The Guardian view on pandemic secrecy: wrong and counter-productive

“British governments have never been at ease with openness, and this continuing unease is now significantly affecting and weakening the national effort….”


In the battle against Covid-19, transparency about the facts is key to maintaining public support. The government is undermining its own credibility

The official documents consisted of line after line of blacked out information. They gave every appearance of top secret cold war papers from which the slightest hint that might be useful to an enemy had been redacted. In reality, though, they were nothing more than part of a report by behavioural scientists on how the British public might respond to Covid-19 lockdown measures. With heavy irony, they were published last week as part of an attempt to be more transparent.

The language of war has been too common throughout the Covid-19 crisis, never more than in the mouth of Boris Johnson, a leader who is happier trading in florid metaphors than in plain facts and practical details. Yet there is a huge difference between a war and the pandemic. In a real war there is a human enemy. In the pandemic there is a viral one. This difference is crucial when it comes to mobilising the public’s support.

In a war, the enemy craves vital information. As a result, the national effort must indeed often be kept secret, plans concealed and information controlled. In a fight to preserve the national health, however, openness is all. Transparency is fundamental to good decision-making about an elusive enemy. It is also vital to ensuring national confidence, so that the public cooperates with evidence-based restrictions and sacrifices – including control over their own data – that can help bring the viral scourge to an end.

British governments have never been at ease with openness, and this continuing unease is now significantly affecting and weakening the national effort, especially as the lockdown is loosened in England. Too much is being subordinated to “comms strategy”. This is not just wrong in principle, but counterproductive in practice. It is wrong because the public has a right to know about the threat and to take highly personal decisions which are laden with risk. And it is counterproductive because it disables ministers from the very task – gathering information in order to act rationally and effectively to combat the virus – in which public confidence and cooperation are most essential.

But the secrecy persists. It was always ridiculous that the membership of the government’s Sage advisory committee was kept secret. The Guardian’s revelation of the names this month has had no adverse public consequences and at least one positive one, since we now know that Sage members were not asked to approve the new message to England to stay alert. Whitehall has now published an incomplete list of names.

Even less defensible is the fact that the government continues to keep most of Sage’s key papers and some of its most recent conclusions secret, despite occasional promises to publish them. The findings of the Exercise Cygnus test drill in 2016, which exposed a health sector that could be overwhelmed by a pandemic, have long been suppressed, when they could have made possible a more effective resilience strategy that might have saved lost lives. The documents published last week revealed only that No 10 is politically paranoid about losing hold of the debate.

Yet these papers and conclusions are “the science” that the government still claims to be following in its Covid-19 policy. They are documents which ought ideally to provide a gold standard of credibility that ministers are doing the right thing. Yet the public cannot see what they say and the conclusions, where they are known, are open to challenge. As long as this continues, ministers risk precisely the loss of trust that has been such a mark of this most troubling week in the crisis.

Models behind coronavirus plans mostly ‘educated guesses’

“…..a half-good answer given before the decision is made is infinitely more useful than a perfect answer given after the decision is made.”

[Don’t treat the models with reverence – they are only the tools of the trade.]

Rhys Blakely, Science Correspondent

The mathematical models underpinning the government’s Covid-19 strategy are largely informed by “educated guesswork, intuition and experience”, one of its scientific advisers has said.

Graham Medley, who sits on the scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage), made the remarks on Monday during an online lecture organised by the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge.

“At the moment, we’re having to do it by making educated guesswork, and intuition and experience, rather than being able to do it in some kind of semi-formal way,” Professor Medley told his audience. “But a half-good answer given before the decision is made is infinitely more useful than a perfect answer given after the decision is made.”

He also chairs the Spi-M sub-committee, which focuses on modelling and feeds into Sage. He said that it lacked good information on how Covid-19 might be spread in shops, pubs, gyms and hairdressers. “If we want to get an idea of when, for example, in the United Kingdom we’re going to be able to open pubs, we’re going to have to understand how people might use them.”

