“Downing Street insisted on Friday night that the Prime Minister and his team had acted on the data, seemingly showing a 63 per cent rise in infections in just two weeks, with a decisiveness critical to keeping on top of Covid-19.”
By Robert Mendick, Chief Reporter www.telegraph.co.uk
When it landed on Boris Johnson’s desk on Wednesday evening, the data made for grim reading.
According to the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) report, coronavirus, suppressed for months under a strict lockdown, was on its way back.
“The ONS surveillance data was the clincher,” said a senior Cabinet source by way of explanation for the dramatic – opponents claimed chaotic – turn of events that followed.
Downing Street insisted on Friday night that the Prime Minister and his team had acted on the data, seemingly showing a 63 per cent rise in infections in just two weeks, with a decisiveness critical to keeping on top of Covid-19.
Within 36 hours of receiving the ONS data, swathes of the north of England had been thrown into a new, partial lockdown and Mr Johnson was forced, as he put it in a televised address on Friday, to “squeeze the brake pedal” across the rest of the nation.
But even MPs within the Conservative Party’s own ranks, as well as much of the rest of the country, were left wondering what had just happened.
The writing had been on the wall earlier in the week with warnings from the Prime Minister that continental Europe was seeing “signs of a second wave”.
Anybody aware that Britain is two weeks behind countries such as Spain and France could have done the maths.
But at 9.16pm on Thursday, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, tweeted the first in a series of Whitehall bombshells, culminating, 15 hours later, in Mr Johnson’s “brakes on” press conference.
“We’re constantly looking at the latest data on the spread of coronavirus, and unfortunately we’ve seen an increasing rate of transmission in parts of Northern England,” Mr Hancock posted in advance of an order that would come into effect only two hours and 44 minutes later.
From midnight, households in Greater Manchester, Bradford, Blackburn with Darwen and six other local authority areas were banned from mixing indoors, or even in the garden.
About four million people were affected, with all this coming on the eve of the biggest Muslim festival of the year, Eid al-Adha – equivalent to cancelling Christmas just as children were putting out their stockings and taking themselves off to bed on Christmas Eve.
Public health officials had examined the data at their own meeting inside the Department of Health on Wednesday – called “silver command” – and it was escalated the next day at a “gold command” meeting, chaired by Mr Hancock and attended by Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical adviser, and Baroness Harding, in charge of the coronavirus test and trace system.
‘The urgency of it was clear’
Immediately after “gold command” ended (at about 6pm on Thursday, according to sources), Mr Johnson convened his own Covid Operations committee – known as “Covid O” – to consider the options.
The Prime Minister chaired the meeting in the Cabinet room, with his Health Secretary alongside him, joined by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, and Prof Whitty. Other members of “Covid O” joined by Zoom, including Cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser.
The group was in agreement. A partial northern lockdown (see graphic below) was needed urgently – Eid was to begin the next day and was likely to see thousands of households mingling in joyous celebration – and a further easing of restrictions on August 1 countermanded. England would be going backwards.
On Friday, Mr Hancock was clear that the restrictions on the north had nothing to do with Eid.
In an interview with the Today programme on Friday, he replied when asked if the festival was a factor: “No – my heart goes out to the Muslim communities in these areas because I know how important the Eid celebrations are.”
However, two separate sources have said Eid was discussed at “gold command” on Thursday, but it was agreed that no ministers would mention it in public, fearful of stirring a far-right Islamophobic backlash as well as causing distress in the Muslim community.
A Government source said: “Ministers are very, very alive to the sensitivities of this, given the significance of Eid to the Muslim community. There was just no choice – the urgency of it was clear.”
The source said there was an urgent need to keep households apart, adding: “The point about the data is that what it is showing is household transmission – it’s not about the level it is at now but about where this could lead.”
Mr Hancock raised concern privately that over-emphasising the importance of Eid as a factor could inflame racial tensions.
Another senior Government source said: “There was a massive amount of work being done round Eid, so we were already alive to that. But we were also aware of the downside of doing it the night before Eid, because of the impact that it has.”
Infection rates (see graphic below), the source said, were also high among people of Indian, Polish and Eastern European backgrounds.
“The data from test and trace was clear – the spikes were showing a lack of social distancing within households, and between nearby households,” said a source.
Ministers had already been informed that locking down areas at Eid could stoke tensions. Sage papers released on Friday show that a report from SPI-B Policing and Security sub-Group had warned that local lockdowns would be “potentially problematic” during the festival.
Tory MPs ‘were furious’
Time was running out. At just after 6pm on Thursday, northern MPs were sent an email, posted out by Viriginia Crosbie, an MP and aide to the health minister Helen Whately, advising them there would be a conference call with the minister and with Baroness Harding at 6.30pm.
