Scientists 3, Johnson 0. Has The PM Finally Met His Match On Covid?

Paul Waugh
·Executive Editor, Politics, HuffPost UK
·5-min read

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It started with a crunching tackle from Jonathan Van Tam. It continued with Chris Whitty’s pressing game. And it ended with the whole of SAGE launching a pitch invasion that ensured one Number 10 striker couldn’t score. In the match of Boris Johnson v The Scientists there was only one winner on Monday, and it wasn’t the PM.

This was meant to be the day prime minister unveiled his new three-tiered structure of local lockdowns for dealing with the Covid pandemic. But while some welcomed the measures as a step forward, many were wondering whether it wasn’t all just an incoherent mess, a combination of dithering and indecision rather than leadership.

Right at the start of the day, with his own startling televised briefing, the deputy chief medical officer Van Tam set out how the virus was spreading across the whole of the country, how the over-60s were increasingly at risk of hospitalisation and how the rate of spread was as alarming in the south as the north.

And in another burst of no-nonsense candour (similar to his verdict earlier this year that Dominic Cummings should have followed the rules like everyone else), JVT (as his fans now know him) pointed to why Liverpool City Region and Greater Manchester had been doing so badly. “Disease levels in the North West never dropped as far in the summer as they did in the south,” he said.

Yes, that appeared to back up the charge made by not just people like Andy Burnham but also local public health chiefs: that the government this summer acted too early in releasing their area from the lockdown, on the basis of London’s plunging case rates. Burnham has pointed out that his mayoral area rates were 7 times as high as London when schools were ordered back in June, and 4 times as high when pubs were reopened in July.

In his statement to the Commons, a hassled-looking Johnson was notably harangued by MPs on both sides of the House, failing to fend off the claim that those on the minimum wage were looking at losing a third of their already low income thanks to no fault of their own. At one stage he even appeared to suggest that the current R number being above 1 was a relative success, compared to the ‘natural’ R of upto 3 for the virus left unchecked.

At his press conference, the PM was slightly more bullish, saying his tiered structure would lead to a “simplifying, standardising, toughening” of the Covid rules across England. In fact, his plan risks failing on each count: more confusing complexity (having to key in your postcode to a government website is hardly clarity), strange anomalies (Nottingham has a higher case rate than Liverpool but is in a lower tier), and a set of curbs that are just not tough enough at all.

And, as is frequently the case, after all the politicians’ spin and obfuscation, it was left to Whitty at the No.10 press conference to add a dollop of unvarnished truth telling. “I am not confident, and nor is anybody confident, that the tier 3 proposals for the highest rates, if we did the absolute base case and nothing more, would be enough to get on top of it,” he said.

Johnson, who always loves to be loved and hates telling the public bad news, was notably coy about the kind of thing that this could mean. But within an hour of the press conference ending, we found out perhaps why he was so coy and once more it was the scientists on the case. The bombshell minutes from the September 21 meeting of SAGE [the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies] exposed that the PM had simply not taken their advice on tougher curbs.

The day before Johnson’s last big statement – his new 10pm pub curfew – SAGE had advised the “immediate introduction” of a list of measures, including: a “circuit breaker”; a ban on households mixing, closure of pubs, restaurants, hairdressers; work from home; and all university teaching to be online only. He only went ahead with the work from home U-turn, plus the curfew which we now learn the scientists assessed was “likely to have a marginal impact”.

Of course, it’s worth remembering that the PM and Cummings felt the scientists got things wrong at the start of the pandemic (not advising on a swifter lockdown), so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised they now want to weight up economic advice as much as medical advice on any new restrictions.

But maybe Johnson should finally level with the public that he really has disregarded some key scientific advice. When challenged today on the claim that his summer desire to lift lockdown was driven by London at the North West’s expense, he said he didn’t accept that at all. Yet he did offer this defence: “We took measures on a national basis then, at every stage, and on the basis of the scientific advice…”

Tonight, that defence looks as leaky as a that of a conference league football team with a butter-fingered goalkeeper. Whether or when relegation beckons is another question entirely.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.