He included a cartoon taken from Private Eye, the satirical magazine, as part of his lecture. It depicted a scientist standing beside a graph marked “Covid cases”. The caption read: “We have, according to the revised projection of the adjusted figures, something more or less approaching no idea.”

Professor Medley said that it was estimated that 10 per cent of the population had been exposed to the virus so far, meaning that the UK was still at the early stage of the epidemic. One main concern was how to gather data on how small, localised outbreaks were likely to flare up as measures were relaxed.

“We are, of course, worried very much about data,” he said. “Where are we going to get the data from? What is it that we should be measuring?”

He added that Spi-M, which had focused on the dangers of an influenza pandemic, had not considered the possibility of offices, shops and restaurants being shut down, presuming that a lockdown would be limited to schools.

Professor Medley also said that a “policy science gap” meant that as scientists tried to convey their findings to ministers and civil servants they were being met with “blank faces”.


East Devon public conveniences set to reopen

More than a third of the East Devon public conveniences closed due to coronavirus are set to reopen.

How difficult to respond locally when decisions are taken in London, on the spur of the moment, to launch all in sundry onto their favourite beauty spots and beaches. – Owl

Daniel Wilkins

East Devon District Council (EDDC) has announced that 10 of the 26 accessible public toilets will open on Friday, May 22 – subject to completion of a risk assessment and delivery of hand sanitiser.

Following the Prime Minister’s statement relaxing some of the ‘lockdown’ restrictions, EDDC undertook a review with the view to resuming access to the toilets.

The remaining 16 toilets cannot be reopened due to ‘resource, building design and budget limitations’.

The public toilets set to reopen are:

  • West Street Car Park, Axminster
  • East End (Lime Kiln), Budleigh Salterton
  • Jubilee Gardens, Beer
  • Foxholes Car Park, Manor Gardens, Queen’s Drive (old lifeboat station), Exmouth
  • King Street, Honiton
  • West Walk, Seaton
  • Connaught Gardens, Sidmouth

“Longer term solutions involving alterations to buildings to allow easy access, minimising touch points and provide a more Covid-19 secure endorsement are being investigated which hopefully can include longer opening hours,” said councillor Geoff Jung, environment portfolio holder for EDDC.

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Care homes told they were safe as coronavirus ran rampant

Government advisers warned ministers that there was “sustained transmission” of coronavirus in Britain a fortnight before official advice to care homes stated it was “very unlikely” that residents would be infected.

Sean O’Neill, Greg Hurst 

The early warning about the virus spread came from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling committee (SPI-M) which feeds directly into the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), the government’s panel of scientific advisers.

The committee circulated an assessment on February 10 stating: “It is a realistic probability that there is already sustained transmission in the UK, or that it will become established in the coming weeks.” On February 25, however, Public Health England (PHE) told the care sector “the current position in the UK” was that “there is currently no transmission of Covid-19 in the community”.

The PHE guidance said that care home staff did not need to wear facemasks and added it was “very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected”.

That guidance, which remained in force until March 12, was at the centre of Wednesday’s Commons clash between the prime minister and Sir Keir Starmer.

The Labour leader pointed to the PHE statement when he questioned Boris Johnson over the high death toll and whether the government had been “too slow to protect people in care homes”. Downing Street accused Sir Keir of quoting “selectively and inaccurately” from the guidance but the emergence of the SPI-M advice note raises new questions about ministers’ repeated claim that they have always been guided by scientific advice.

Liz Kendall, the shadow care minister, said: “Ministers deny they were slow to tackle the virus in care homes, and say they acted as soon as they had advice, but according to this document there were clear warnings that community transmission was happening as early as February.

It is not clear who read the SPI-M assessment on February 10 or why it was apparently disregarded before the PHE guidance was written.

Professor Paul Johnstone, national director at PHE, said: “All of PHE’s advice and guidance, including specific guidance for care homes, is based on the latest scientific evidence. The care homes guidance we produced in February was related to what we knew at the time, and with further evidence, it was updated in March.

