When the pandemic first hit, it was feared that hospital patients would be the most vulnerable – but care homes soon turned out to be the real killing fields. Within a few weeks, their residents were accounting for a third of all Covid deaths. Early theories that the virus had been seeded by Covid patients discharged from NHS hospitals in a panic turned out to be untrue. The problem, it seemed, was those coming in from the local neighbourhood – or “the community” – who it was advised should be tested. The puzzle is why Matt Hancock overruled advice to say that they should not be tested.
Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, had proposed to test everyone going into care homes – but Hancock thought this was too much. This exchange on the WhatsApp group, one of 100,000 messages seen by The Telegraph, is instructive. Hancock declared that testing everyone who goes into care homes somehow “muddies the waters”. It appears this was a political decision. For all the claims to be “following the science”, the Lockdown Files show how often the diktats were political guesswork masquerading as science. Normal public health safeguards had been the first casualty of the pandemic. No one, before Covid, could make up public health policy on the hoof. Even adverts on sugar and salt were assessed for every possible unintended consequence with all aspects weighed and discussed. As they should be when lives are at stake.
You can see the dilemma. When a pandemic was hurtling towards Britain with credible estimates that 250,000 could be killed, there was no time to assess every policy. The WhatsApp policy cauldron was intended to decide things fast. If you need to move urgently, you cannot wait for a study. But then again, with no studies, what’s to stop major mistakes being enforced upon millions? Moving quickly was always going to have to mean making policy mistakes. The trick would be to spot and correct them as soon as possible. But the big flaw to this theory is psychological: politicians do not like to admit to mistakes. If they have made a big gamble, they find it hard to accept that they were wrong. Decades of studies show this trend plays quite a big role in politics: a state of denial sets in early. New evidence suggesting you did the right thing is seized on as very important; evidence to the contrary is dismissed as unreliable, biased or just wrong. This struggle against cognitive dissonance is human nature, but is especially acute in politicians. In this way, mistakes can become embedded.
Over the next few days, the Lockdown Files will show how much political concerns shaped policy – with “the science” used, all too often, as verbal dressing. If you suddenly find out that people don’t need to self-isolate for as long as you once thought, what do you do? Apologise, and let them away earlier? Or delay sharing the advice to avoid embarrassment? The closed-loop decision-making process, the confidence that no one might ever know, encouraged all kinds of political misbehaviour. The instinct to avoid political embarrassment – or simply duck a difficult argument – is shown to be a crucial factor in several lockdown decisions. While shocking, this should not be so surprising. How else would politicians act, if they were convinced that no one would ever find out? When the Opposition party decides not to oppose, when broadcasters define “public service” as amplifying the government message, who is there to challenge? And yes, there will be a Covid inquiry, but it seems to be moving at the same pace as the Bloody Sunday inquiry and may serve as a device to obscure rather than uncover the truth, rather than disclose it.
That’s why the Lockdown Files matter. We can see, with a degree of transparency never before offered to journalists or historians, how some crucial decisions were made. This transparency can, right away, lead to reflection as to whether we still have a system that is fit for purpose when (and it will be when) the next pathogen is identified and the next panic starts. The historian Andrew Roberts told me recently about the problem caused by the death of diaries: historians rely on them, yet no prime minister since Macmillan has kept daily notes. So how are we to learn from the steps and missteps of the recent past if it’s all lost to memory? The difference, Roberts said, would be WhatsApp messages – the forum now for so much of government discussion. “WhatsApp will be the Alan Clark diaries of the future,” he said. “They’d offer an immediacy that historians have never had before – if we would ever come into possession of them.” He didn’t see a way in which we would.
That moment has now arrived: 2.3 million words from the messages of those who decided the fate of millions at a time when they probably felt they’d never have to answer to anyone. No one really thought that they were in the process of building the most comprehensive real-time glimpse of government documentation that has ever been made public in a Western democracy. Similar conversations will have happened the world over, but only in Britain do we have a chance to see what those conversations were. There’s an old saying that there are two things that you never want to witness being made: laws and sausages. So any X-ray into the political process was never going to be edifying. But no one can argue that publishing the Lockdown Files is voyeuristic or intrusive. The decision made behind WhatsApp encryption dictated the most private affairs of everyone in this country: it criminalised much of human contact, from worship to visiting partners to children’s sleepovers. Those affected are richly entitled to know about the decision-making process, about the evidence (or lack thereof) that went behind those decisions.
Those whose children were ordered out of school or told to wear a mask, those banned from visiting or mourning dying relatives, those whose self-isolation period was extended not for public health reasons but to save political blushes: they all deserve answers. The Lockdown Files should provide them.