Some MPs, not knowing who Virginia Crosbie was, either ignored it or hadn’t spotted it as they prepared for a sunny weekend ahead.
Mr Hancock texted at 6.29pm, a minute before the Zoom conference, urging them to tune in. At 6.30pm, the minister talked the MPs through the northern lockdown. Many of them, including a number of Tories holding marginal former “Red Wall” Labour seats, went apoplectic.
“They were furious. They were calling it an outrage. One of them was all over the place, screaming his head off,” said a Labour MP who witnessed the row unfold. “These are Tories who think Boris Johnson can do no wrong, and you could see the scales falling from their eyes.
“Once they got past their anger, they began asking fairly simple questions – and the minister’s answers were completely confused. I got the impression the decision had only just been made.”
Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 committee and the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, said: “These new restrictions have been introduced over a large area, even though there are massive variations in infection rates. It is unfortunate that these restrictions were introduced so quickly and without consultation.”
Another senior Tory, with an affected northern seat, said: “I just think there remains a default position of extreme caution which jars with the reality that we may have to live with Covid for a very long time and we have to get on with life.”
Local officials and police caught cold
Local authority leaders discovered the new measures at about 7pm. Alyson Barnes, the Labour leader of Rossendale Borough Council, said it was hard to take being dragged into a lockdown when the area had recorded just four positive test results in a week.
The largely rural council is wedged between hotspots in Greater Manchester and Blackburn, but she believes the timing was significant. “I think Eid was the propellant,” she said. “I cannot think it is anything else than Eid. They [ministers] are telling us all to stay at home, but they wouldn’t have done it at Christmas.”
Analysis by The Telegraph shows that more than 2.7 million people in northern England woke up to fresh lockdown restrictions despite living in neighbourhoods which have had fewer than four confirmed cases in the last 14 days.
In Rossendale, the overall infection rate is just 4.2 new cases per 100,000 people over the most recent week of data.
Police were also caught cold by Mr Hancock’s announcement. Just two hours before they were due to go on shift, police officers in West Yorkshire were finding out from social media that they would have to apply strict, if not entirely clear, new restrictions.
Brian Booth, the chairman of the West Yorkshire Police Federation, said: “This came totally out of the blue, and we were left with just two hours to work out how how we were going to apply the new rules.
“We are talking about areas and communities where there are already tensions around policing, and our officers do not want to get things wrong and end up making things worse.”
At the “Covid O” meeting in the Cabinet Office that followed “gold command”, the Prime Minister decided to impose the northern lockdown that night but save the decision to scrap plans to relax measures further until the press conference the next day.
Officials then “worked through the night and Friday morning” to prepare the nationwide measures, which included ditching an easing on wedding rules to allow up to 30 guests.
The Cabinet was then told of the measures by the Prime Minister in a Zoom call on Friday morning, followed by a briefing with the devolved administrations and another with opposition leaders. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, announced, in response, a ban on Scottish residents visiting England’s north.
There was still confusion, though. One senior MP was called by Mr Hancock and seemingly assured that weddings with 30 guests were still on the table, only for Mr Johnson to cull that three hours later.
At the televised Downing Street press conference, while the Prime Minister was telling the nation it was time to put on the brakes, Prof Whitty, standing alongside him, was seemingly hitting reverse.
“We have probably reached or neared the limits of what we can do in terms of opening up society,” he said, adding that it was now wrong to think “we can open up everything and keep the virus under control”.
On some readings of the data though, the correct course of action is, less clear.
The ONS estimated that 35,700 people in England were infected with Covid-19 between July 20 and July 26, or one in 1,500 people. The week before, statisticians had calculated around 27,700 were infected, or about one in 2,000.
However, the ONS data has been jumping around wildly since surveillance testing began, ironically because cases in the community are so low. On June 25, cases were worse than they are now – at one in 1,100 – and a fortnight later had swung to one in 3,900.
The new calculation is based on just 59 people testing positive out of 116,026 swab tests (0.05 per cent). The previous week, just 45 people tested positive out of 114,674 (0.39 per cent). It means the tipping point for a northern lockdown may have rested on just 14 extra positive tests.
The ONS also admitted it was unable to spot any concrete regional differences. In fact, its data showed the north-west as having one of the lowest incidences of Covid-19, while suggesting cases were rising in the East Midlands and London.
Dr Daniel Lawson, a lecturer in statistical science in the School of Mathematics at the University of Bristol, said politicians were being forced to grapple with huge uncertainty and were fearful of acting too late.
“The ONS survey data provides some evidence of an increase. But there is a difficulty in measurement,” said Dr Lawson. But he had every sympathy for ministers, warning: “Acting too late can make lockdowns longer and increase mortality.”
Boris Johnson is taking no chances.