“Care homes have always been a priority for government and, along with the wider health sector, PHE is working closely with care homes and the wider social care sector to provide advice and support to them in preventing and managing cases and outbreaks.”

Ministers said that the situation in care homes was the “top priority” for the health department and an extra £600 million was being ploughed into infection control. But care homes say much of the money has been given to local councils and has not been forwarded to them to help with extra staffing and PPE costs.

Unheeded warnings

February 10 SPI-M advisory committee warns there is “a realistic probability that there is already sustained transmission in the UK”.

February 25 PHE says there is no transmission and it is “very unlikely” people in care will be infected.

March 5 Chris Whitty says it is “highly likely” it is being transmitted.

March 12 PHE’s guidance to care homes is withdrawn.

March 19 Health department tells NHS to discharge 15,000 people within a week who aren’t tested.

April 2 Guidance says negative tests are not required prior to transfers / admissions to care homes.

April 15 Testing required for hospital patients before care home transfer.

May 6 Boris Johnson “bitterly regrets” care home deaths number.

May 13 Government announces a further £600 million to protect against infection in care sector.


We can’t restart Britain’s economy until we get coronavirus under control 

There is a two-stage optimal strategy for dealing with Covid-19, and it is being implemented in a number of countries around the world. Our Government is still trying to play catch-up after “doing its own thing”. The result is an “Omnishambles”. The cost of delay can be measured in lives and damage to the economy – Owl

Simon Wren-Lewis is emeritus professor of economics and fellow of Merton College, Oxford

There is a two-stage optimal strategy for dealing with Covid-19, and it is being implemented in a number of countries around the world. The first stage is a lockdown to stop the spread of the virus, implemented as quickly as possible. A lockdown gives a country time to build up its test, trace and isolate (TTI) infrastructure.

The lockdown needs to continue until three conditions are met. The first is that the number of new cases is very low. The second is that the TTI infrastructure is tested and ready to go. The third is that travellers from overseas are effectively quarantined for two weeks.

The second stage involves ending the lockdown step by step – and making sure that enough time has passed to ensure that the TTI regime can still cope before moving on to the next one. If at any stage the TTI regime cannot cope, that element of the lockdown has to be reinstated and some other relaxation tried, or the TTI regime has to be improved. The experience of a number of east Asian countries, and in particular South Korea, suggests that if the TTI regime works well most elements of lockdown can be removed.

Once people have confidence that the number of cases are very low and well controlled, they will leave their homes, they will happily send their children to school and they will travel to work. The economy can almost fully recover, although it may still be necessary to ban large social gatherings. South Korea’s TTI regime is so good that it decreased the number of cases without the need for the first-stage lockdown, but countries such as the UK, with less experience of TTI, should not be so ambitious.

A well functioning TTI regime, together with restrictions on overseas travel, is therefore the solution to how we get from here to when a vaccine is developed with as few deaths as possible, and with as little damage to the economy as possible. This is why there is no conflict between opening up the economy and saving lives.

What about those demanding a quicker end to the lockdown to “save the economy”? They seem to be making a simple error. Without a government-imposed lockdown the economy would not return to normal. With minimal measures to contain the pandemic and therefore many new cases each day, most people will stay at home and keep their children at home out of choice. Nearly all academic economists understand that you cannot restart the economy without getting the virus under control.

I can be confident about this because of work I helped to produce on the economic impact of a flu pandemic about 10 years ago. That included a severe case not unlike the current pandemic, and our estimate was that economic output would initially decline by 30%. This fall in GDP is very similar to the Bank of England’s best guess at the initial impact of this pandemic, yet in our study this fall in GDP was mainly the outcome of voluntary decisions by consumers rather than any action by the government. If lots of people are still dying from the virus most people will stay at home out of choice, whatever the government does. Lockdown is designed for the irresponsible minority, and to avoid intimidation by employers.

