Brian Hutton died this week at the age of 88. He was the judge and peer who carried out the inquiry into the death of David Kelly, the government scientist who killed himself after he caused the BBC to accuse Tony Blair of interfering with the intelligence case for the Iraq war.
Lord Hutton’s report is a reminder from another era, 16 years ago, that public inquiries do not always come up with the answer that everyone first thought of. His exoneration of the government was described at the time – by The Independent – as a “whitewash”, but its findings were supported by two later inquiries by Lord Butler and Sir John Chilcot.
It cannot be assumed, therefore, that the public inquiry into the government’s handling of coronavirus, which Boris Johnson confirmed this week would take place, is going to confirm what “everyone knows”. It may seem that “everyone knows” that the prime minister is guilty of ordering the lockdown too late and that lives were lost as a result.
Both those assumptions seem questionable. According to the minutes of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), the government responded immediately to its advice at each stage in the critical week in March.
On 16 March, Sage advised “that there is clear evidence to support additional social distancing”. On that day, Boris Johnson advised people not to go to the pub, to avoid unnecessary contact and travel, and to work from home if possible.
On 18 March, Sage advised “that available evidence now supports implementing school closures on a national level as soon as practicable”. School closures were announced that day, with effect from the end of that week (20 March).
On 23 March, Sage said: “High rates of compliance for social distancing will be needed” to avoid overwhelming the NHS. It noted: “Public polling over the weekend on behaviour indicated significant changes but room for improvement in compliance rates.” In other words, some people were still out socialising in the sunshine. That evening the prime minister announced the lockdown, saying people were required by law to “stay at home”, and would be allowed out only for essential purposes and exercise.
At least two members of Sage, Neil Ferguson and John Edmunds, h
ave said that, in hindsight, the committee was too slow to advise drastic measures to reduce social mixing. But it is hard to make the case that the politicians were too slow to respond when the scientific consensus changed.
The waters were muddied this week by Sir Patrick Vallance, who chairs Sage and, as the government’s chief scientific adviser, conveys its advice to the government. On Thursday, in evidence to the Commons science and technology committee, he seemed to suggest that Sage had advised full lockdown a week before it happened. He said that “on 18 March, or 16 March”, Sage advised that “the remaining measures should be introduced as soon as possible”, but it wasn’t clear what measures on what date. Going by the written record of the Sage minutes, the committee and the government were in step with each other.
The second assumption is that many lives would have been saved if the lockdown had been announced a week earlier. Professor Ferguson, for example, has said: “Had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier, we would have reduced the final death toll by at least a half.” But the significant event was not the statutory lockdown on 23 March, it was the advice to avoid unnecessary contact and travel, and to work from home if possible, on 16 March. That was when most people stopped going out, and that seems to have been the turning point for hospitalisations (after a lag) and deaths (after a longer lag). In that sense, the “lockdown” did happen “a week earlier”.
No one knows what would have happened if the government had done nothing – Sweden, for example, kept bars and restaurants open and suffered a lower percentage of excess deaths than the UK. But if social distancing is effective, the question then becomes: why didn’t Sage advise more of it before 16 March? The answer is mostly to do with how the assumptions among scientists about a flu pandemic took time to adjust to a coronavirus. Although, certainly in hindsight, there also seem to be questions that politicians should have asked in February about why tens of thousands of deaths couldn’t happen here.
It is interesting, but possibly pointless, to speculate about how other prime ministers might have responded differently. Would Theresa May, David Cameron, Gordon Brown or Tony Blair have asked more searching questions earlier? (No, no, yes and yes would be my guesses.)
It is important for the historical record to know the truth, but it is more important to focus for the moment on the lessons that can be learned to prepare for a second wave, if there is one, or for a different pandemic. In this, I would suggest that select committees of MPs, especially that on science and technology chaired by Greg Clark and on health chaired by Jeremy Hunt, are performing a more valuable role than a judge-led independent public inquiry could, especially one that took place in a media firestorm in which politicians are presumed guilty even if they are proved innocent.
Those who are sure that “everyone knows” Boris Johnson is guilty of wilful negligence leading to thousands of deaths should remember Lord Hutton’s inquiry of 2004.