Two of Boris Johnson’s closest advisers railed that the UK was “so shitty” for not imposing a lockdown in the autumn of 2020, according to WhatsApp messages submitted to the Covid inquiry.
Lee Cain, Johnson’s communications director at the time, complained in a message to Ben Warner, a data expert brought into Number 10, that the government had failed to learn from its previous mistakes.
On October 12, almost three weeks before the Prime Minister announced a second national lockdown in England, Cain wrote: “We are so screwed…why aren’t we acting in London and urban areas now? Same mistakes as in March.”
Warner replied: “Agreed. It feels like we’re where we expected to be three or four weeks ago.”
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Cain replied, “Should have put a circuit breaker in.” [lockdown]. And if it does happen, halftime could be too late. London will soon spiral out of control.”
Two days after their messages, a “tier system” came into force in England, introducing new regional restrictions based on the number of Covid cases in an area. London was placed in tier two, meaning people could continue to go to pubs and restaurants with people from their household or bubble.
The tier system failed to stop the spread of the virus and a four-week national lockdown began on November 5th. On December 19, less than three weeks after the end of the lockdown, Johnson issued a “stay at home” order for people in London and southeast England, banning people in those areas from any social gatherings over Christmas.
Last week the inquiry heard from Helen MacNamara, a senior Cabinet Office official, who claimed that despite “reasonable” calls for a “fire safety” lockdown in autumn 2020, “politics would not allow this”.
“Failed in every scenario”
The inquiry also found that at the end of February 2020 the NHS had not yet started modeling the impact of Covid on the healthcare system.
Warner wrote to Patrick Vallance, then chief scientific adviser, on February 27 after attending a SAGE meeting. He said he was “concerned that the NHS did not appear to know what it needed for its models and did not appear to have started modeling yet”.
Vallance replied, “Yes, I’ve been pushing her for the last ten days or so.”
The inquiry was presented with a note written by Warner during the SAGE meeting, which discussed the various remedial strategies being considered at the time.
It said: “NHS has failed in every scenario” – referring to the fact that by this point, due to previous government delays, even quick action could no longer prevent the health service from becoming overwhelmed.
The note was written three days after Johnson’s 10-day holiday at his Kent villa, during which the then-Prime Minister received no news about the escalating Covid crisis.
In his witness statement to the inquiry in early March, Warner said he was “concerned that this point [the NHS being overwhelmed] “was not at the forefront of the decision makers.”
He also criticized the government for not taking into account other countries’ measures to contain the virus.
Warner wrote: “As of early 2020, we should have developed alternative plans (e.g. lockdowns) after seeing the actions in China or at least northern Italy.”
In his speech today, he explained this position, saying: “You don’t need complex models to look at China’s activities or the activities they carried out in northern Italy and think that we should have alternative plans.”
Warner also criticized a government exercise in February 2020 that focused on the UK’s pandemic preparedness. He said the exercise did not cause any “stress.” [test] to take the government’s plans seriously in any way.”
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