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UK PM Rishi Sunak • MP Matt Hancock
The Telegraph's Lockdown Files have fizzled out. I fear they've had less impact than lockdown sceptics hoped. They did have some impact, including coverage by the BBC, though other media that advocated the harshest restrictions did their best to ignore the leak, or to attack Ms. Oakeshott personally. Now we're back to trivia: Lineker, Partygate, and a dredge through the lower sludge of the Met, which ignores their main deficiency: an inability to catch burglars.

The Files reveal Matt Hancock as arrogant, vain and ignorant. He lacks curiosity. He entangles himself in his own spin, unable to reduce quarantine when he's told he can do so. He 'deploys' data on the Alpha variant to increase fear, not owing to its medical impact. He is drunk on power, mocking those paying to be imprisoned in Heathrow's Premier Inn. His supposed boss - Boris - emerges marginally better. Boris half-knows that it is all mad. He occasionally expresses alternative views, but he is too feeble, cowardly and innumerate to seize control. Instead, he ignores the rules... and pays the price.

So, here we are... £400 billion squandered; two years stolen; trust in government and science shattered; the Brexit Government's majority wasted; awash with folk who have lost the habit of work.

Back, though, to the Files. What bugs me is what hasn't emerged.

First, two members of the 'Quad' - who governed without proper scrutiny - remain shadowy. Rishi was the new boy and, perhaps, the least influential. His concerns about collateral damage do emerge, supporting what he later said to the Spectator's Fraser Nelson. He's rubbished for 'Eat Out to Help Out', which I recall with a certain fondness for subsidising my dinners as I walked the coast 'path' from Aberdeen to Lossiemouth. Later, in December 2021, Rishi did stop a fourth lockdown, and we should be grateful for that. What, though, of the fourth man: Gove? Like a drug dealer with a burner phone, he seems too canny to have added much to the electronic slug trail. He was a supporter of lockdowns married to a Daily Mail columnist (Sarah Vine) who was sceptical, particularly of school closures, but also more generally. He assuredly was exposed to contrary views across, at least the breakfast table. What was his thinking? The published messages reveal little, apart from occasional proclamations of love for each other. (One possibility is that Hancock and Gove were working in such lockstep that they were constantly talking to each other on the phone and therefore had no need to communicate via WhatsApp.)

More striking than personalities, though, is the lack of exploration of alternative policies, and the dramatic pivot on who should be vaccinated. Does the trove have nothing to say? Does the Telegraph deem these aspects unimportant? Are critical items being held back?

The first lockdown, or at least the first month of it, can be forgiven. There was much uncertainty, and the NHS was ill-prepared. A pause was defensible. Yet it was soon clear that the first COVID wave was subsiding in lockdown-free Sweden as much as in the U.K. and in countries with stricter regimes, such as France (see below).
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Daily Deaths
This should have given pause, as it did for DeSantis in Florida. Yet it didn't. Rather than asking which restrictions could be lifted without harm, Hancock's response was, "I am sick of the fucking Sweden argument. Supply three or four bullet(s) of [sic.] why Sweden is wrong." Yet Sweden was doing broadly what had been U.K. pandemic policy until the panic of March 2020. Did this not occur to Hancock? Did no one tell him?

When Boris urged reopening in the June of 2020, Hancock pushed back, saying that the public wasn't ready. They weren't ready, needless to say, because they'd been exposed to three months of industrial-strength propaganda, establishing a feedback loop of fear.

The central policy adopted after the first lockdown, through the summer of 2020, was building Test and Trace, which consumed over £30bn and delivered little. There's not much revealed in the published Lockdown Files on the hopes for this system, the travails of its development, or its failure, although the Parliamentary Accounts Committee was scathing in March 2021, months before Hancock's terminal grope.

Did their damnation prompt no discussion?

I believe the Quad and their advisers hoped to emulate South Korea and Taiwan, which were credited with using T&T to suppress Covid for many months and largely avoided lockdowns. That's what Jeremy Hunt - Chairman of the Health Select Committee and another 'man of the shadows' - wanted in 2020. Yet there's no recognition that:
(i) Covid had disseminated far more widely in its first wave in the U.K. than in East Asia,
(ii) that the U.K. population is more heterogenous and less compliant nor
(iii) that South Korea and Taiwan took monitoring to levels that would be unacceptable here.
A May 2020 outbreak linked to gay bars in Seoul's Itaewon district illustrates the last point. Some 41,620 tests were done on nightclub visitors and their contacts to identify 246 cases - including fifth- and sixth- step infections. To achieve this, the Korean CDC
"used multiple forms of advanced information technology, including location data from mobile devices, credit card payment history, geographic positioning service data, drug utilisation review, public transportation transit pass records, and closed-circuit television footage".
All this was reported in October 2020. So, where in the Lockdown Files is discussion of the disparity between what (however unacceptable) would be needed to make Test and Trace work and what was being built at such expense? The whole T&T insanity continued long after the autumn 2020 explosion of cases demonstrated its failure. Its sole achievement, and an unhelpful one, was the pingdemic of summer 2021.