It has taken far too long for the UK government to understand this. Probably the most important task for any inquiry into our government’s handling of the pandemic is to find out why scientists advising the government appeared to discount the possibility of a TTI solution. It is a standard method for dealing with a deadly infectious disease, and in early March it was clear that South Korea had managed to get its outbreak under control by employing it. Despite this, together with advice from WHO and the actions of other major countries, our government convinced itself that herd immunity was the only way forward, as long as it was managed so the NHS could cope.

It was a mistake that probably cost most of the 50,000 or so excess deaths we have seen so far as a result of the pandemic. The failure to consider the obvious alternative of a TTI regime and instead to go for managed herd immunity was not just a failure of the scientific advice: I still find it incredulous that a prime minister can be told of a strategy that will see tens of thousands die and not demand that alternatives are investigated.

The result of their initial failure is not just tens of thousands of lives unnecessarily lost, but also a longer lockdown with greater damage to the economy. The longer a country takes to go into lockdown, the longer the lockdown must last to bring cases down to a level that TTI can manage. Herd immunity will be remembered as one of the most costly mistakes a UK government ever made in peacetime.

We can only hope that the government now has the right strategy and it can implement it successfully. There are worrying signs. Effective messaging has been ditched for something dangerously ambiguous because of needless fears that people have become addicted to staying at home. Most people will stay at home as long as the pandemic is uncontrolled. Significant voices in cabinet are calling for premature lockdown easing. As this government has messed up almost every aspect of responding to the pandemic, from testing to care homes, and from inadequate PPE stockpiles to confused messaging, hope is pretty well all we have left.

Office life is not over – but the way we work must surely change 

Does spending all that money on The Knowle move to Blackdown House now stack up?  Particularly if working from home could = the ‘new normal’…

Gaby Hinsliff 

“Don’t bother coming back to the office.” It’s the kind of message everyone dreads receiving, but for Twitter’s employees it was benign. The tech company announced this week that home-working arrangements made for the pandemic would stay for good: nobody need ever commute in again, unless they particularly wanted to. In Britain, the telecoms giant BT also declared that staff could choose whether to come back to call centres or just carry on from home.

The idea that office life is over is almost certainly overdone. Not everyone loves typing away on the sofa day after day, panicking about being out of the corporate loop. But for those lucky enough to have the choice to work from home, the collective near-death experience we’ve endured as a nation may be prompting a re-evaluation of what matters.

Commuter dads who once rarely saw their children awake have got used to the casual intimacy of being around them all day long. In the privacy of their personal Facebook feeds, more than one hard-hitting Westminster type has melted into a puddle of baby pictures. For the less sentimental, savings from seven weeks of raiding the fridge for lunch and not filling the car are adding up; the environmental benefits of keeping traffic off the roads are a happy bonus. But if the shift to home-working has been relatively painless, that’s merely the beginning.

Modern working hours are in part a legacy of the Great Depression of the 1930s, when collapsing demand for labour encouraged companies to share around what work there was: what had been a six-day week for many shrank to five. Now it may be shrinking again.

The world’s largest law firm, Dentons, is among companies asking staff to work a four-day week for 80% of salary due to falling demand. The Adam Smith Institute, one of the more bracingly rightwing thinktanks, is pushing its “four days on, ten days off” model designed by an epidemiologist for a safer return to work: companies would split staff into groups, each doing four days in the office or factory followed by 10 days off, with the groups rotated in order to limit numbers and help social distancing. (If you do get infected, the idea is that symptoms would be more likely to emerge during the days off, allowing people to self-isolate).

It sounds hell to match with childcare, but at least it’s evidence of right as well as left accepting that we cannot simply return to business as usual. The next step, however, is working out how to make any of this fair on people who can’t afford a pay cut. Rishi Sunak made a big leap of imagination, for a Conservative chancellor, to embrace furloughing – but to get us out of it will require another one.

This week it emerged that from August, employers must start picking up some of the bill for furloughing their own people, currently met by the Treasury. The risk is that redundancies will follow, but the best hope of avoiding them is for the Treasury to allow part-time furloughing. People could be paid conventionally to work, say, three or four days a week, with the furlough scheme topping up their salaries.

