus, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Boris Johnson came under fire when he suggested “too many care homes didn't really follow the procedures" earlier this month.

When he was quizzed about these comments at Prime Minister’s Questions on 8 July, Johnson said: “The one thing that nobody knew early on during this pandemic was that the virus was being passed asymptomatically from person to person in the way that ​it is.”

On Thursday, health secretary Matt Hancock made a similar claim, in an apparent doubling down of the government’s messaging.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “One of the things we have learned about this virus is that it transmits asymptomatically, and in that it’s different from all previous coronaviruses.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 21: Health Secretary Matt Hancock looks on as Prime Minister Boris Johnson chairs a face-to-face meeting of his cabinet team of ministers, the first since mid-March, at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) on July 21, 2020 in London, England. The meeting in the FCO will take place in a ventilated room in the Foreign Office large enough to allow ministers to sit at least one metre apart. (Photo by Simon Dawson - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson at a cabinet meeting last week. (Simon Dawson/pool/Getty Images)

“So that is an area where the science and scientific advice changed, and it changed because the science improved and we learned more about the virus.

“This isn’t in any way a criticism of the scientists, who I think have been brilliant… we have a different policy in place now because we have learned.”

So, what’s the truth?

In fact, Johnson and Hancock’s comments contradict evidence provided by its top scientists at the beginning of the outbreak.

The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) was warning about asymptomatic transmission as far back as 28 January, three days before the UK’s first two coronavirus cases were confirmed.

Minutes for a SAGE meeting on that day read: “There is limited evidence of asymptomatic transmission, but early indications imply some is occurring.”

Minutes for a meeting on 4 February also show SAGE warned: “Asymptomatic transmission cannot be ruled out.”

Furthermore, past coronaviruses are known to have spread asymptomatically.

Deenan Pillay, a professor of virology at University College London, told i earlier this month asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 “should have been a basic assumption”: “We know [with] the most severe coronaviruses in the past, namely SARS and MERS, it was realised they could be passed asymptomatically.”

Meanwhile, the coronavirus lockdown, imposed by Johnson on 23 March, came nearly eight weeks after asymptomatic transmission was raised in the 28 January SAGE meeting.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, has also said SAGE urged Johnson’s administration to introduce the lockdown a week earlier than it did.

Care homes ‘thrown to the wolves’

Hancock’s comments about asymptomatic transmission came a day after Downing Street was accused of throwing care homes “to the wolves”.

Advising hospitals to discharge thousands of patients into care homes without knowing if they had COVID-19 was a “reckless” and “appalling” policy error, a House of Commons report said.

Discharging around 25,000 patients to free up beds was an example of the government’s “slow, inconsistent and at times negligent” approach to social care, the cross-party public accounts committee said.

It added it was “concerned” the Hancock-led Department of Health continued with the policy “even once it was clear there was an emerging problem”.

Hospitals in England were asked on March 17 to discharge patients, but patients did not require a coronavirus test prior to discharge until April 15.

Coronavirus: what happened today

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