The Speaker
Saturday, 20 July 2024 – 07:31
Photo by Number 10 Downing Street (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Opinion: It’s still highly problematic to claim the government “sleepwalked” into a Coronavirus crisis

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

In last weeks edition of The Sunday Times, an investigation was published that caused something of a stir, to say the least.

In the investigation, The Times asserted that there was a five-week period, lasting from late January to mid-February, in which the British government “sleepwalked” into a Coronavirus crisis. Several pieces were written in refutation to this, including responses from the Spectator, the government, and a group of Young Conservatives including myself. 

Each of these responses presented robust arguments in defence of the government response – in the case of the article I was involved in, we argued that the government carefully weighed other important parts of its agenda against the scientific evidence available at the time, and came to a well thought out conclusion on what its response would be, tailoring this to changes in scientific advice as it occurred.

In today’s edition of The Sunday Times, the Times responds to the government’s article. This response to the response is still highly problematic for the Times in my view, especially in terms of their original argument. 

Firstly, it is incredibly telling of the quality of their original arguments, that the new Times article decides to focus much more on exact details, rather than the original assertion that they made. This article includes very few references to the five-week theory, in large part because the government pointed out several key dates within this period, in which the government was actively responding to growing concerns over COVID-19.

For example, the first key part of the second Times article attempts to rebuff evidence pointed out by the government by accepting that the original report got one date wrong, but that “the rest of this section challenges nothing that was reported in the article”. 

The original Times statement was that the government “brushed aside” the threat in an hour-long COBR meeting and said that the risk to the public was “low”. The government response lays out the timeline of government meetings concerning the Coronavirus during early January and gives the reasoning behind the early public health risk levels. Does this response not absolutely challenge a very key part of the original article? Both in terms of the actual statement; that the risk was “brushed aside”, and in refuting that actual line of the whole article. The fact that the risk was rated as “low” is not a sign of the government sleepwalking into a crisis, nor brushing it aside, but a demonstration of what the immediate risk to the UK was given the scientific evidence available at the time.

Secondly, a key point of debate between the two has been the role of the Lancet and its editor, and how early the risk to the public became clear. The government response points out, quite accurately, that on the same day as the Lancet published a report from a group of Chinese scientists and doctors expressing concern over COVID-19, Richard Horton, the editor, called for caution and accused the media of “escalating anxiety” by talking of a “killer virus”. The new Times article features a response from Mr Horton, accusing the government of “Kremlinesque manipulation” of his words. The Times also points out that those comments were made by Mr Horton, prior to the article being published, despite them being made on the same day. Mr Horton’s comments were based on the available scientific evidence at the time, commenting that the virus had “moderate transmissibility” and “relatively low pathogenicity”. 

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His response to COVID-19 was based largely on data provided at the time, as was the government’s response. My question to the Times then is, why is it acceptable for one expert to reach the same mitigatory conclusion, based on the same evidence, but not for the government to do so?

Furthermore, Mr Horton also praised the Chinese government for sharing “information rapidly and transparently”, a suggestion that we now believe to be false, and which he himself concedes was a mistake. If we are in the habit of accusing people of Kremlinesque manipulation of the truth, then Mr Horton fell hook, line and sinker for China’s “Kremilnesque truth”.

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Another key point is Just In Time (JIT) contracts and the emergency procurement of PPE. At one point in their original article, the Times made the solitary point that the UK had sent “279,000 items of its depleted stockpile” of PPE in response to a request for help from Chinese authorities. Even in the context of the original article, it seems clear that the Times is accusing the government of placing Chinese interests above those of the UK and the NHS. The government responds by pointing out that this equipment was not from the pandemic stockpile. Secondly, it points out that this action was taken “at the height of their need”. The Times’ second article notably ignores that they would appear to hold the belief that it is wrong for nations to share resources when fighting a global public health crisis.

The government response also highlights several key dates, many of them which the Times actually discusses, where procurement orders were made for PPE, including when they were first discussed, on January 27th, when the first order was placed on the 30th, and when the first supply chain meeting was held on the 31st. Not to mention numerous dates in February where the government had engaged with consumers and producers of PPE, both domestic and international. The article also points out issues in the supply of PPE due to disturbances caused by the virus itself to supply chains in China. This point does not undermine the fact that the government was not inactive during this period in terms of PPE procurement, and does nothing to further the line that the government sleepwalked into a disaster.

Finally, the article does nothing to rollback on some of the outrageous implications made about the Prime Minister himself. The Times pointedly notes that the Chinese government first notified the WHO of a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan on December 30th, when the Prime Minister was in Mustique. It does nothing in response to the common belief that whilst the PM was in the Caribbean, the Chinese authorities were in the midst of a deep disinformation campaign and were still reporting this pandemic as a pneumonia outbreak. The Prime Minister has many fine qualities, though unfortunately I highly doubt that clairvoyance is one of them.

Furthermore, it notes that during one meeting the PM was unable to attend due to being at a celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year, holding apparent disdain for that as well. I would simply ask the Times, do they now believe that it is illegitimate to observe significant parts of Chinese culture? Had the Prime Minister refused to celebrate the Lunar New Year over, at the time, what was a minor outbreak of the disease in China, would you commend him? or accuse him of xenophobia?

To conclude, the Sunday Times’ second response does nothing in my view to further the argument that the government was asleep at the wheel during the five weeks in question. Indeed the government article is an excellent refutation of a false assertion and shows that not only has the government consistently weighed its policy agenda with its Coronavirus response, as myself and several others argued last week, but that said response was also carefully justified with scientific evidence and advice, the functions, rules and norms of Whitehall.

Photo Credit: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street under licence (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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