An enlightened government could effectively turn furloughing into a mechanism for spreading work around in lean times, while buying time to re-imagine working hours for the longer term.

Around the world, people are already grappling with the question of how to shorten the working week. The organisation 4 Day Week Global has been experimenting for years in New Zealand with reorganising companies so that five days’ work can be done in four, giving employees a longer weekend for the same pay. (The reward for their bosses is better productivity, happier people, and lower staff turnover.) Now it’s looking at adapting that model through the current crisis.

In Scotland, the Post-Covid-19 Futures Commission, created by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, is examining four-day weeks; Labour too could dust off its report on them, commissioned by John McDonnell long before the pandemic. But is the current government up to such bold thinking?

This week’s clumsy stab at thawing a frozen economy hardly inspires confidence. In England, the treatment of teachers has been a model of how not to encourage anxious people back, with unions accused of sabotage for daring to express concerns about the risk of infection spreading and people dying. Social distancing on public transport visibly isn’t working, and mixed messages about what is now allowed have eroded trust.

Why can an estate agent visit your home, but not your grandchildren? True, you’re less likely to hug the former. That doesn’t, however, explain why you can car-share with colleagues if going to work, but not sit next to them in the park. It looks horribly as if rules can be bent for anything that makes a profit.

But there is still just about time to go back to the drawing board. When, and only when, it’s safe to go back to the workplace, the return should be framed much as lockdown was seven weeks ago: as an act of social solidarity that helps others, while also benefiting individuals. It should come with encouragement for anyone who has dreamed of cutting their hours, focusing on working fathers who constantly tell surveys they’d like to work less but feel they can’t actually do it.

But most of all, it should come with a promise of living better, and sharing the pain of slumping economic demand. Theresa May was once mocked for insisting nothing had changed. Her successor must acknowledge that something profoundly has.

Councillor welcomes Sidmouth coastal defence funding, but ‘it doesn’t address the present problem’.

The funding for Sidmouth’s coastal defences is ‘excellent news’, according to a local councillor, but urgent action is needed now to tackle erosion at Pennington Point.

The eligibility changes for central Government grant money has increased enough to sufficiently cover the BMP’s current funding gap of more than £1m. See this Devonlive article for announcement.


Philippa Davies 

The funding for Sidmouth’s coastal defences is ‘excellent news’, according to a local councillor, but urgent action is needed now to tackle erosion at Pennington Point.

Stuart Hughes is deeply concerned about the series of rock falls there, including one last night, and has repeatedly called for East Devon District Council to take emergency steps to shore up the crumbling cliffs.

The expected £1million government grant bridges the funding gap for the beach management plan, but the project still needs to go through lengthy consultation, design and planning processes before any work can begin.

The Sidmouth Sidford councillor, who is also a member of the Beach Management Plan Steering Group, said: “This is excellent news and has got to be welcomed, but what it doesn’t address is the present problem.

“You’ve really got to grasp the nettle on this issue that’s facing us now, because the coastal flooding may be a bigger threat to Sidmouth than Covid-19, when you think about it.”

Cllr Hughes, who is a town, district and county councillor, has used his locality budget to pay for a survey on the erosion at Pennington Point, but said the worsening situation was obvious to anyone.

He said: “The survey was on whether the erosion rate had increased since the last survey was done.

“Well, the naked eye would tell you yes, certainly it’s eroding in the place where you don’t want it to erode, around that Pennington Point area, because now the sea is actually getting in behind the old bridge abutments, and once it gets in there we’ll have problems.

“Things aren’t going to get better, they’re going to get worse, and you need something to stem the amount of erosion that’s taking place now. Time and tide wait for no-one.

“I have sent an email to the bridge engineers and the engineers who are looking at this, and they’ve got the survey and all the data but I think they’ve been slowed up with Covid-19 and various other things, a bit stretched just like everybody at the present time.

