Will Boris Johnson Now Listen To His Scientists Though The Deep Covid Winter?

Hints of Christmas respite from Whitty, but real release won’t come until spring.

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As Americans went to the polls, Donald Trump just couldn’t escape those pesky, independent scientists. While the President claimed the US was “turning the corner” on Covid, it emerged today that his own coronavirus task force chief, Deborah Birx, had written a memo warning that the US was now “entering the most concerning and most deadly phase of this pandemic”. As in the UK, the second wave is in danger of dwarfing the first wave.

This side of the Atlantic, Boris Johnson has usually taken more notice of his own top medics and scientists, although in recent weeks he’s learned the hard way that he ignores their advice at his peril. Even some of his own ministers believe that if he’d opted for the Sage plan in September for a short, sharp lockdown, he and we could have avoided the pain of November’s month-long “tougher national package” (as No.10 called it today).

Tonight, on the eve of MPs being asked to vote for the new lockdown, Johnson’s government published the detailed regulations and they were indeed eye-wateringly strict when read in black and white. Opening lines such as “no person may leave or be outside of the place where they are living without reasonable excuse” is the kind of thing that rightly provokes deep unease in a democracy.

The big question, of course, is will it work? Will all the pain be worth it? Well we got some answers from the PM’s scientific advisers Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance when they appeared before the Commons science and technology committee today. And while some of their answers were helpful to Johnson, some responses left other questions hanging in the autumn air.

When asked directly by committee chairman Greg Clark if he expected the UK to be able to lift the new measures on 2nd December, Whitty replied: “The prime minister has stated that is what he intends to do...” That didn’t sound all that convincing, but it was perhaps simply Whitty’s allergic reaction to getting embroiled in ministerial decisions. He went on: “The aim of this is to get rates down far enough that it’s a realistic possibility to move into a different state of play at that time.”

The chief medical officer also made an astute point that the impact of the short-lived tiering system could be measured in coming weeks, and from those lessons the PM may not revert to an “absolutely identical” come December 2. His main point was about the built-in lag in Covid metrics, but it did highlight the difficulty looming later this month for Johnson.

MPs will get a vote in three weeks’ time on whether to revert to a tiered system, but they may not have enough information by then on whether the lockdown itself has worked. As Vallance said, even if lockdown worked “instantly” and got the R number down to 0.8, it would take upto three weeks to see the impact on hospitalisation. So when MPs vote in late November, they will be doing it somewhat in the dark.

But at least there is some scientific data to grapple with. The same cannot be said for the economic advice that Johnson has relied on for holding off from tougher measures to date. Vallance pointedly said today that it was upto the Treasury and Cabinet Office to publish that. “The science is very clearly in the public domain, the other advice is less visible,” he said.

The Treasury Select Committee agrees, as do many Tory MPs like Peter Bone who demanded an economic impact assessment of lockdown before tomorrow night’s vote. Chief secretary Steve Barclay could only say that the independent OBR would give an update on November 25. As for the PM’s chief economic adviser’s advice, it looks like it will never be published. When he was Mayor of London, Johnson claimed “sunlight is the best disinfectant” but transparency seems a distant concept now.

Whitty and Vallance weren’t all doom and gloom today. At one point, Whitty even offered a glimmer of hope of a family Christmas/Divali/Hanukkah. He revealed “we’re trying to work through” “ways in which we can advise people in a way that maximizes their ability to keep to the essence of what is the festivity, but minimizes the risk of transmission”. Vallance also praised young people, especially students, for getting the R down so quickly in their age group.

But both stressed that no matter what happens in November or December, social distancing was here to stay until the spring, when a vaccine or better drugs and testing could lead to “more relaxation” of the tiered rules. Britain, like the US, still has what Joe Biden calls “a dark winter” ahead.

Though it took the scary rise in hospitalisations in Liverpool to do it, at least it looks like Johnson is listening to his scientists once more. Whitty today gave his most comprehensive trashing of the “let the virus rip” strategy of the infamous Great Barrington Declaration campaign. Sounding like a mild mannered Dr David Banner suddenly turning into an adverb-smashing Incredible Hulk, he said the herd immunity proposal was “scientifically weak, dangerously flawed, operationally impractical and ethically difficult”.

In the US, Trump appears to have endorsed the herd immunity fallacy. It’s a low bar, but perhaps we should be grateful that Johnson really is no Trump when it comes to defending a nationalised health service and respecting his chief medical officer. If (and it’s still a big ‘if’) he starts paying more to those who self-isolate and those in jobs frozen by Covid, he could yet get through the winter with less political frostbite than his critics expect.