First it was Sunak, now it’s Shapps – who’s next?

IT DID NOT take long for another Cabinet Minister with responsibilities during the Covid Lockdowns to volunteer fresh revelations about the chaos in government at the time.

First it was Rishi Sunak, now it is Grant Shapps – who has criticised the decision-making process that brought about the UK lockdowns, while Liz Truss has said already she would not introduce another lockdown were she prime minister. Who’s next to step forward and say the UK Government should not take that authoritarian course of action again?

Fresh from former Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s admission to having grave doubts about the lockdowns – but in most part doing nothing to prevent them – the current Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, owned-up last week to having his own Lockdown demons to deal with. 

It turns out that, according to Shapps, he had to prepare his own briefing presentations to debate with Cabinet members when there were attempts to bring in new restrictions following the arrival of the Omicron variant of Covid.

Grant Shapps was – and still is – the Transport Secretary, with the responsibility for deciding on mask wearing and other restrictions required if travellers were to be allowed on buses, trains and aircraft – a not inconsiderable responsibility. Shapps was not, however, a member of the ‘Quad’ – the four ministers (Gove, Raab, Sunak and Hancock/Javid) where daily decisions were taken between Cabinet meetings. This meant that at the wider Cabinet meetings ministers could be bounced into agreeing a course of action unless they were prepared – but they lacked impartial advice.

What Shapps explains is that there was no information available to counter the proposals from SAGE, the Quad and officials involved – and bizarrely, he did not appear to have any support from his own Department of Transport officials in preparing him for Cabinet meetings. 

The reality  is that the decisions around which our freedoms, health, education and lives depended upon were taken without any real collective responsibility but presented as fait accompli to be rubber-stamped.

Shapps ended up making his own spreadsheets based on international data and presented his findings at Cabinet and ministerial meetings to strengthen the arguments against further restrictions.

“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”

Grant Shapps, Transport Secretary, Telegraph, 28 August 2022.

The Sunak revelations were bad enough – in that they showed an inability of senior level political decision-making to test the advice of officials and special advisers, but Shapps goes further by showing a complete disconnect existed between Ministers with serious responsibilities and the policies being agreed around them.

Following Grant Shapps’ revelation about resorting to doing his own research to sense-check inadequate or partial advice from SAGE, Recovery can reveal that he was not alone amongst Cabinet ministers. We know there are at least two further cabinet ministers who did the same, both of whom have yet to make any public statement about their position when decisions were being taken. How do we know? Because they sought counterbalancing advice from Recovery

The first time we were approached by a senior cabinet minister with doubts about the virulently pro-lockdown stance by SAGE was during autumn 2020, when we provided some questions for SAGE and a briefing on the likely damage of lockdowns. The response from the small Covid team and SAGE was to tell that Minister bluntly to butt out of Covid policy and we were told by the minister that attempting to argue an alternative point of view was like ‘banging my head against a brick wall.’ 

The second time a minister who sought advice it was via a Special Adviser and we cannot break that trust without damaging Recovery’s reputation for being able to work with politicians, officials and media without breaking confidences.

At the same time as Shapps decided to reveal his own frustrations a timely article appeared in the Timesfrom Lord Sumption, former Justice of the Supreme Court, that eviscerated the argument in favour of lockdowns. This has since been followed up in the Times by a joint article by Steve Baker MP and Professor Steve H Hanke from Johns Hopkins University. Using a new 115-page meta-analysis conducted by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise, the international researchers from the US, Sweden and Denmark concluded that lockdowns in the spring of 2020 had little to no effect on Covid-19 mortality, were ill-founded and should have been rejected. Their research suggests 6,000-23,000 deaths were avoided in Europe during Spring of 2020 – but that needs to be seen in a context of an average of 72,000 deaths that would normally be recorded from flu in Europe.

“When the conclusions of the Johns Hopkins study are taken with the evidence that infections were falling before the three full lockdowns the UK experienced, it becomes clear that the effects of them were not worth their costs.”

Steve Baker & Steve H Hanke, Times, 31 August 2022

The Times has not been known as a regular publisher of articles sceptical of lockdowns; accordingly, for two such articles to appear suggests a change of editorial mood or at least a recognition there is a respectable case to be made that lockdowns (and their accompanying restrictions) were not effective or necessary. Add to this recent conversion the regularity of lockdown sceptic articles now appearing in the Telegraph and Daily Mail – both of which were always more sceptical during the pandemic – and we have the beginnings of a consensus that lockdowns must be avoided in future as a price not worth paying for, what in any event turn out to be, very poor protection for the people they are designed to keep safe.

This does not mean we should think we have won the anti-Lockdown argument and can pack up and go home – far from it. These small advances are really on the opening skirmishes that give us hope to believe we can win, but much more requires to be done.

The most powerful media voices with the widest reach are the broadcasters (like the BBC, ITV and Sky) – and they are still, as far as can be seen, very much pro-lockdowns. For commercial operations, Lockdowns boost viewer numbers and commercial revenue. Also, the Covid Inquiry is structured to favour lockdowns, and the instruction from OFCOM to broadcasters and digital media companies that they must not allow criticism of Covid restrictions has not been rescinded (particularly worrying since vicious new teeth are being given to the instruction with the Online Harms Bill and its provision to forbid ‘legal but harmful’ content, that will prevent any critical online discussion of Covid restrictions.   

So let’s redouble our efforts and go on to win more arguments with the media shape shifters.

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Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and managing editor of the Recovery blog.