First, there was the call to postpone our departure from the EU on the grounds that it will be impossible for David Frost and Michel Barnier to negotiate a future economic partnership via Zoom, rather than face to face. When Downing Street knocked that on the head by announcing we’ll be leaving on 31 December as planned, the cry went up that if it wasn’t for the distraction of Brexit Boris wouldn’t have dithered and delayed before introducing a lockdown. And that, we’re told, is why the UK has such a high death toll.
Would fewer people have died if the government had shut down the country sooner rather than waiting until 23 March? I’m not convinced. After all, Belgium locked down on 18 March, yet the number of deaths-per-million in Belgium is 497, more than twice that of the UK (241). In Sweden, by contrast, which has avoided a lockdown altogether, the deaths-per-million is 151.
No doubt there’ll be an interminable public inquiry into this, costing the taxpayers millions, but it’s far from obvious that placing a country’s citizens under virtual house arrest has had any impact on the spread of the virus. In general, those countries that imposed the least severe restrictions, such as Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, have had fewer deaths-per-million than those countries that have gone the whole hog.
In any case, it’s far too soon to draw conclusions about the management strategies of different countries. According to Professor Samuel McConkey, an infectious disease expert at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Dublin: “I’d reserve judgment on this for two or three years.”
The other point to make is that Boris was just following the advice of the experts, as he’s made clear. The first newspaper to make the case for the prosecution was the Sunday Times — edited by Emma Tucker, a diehard Remainer — which claimed the government repeatedly ignored the dire warnings of the world’s top scientists. In fact, the World Health Organisation initially played down the threat, faithfully relaying the Chinese authorities’ claim that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission”. The WHO only characterised the crisis as a global pandemic on 11 March, and five days later Boris warned against socialising, mass gatherings and non-essential travel.
Ferguson co-authored a paper in 2016 warning of the dire consequences if we voted to leave
Nor were the government’s own scientific advisers ringing the alarm. The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) didn’t upgrade the threat level from “low” to “moderate” until 23 February, having initially classified it as “very low”.
On 13 March, the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance defended what he called a “herd immunity” strategy, whereby the government should mitigate but not suppress the spread of the virus until 60 per cent of the UK’s population had been exposed. “Our aim is to try to reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely,” he told Sky News.
Sounds like a sensible strategy to me — and one the Swedish government is still pursuing. But Boris was spooked into abandoning it after Neil Ferguson, professor of mathematical biology at Imperial College London, produced some predictive modelling on 16 March which seemed to show that 230,000 people would die unnecessarily if the government didn’t move from mitigation to suppression.
This was eerily reminiscent of Project Fear, the apocalyptic warnings produced by the Remainers during the EU referendum to try and scare people into voting their way. And it’s worth bearing in mind that Ferguson co-authored a paper in 2016 warning of the dire consequences for public health, as well as the university sector, if we voted to leave. “If we want to protect the health of our citizens, healthcare provision, medical research and teaching, and the continued world-leading status of the top universities in the United Kingdom, then the logical vote in the referendum on 23 June is one that ensures we stay a full member of the European Union,” the paper concluded.
Ferguson has form when it comes to wildly exaggerating the risks of viral outbreaks. He was one of the scientists who advised the 2001 Labour government over the foot and mouth outbreak, leading to the slaughter of six million cows, sheep and pigs and an estimated loss to the British economy of £9 billion, a decision that has been heavily criticised since.
In 2002 he warned that mad cow disease could kill up to 50,000 people — it ended up killing fewer than 200 — and in 2005 he told the Guardian that more than 200 million people would “probably” die from bird flu. The final death toll from avian flu strain A/H5N1 was 440 — that’s 440 people, not 440 million.
I’m not suggesting there was a Machiavellian plot by a secret cabal of Remainers to wreck the country’s economy in the hope of derailing Brexit. I’m just pointing out that the government’s management of the crisis was largely dictated by scientific experts, the most prominent of whom is a dyed-in-the-wool Remainer. So for journalists and others to now blame Brexit for the UK’s Covid death toll is a bit disingenuous.
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