Of all the tantalising revelations that have emerged from the Lockdown Files, one of the most eye-catching was the prospect of a nationwide cat cull.
Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s leaked WhatsApp messages, published in the Daily Telegraph, have revealed how the government made up its Covid policy as it went along, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
But in trying to understand the general mayhem that passed for crisis management in those surreal times, often it’s the little things that speak the loudest. Like cats.
Ministers discussed a mass extermination of moggies in the early wave of the pandemic because of fears (unfounded of course) that cats could transmit the virus to humans, admitted Lord Bethell, a former health minister. The idea was considered at the highest levels of government, he told Channel 4 News.
Imagine if such lunacy had prevailed. The public, cowed by hysterical and, as we subsequently discovered, inaccurate death rate modelling, had already forfeited their personal freedoms and were obeying even the daftest official diktats.
En masse, people took to wearing masks (some even in their own cars), queuing outside supermarkets at two metre intervals, barricading themselves and their children indoors, jumping off pavements into oncoming traffic as other pedestrians approached, and abandoning their frail elderly folk.
Would they kill their pets too? I like to think not and that such a measure, if mooted, might have been the tipping point in turning public opinion against the increasingly draconian catalogue (sorry) of Covid curbs.
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But one of the striking aspects of the Hancock WhatsApps is the speed with which his and his colleagues’ Covid response was lapped up by the populace.
In fact, Boris Johnson was persuaded not to lift lockdown restrictions early in 2020 because such a move was deemed by his media handlers to be “too far ahead of public opinion”.
Later, in January 2021, Hancock told Michael Gove that “80% of the public support the lockdown – there is no public clamour to start lifting measures”.
It’s easy to forget, two years on, how one-sided the debate over lockdown was, even when the vaccination roll-out was underway.
A reappraisal began in earnest late last summer when Rishi Sunak told the Spectator that a tiny cabal within Downing Street made their decisions without weighing up the wider risks, and that Sage, the committee of scientific advisers, only gave the government one perspective on Covid and drowned out all dissenting voices.
Until Sunak’s disclosures prompted greater scrutiny over the wisdom of shutting down the economy, schools, and the NHS – except for Covid cases, there had been remarkably little rebellion, from the public but also from people who should have known better.
Carl Heneghan, director at Oxford’s Centre for Evidence Based Medicine and one of the few scientists who stuck his head above the parapet, said the public had been fed ‘a narrative of fear based on untruths’.
“A fixed ideology had rooted itself at the heart of Downing Street. The data was there to support the policy – it didn’t matter if it was incorrect, so long as it supported the lockdown.”
Heneghan, along with other noted scientists, raised concerns over the government’s Covid strategy in September 2020, arguing that the objective of suppressing the virus was “leading to significant harm across all age groups, which likely offsets any benefits.”
He and other wise heads, including Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford, and the oncologist Karol Sikora, professor of medicine at Buckingham University, called for “more targeted measures that protect the most vulnerable from Covid, whilst not adversely impacting those not at risk”.
Just before the second lockdown, announced on October 31, 2020, Heneghan warned Johnson that the death scenarios on which he based his decision were four times too high.
Not only was the counsel of the sceptical scientists ignored, but they were attacked as malign mavericks. One Guardian columnist described that champion of cancer care Sikora as “dangerous”, while another dismissed Gupta as an “agent of disinformation”.
We may have to wait forever for retractions from those who tried to censor any medical expert daring to counter the Covid consensus. But, for the rest of us, lessons can be learnt.
The first is to be far more circumspect about recently invented orthodoxies. Almost as worrying as the government’s quashing of debate was the broadcast media’s acceptance of the government line.
Just because bulletins are delivered in sombre voices by reporters dressed in hospital scrubs it does not make them authoritative.
The second is to instinctively mistrust advice that appears irrational, even (especially) if it comes from government.
In the latter stages of lockdown paranoia some of us took this to extremes and instinctively did the opposite of what we were told (for example, immediately booking two weeks in France following the edict of Lord Bethell – him again – in May 2021 that travelling is “not for this year”).
Hopefully, the Hancock exposés will serve a useful purpose, other than barring him from public office for life.
They will create new checks and balances – the “red teams” Johnson (to be fair to him) said were needed in Whitehall to challenge official data – and prevent a repeat removal of our basic liberties on the whim of one power crazed politician and his demented disciples.
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