“But life has to go on, Covid-19 can’t stand in the way of everything, we mustn’t let it.

“If something’s got to be done it’s got to be done, it’s not getting better there, that’s for sure.”

Read more here: Sidmouth finally has the £8.7million needed to protect its crumbling cliffs


Only a Government team devoid of women could have drafted a plan so full of holes

“Mightn’t it have been an idea for the Government to have used the “good solid British common sense” Boris Johnson is now advocating when it drafted its new lockdown rules?……..

….Team Johnson is not just decidedly blokey, but as inexperienced as his Government, staffed by Cummings’ Vote Leave acolytes who know how to win campaigns but not necessarily how to govern. Few of them appear to have run anything before.”

Camilla Tominey Associate Editor 12 May 2020

If the Prime Minister urging people on Sunday to go back to work “from tomorrow” without releasing further instructions until 19 hours later wasn’t nonsensical enough, we were then presented with a roadmap with half of the directions missing. Women swiftly came to the conclusion that such an omnishambles of a plan, full of blind spots and obvious pitfalls, could only have been drafted by men. As one working mother texted me after Mr Johnson’s TV address, which left more questions than it answered: “Does this Government think the only people who go to work are men with stay-at-home wives?”

Unfortunately, the answer to that question, when you make a brief assessment of the current “alpha” cohort running No 10 is probably, yes. So testosterone-fuelled was the guidance that the first form of exercise it thought to mention was “angling”.

Men say women can struggle with directions, but I’d guarantee at least 51 per cent of the population could have foreseen the fundamental flaw in a proposal that only allows parents of children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 to return to work. What was missing in a roadmap more akin to a spaghetti junction was an understanding of the nuts and bolts of how people actually live their lives. And while we can all sympathise with plumber Ryan Price’s demand that we “behave sensibly”, one man in his van does not represent the entire population.

Had no one in No 10 thought about childcare, as they instructed those who cannot work from home to return? The PM’s recommendation that people should cycle did not appear to take the suggested quasi-school run into account, either.

Parents would ordinarily turn to grandparents for help in such situations but the advice on the over-70s remains harder to pin down than jelly. First Dominic Raab said we could meet both grandparents in the park. Then Downing Street said we could only meet either Mum or Dad. Then Mr Johnson reminded us that pensioners are still considered ‘clinically vulnerable’, regardless of their health, so we were back to square one again. And we are still no closer to answering that most common-sensical of questions: “When will I be able to hug my grandchildren again?”

Yesterday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock went on This Morning to confirm that we could see our parents 10 minutes apart, as long as it’s only “one at a time.” Speaking for the nation, Phillip Schofield asked: “But don’t you see that is utterly bonkers?”

But the trouble is, Downing Street wonks, largely in their 20s and 30s, spearheaded by uber-geek Dominic Cummings, don’t take a daytime TV view of anything. Which is a shame, because if they did they would learn more about the British people than the choreographed focus groups upon which they appear so reliant.

The average This Morning viewer would have been able to tell the PM that saying we can invite cleaners into our homes but not relatives sounds about as rational as expecting five and six year olds to socially distance.

A woman might have had the balls to point this out, but unfortunately female ministers have been conspicuous by their absence from the all-male Covid-19 sub committee that is making the decisions. Remarkably, Home Secretary Priti Patel is the only woman in Government to have been entrusted with a Downing Street press conference (only twice, mind), and even she hasn’t been let into the coronavirus “war cabinet quad”.

Meanwhile the Cabinet, hand-picked for its loyalty to the PM, has been rendered so supine by the overly centralised approach that they didn’t even get to see the roadmap before he pre-recorded his special broadcast.

Team Johnson is not just decidedly blokey, but as inexperienced as his Government, staffed by Cummings’ Vote Leave acolytes who know how to win campaigns but not necessarily how to govern. Few of them appear to have run anything before.

Mr Johnson might be minded to heed the words of his predecessor Margaret Thatcher when she said: “Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country.”