The lack of reflection on Sweden's experience (which included entirely eschewing a T&T system) is again evident at the start of the second lockdown in Nov 2020. This was initiated on out-of-date modelling, attacked as scaremongering by many of us at the time. By then the Government had had the summer to reflect and alternative approaches were being discussed. Boris met Carl Heneghan and Sunetra Gupta, to Hancock's chagrin. The Great Barrington Declaration had been published, urging a traditional pandemic response with focused protection of the most vulnerable.

The published Files contain no mention of the GBD, though its launch was well-covered in the media, save for occasional disparaging references to some of the original signatories, such as Sunetra Gupta. Is there really so little in that tonnage of unpublished messages? Did the U.K. contribute to its suppression, orchestrated by Fauci et al.?

As one of the original GBD signatories, I'd like to know.

Last, there's that pivot in vaccination policy.

Kate Bingham spelt out the original, reasonable, plan in October 2020: "There's going to be no vaccination of people under 18. It's an adult-only vaccine, for people over 50..." In January 2021, Hancock told the Spectator he'd "cry freedom" once the vulnerable were vaccinated.

Yet vaccination expanded to be universal, with 'Freedom Day' delayed another six months.


Before she released Hancock's WhatsApp messages, Isabel Oakeshott wrote in the Spectator:
I believe multiple driving forces combined almost accidentally to create a policy which was never subjected to rigorous cost-benefit analysis. Operating in classic Whitehall-style silos, key individuals and agencies - the JCVI, SAGE, the MHRA - did their particular jobs, advising on narrow and very specific safety and regulatory issues. At no point did they all come together, along with ministers and, crucially, medical and scientific experts with differing views on the merits of whole-population vaccination, for a serious debate about whether such an approach was desirable or wise.
Do the WhatsApp messages tell us nothing more? Who decided that these vaccines should be used universally, and not just for those at significant risk?

This isn't cost-benefit. The vaccines had emergency registration. They were developed hurriedly, precluding normal assessment of long-term efficacy and safety. They use novel technology. They were directed against a disease with around 0.25% mortality. Back in 2020, Chris Whitty had asserted that there was no justification for fast-tracking vaccines against a virus with 1% mortality. The mRNA vaccines are the most novel and came to be the most used. They used chemically-modified mRNA that lingers in the body and lipid nanoparticles that can give a wide tissue distribution (perhaps contingent on whether a blood vessel is nicked).

While I continue to believe that primary vaccination has merit in high-risk groups, there was every reason for caution. Such caution is applied to other medicines, sometimes to a ludicrous degree. I can no longer buy Marzine sea-sickness pills - which I used from childhood - because some genius discovered that they can be used to prolong the effects of heroin, meaning that prospective buyers are suspected of being addicts. Night Nurse has just been withdrawn owing to incredibly rare anaphylaxis.

Yet ever-younger, zero-risk age cohorts were vaccinated, with growing coercion.

This was despite the emergence of safety signals. On April 14th 2021, Denmark suspended use of the AstraZeneca product owing to concerns about blood clots. Does the WhatsApp trove tell nothing on Hancock et al.'s reaction? Did it stir no concern? Was Denmark's action construed as a plot against a U.K. product? Or just acceptable collateral damage, since vaccination served the 'Greater Good'?

I believe that an undeclared 'zero-Covid' policy was adopted in Spring 2021, aiming to squeeze the virus out of circulation by vaccination, and that this failed because vaccine-mediated protection is brief, and because the virus mutated.

Do the WhatsApp message confirm or refute my suspicion?

Much of the vaccine's failure came after Hancock's fall, with the spread of Omicron late in 2021. But the first straws were in the wind back in the spring, with extensive post-vaccine infections reported among Chicago nurses in April 2021. Was no attention paid? Weren't the vaccines' limitations considered by June 16th, 2021 when mandate for U.K. care home staff was announced?

No doubt readers will add to this list of omissions. I'll watch the comments. But, most importantly, I hope that those with access to the messages themselves will read this and respond.

These are questions that need to be answered.
About the Author:
Dr. David Livermore is a retired Professor of Medical Microbiology at the University of East Anglia.