Was Grant Shapps right to do his own research on Christmas lockdowns?
The ten days before Christmas of 2021 that changed perspectives on modelling, lockdowns and restrictions.
The Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told The Telegraph he did his own research to help stop Xmas lockdown. “I was able to present data based on three South African studies which wasn’t available from the standard Sage presentation. In a close-run discussion, we didn’t lock down. The NHS wasn’t overrun,” said Mr Shapps.
Mr Shapps further told The Telegraph, “he made his own spreadsheets based on international data and sometimes presented his findings at Cabinet and Covid-O ministerial meetings to bolster resistance to further restrictions.”
Therefore - if we’re reading this right - SAGE analyses pre-Christmas 2021 weren’t worth the paper they were written on. Given that ministers were doing their own analysis, as they didn’t trust the advice they received, what does this all point to?
This is the second minister to publicly air their views on the problems of the scientific advice received. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, told the Spectator that ‘whoever wrote the minutes for the Sage meetings – condensing its discussions into guidance for government – would set the policy of the nation. No one, not even cabinet members, would know how these decisions were reached.’
In Winter 2021, just as the masses were thinking it was OK to go outside, Christmas was thrown into jeopardy. On 15 December, the SPI-Modelling group reported to SAGE that hospitalisations could peak between 3,000 and 10,000 daily and deaths at between 600 and 6,000 daily. On the same day, Nicola Sturgeon got on the front foot by introducing measures to ‘stem the flow of transmission.’
This doomsday scenario was heightened by Dr Jenny Harries, who said Omicron is “probably the most significant threat we’ve had since the start of the pandemic;” by Dr Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser at the UKHSA, who told a select committee that Omicron’s R-value was between 3 and 5 in the UK, and the Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, who said that a “big increase in hospitalisations due to Omicron is fairly certain”.
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We were concerned that the unfolding narrative was pointing in only one direction - further restrictions. We wrote in the Telegraph that ‘what is unexpected is our reaction. South African data report fewer patients in intensive care, less severe disease and shorter hospital stays. However, none seem to be getting through to those in charge of the UK’s response.’
If Shapps and Rishi had concerns about the data quality, then why didn’t SAGE have similar concerns? Why did the Chief Scientific Adviser need to defend the modellers instead of ensuring the data ministers could access was robust, informative and not tainted by ideology? Should documents and minutes used to inform public policy be available?
Furthermore, why do the modelled estimates lack accuracy and precision (the wide confidence intervals for the deaths render the estimate meaningless and only serve to lead the media to report the worst-case scenario)? As an example, ‘Deaths could hit 6,000 a day and delaying restrictions until New Year will cut effectiveness, say Sage expert’ reported the Guardian.
Finally, why does the central government's advice fail to report on the number of hospital-acquired infections, the number testing positive coincidentally in hospital and provide an estimate of the number admitted from the community with a covid diagnosis and truly infectious? Why is basic epidemiology missing from the government’s advice?
The backpedalling and retelling of history still have some way to run. What matters is what was documented, as opposed to what people now say and air.
Only the complete picture of events will allow us to say whether Shapps was right to do his own research. Therefore, we have recapped the crucial events from ten days before Christmas of 2021, given how they have changed the views on modelling, lockdowns and restrictions.
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