How Boris Johnson’s Expert Advisers On Coronavirus Won The Day

Finally, civil servants that No.10 can work with?

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Reasonable doubt

Sober, reassuring, nuanced. When the chief medical officer (CMO) and chief scientific adviser flanked Boris Johnson at Number 10 today, they did an impressive job of calmly and professionally setting out the factual framework behind the government’s coronavirus strategy. This may be a Vote Leave Downing Street running a Vote Leave administration, but it turned out this country hasn’t ‘had enough of experts’ after all.‌

CMO Chris Whitty is a doctor and epidemiologist by training and in many ways perfectly suited to the task of combating the viral outbreak. Chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance is another doctor and clinical pharmacologist who said only last summer that his role is to ‘speak scientific truth to power’. And so far it looks like the PM is listening.‌

The 26-page “action plan” was caveated and cautious throughout, just like the two experts themselves, and provided a welcome contrast to the overheated rhetoric that often passes for much political debate in parliament. When asked to give simple answers they replied with complexity, trying to be as transparent as possible while stressing the uncertainty of some aspects of dealing with Covid-19.

Facts were laid out: children are least likely to fall ill, pregnant women were so far not seen as more at risk than others, those over 80 and with underlying health conditions are most at risk. But projections of the overall death rates were absent. Dominic Cummings, who hovered at the back of the room, famously likes science. Maybe here was one area of government policy where civil servants were utterly trusted?

During the press conference Whitty pointed out that he didn’t want to make even a central projection (beloved of economists during Budgets) because the range of outcomes was so wide. Yes, the outbreak could theoretically hit 80% of the population but the figure was ‘probably a lot lower’, he said. The mortality rate of 1% could well be lower than estimates from China suggested. There was no need to panic or exaggerate, was the message.

In fact what was most striking today was the way the experts, fully backed by the PM, played down a lot of the worst-case scenario options. Closing schools is an emergency option but there are doubts about whether the disruption caused would be justified by the impact on stopping the disease, not least as young children are very low risk. Reason, aided by the right reassuring tone, ruled the day.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance speaking during a press conference on the government's coronavirus action plan.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance speaking during a press conference on the government's coronavirus action plan.

Similarly, banning mass events like football matches and concerts is on the table, but may well be pointless. The risk of transmission seems just as high if football fans watch matches in a pub (where sustained close physical contact occurs) than if they are part of a crowd of 70,000 people (of which only a doughnut of around 12 people may contact them).

And on foreign travel, the advice was there’s no point cancelling foreign holidays booked for this summer as by that stage the virus may be so widespread that the issue is academic. “Once the epidemic is everywhere, then actually restricting travel makes no difference at all,” Vallance said, wonderfully matter-of-factly. Stockpiling food and medicines was also frowned on.

The caution even rubbed off on Johnson, who is normally as bouncy as a Great English Sheepdog in grabbing a populist headline. When asked about the idea of deploying the Army, he stressed there would be ‘backfill’ to replace any police shortages due to coronavirus, but this would be limited (nuclear power stations at most). The idea of ‘troops on the streets’ was not encouraged.

That’s not to say that the impact of an established outbreak will be small. The tentative plans for cancelling non-urgent NHS treatment and focusing police activity on serious crime and public order would affect lots of people. “Everyone will face increased pressures at work,” the action plan warns. It’s not often a government paper talks about ‘everyone’ like that.

There were areas where the document was perhaps too light on detail. It was difficult to see exactly how the NHS would find the beds and staff for the peak of the crisis, especially as retired GPs and nurses who could be drafted back are likely to be more at risk given their age.

Discharging patients quicker from hospital could be undermined by the fact that community nurse numbers have been hit during austerity. Johnson was also remarkably vague when asked whether all workers could get statutory sickness pay if forced to stay at home, and even health secretary Matt Hancock (who has had a good war so far) couldn’t give any guarantees.

Overall though, the press conference and its accompanying document worked for the government. A Cabinet minister (Hancock) was allowed on the Today programme and Channel 4 News (both on the No.10 banned list) and the world didn’t fall apart. It’s almost as if openness and scrutiny can help politicians. Spooky thought. Has it taken a highly abnormal threat to force the government to get back to normal?

The whole day was indeed a sharp contrast to the undercurrent of distrust of civil servants and obsession with removing any perceived hindrance to the centralising power of Cummings (though the BuzzFeed scoop today, about the ousting of a special adviser who dared stand up to him, suggested this is a war of attrition without end).

There was one moment during the press conference however when there was a flicker of distance between the prime minister and his experts. Asked if he was shaking hands with No.10 visitors, Johnson couldn’t resist saying: “I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were coronavirus patients and I was shaking hands with everybody, you will be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.” No.10 later clarified that the PM hadn’t actually been shaking hands with coronavirus patients.

“People must make up their own minds but I think the scientific evidence is... “ Johnson said. Quick as a flash, Vallance interrupted to say “Wash your hands”. And when the PM blithely said “I’m shaking hands continually”, I’m sure I detected a tiny raise of an eyebrow from chief medical officer Whitty. Like London Mayor Sadiq Khan, many doctors and scientists advise against hand shaking in a bid to delay the spread of the disease as much as possible.

Still, the PM for once eschewed the chance to tubthump about the Blitz spirit and other wartime metaphors. In fact it was Whitty who came up with one of the best lines today. He declared that the outbreak of the virus was one thing, but often the “response of the British public to disasters and emergencies is extraordinary outbreaks of altruism”. Johnson looked on admiringly. Those pesky experts, they even sound like human beings, dammit.

Quote Of The Day

“I want to stress that for the vast majority of the people of this country, we should be going about our business as usual.”

Boris Johnson on coronavirus risk in the UK

Tuesday Cheat Sheet

Priti Patel emailed Home Office staff to say she regrets the resignation of her former top civil servant Sir Philip Rutnam amid bullying allegations against her. The joint message from Patel and her new acting permanent secretary said they “deeply cared” about the “wellbeing” of civil servants and valued their professionalism.

Matt Hancock told MPs that the government may review the rule saying workers need a sick note from a GP if they need to take sick leave for more than seven days.

Boris Johnson confirmed that he would be taking two weeks’ paternity leave once his partner Carrie Symonds gives birth this summer.

Keir Starmer’s latest leadership campaign donations were published by parliament, showing a £100,000 gift from a former housing lawyer. But other spending remains as yet unaccounted for and Rebecca Long-Bailey supporter Jon Trickett hit out at the ‘undemocratic’ lack of transparency.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan launched his re-election campaign with a challenge to Boris Johnson to allow rent controls if he wins another term in office at City Hall.

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