Thank goodness for the select committee system. It allowed our true government to be held to account by elected representatives. Boris Johnson gave the game away on Saturday when he said “no responsible prime minister can ignore the message of those figures”. In other words, Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, and Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, who presented the figures, are running the country: the prime minister just does what he’s told.
What was important, therefore, was not Johnson’s statement in the House of Commons on Monday, when Labour MPs asked him why he hadn’t ordered the second lockdown earlier and Conservative MPs asked him why he was doing it at all. The important session was Vallance and Whitty’s joint appearance in front of the Science and Technology Committee today.
They were subjected to tough questioning about the graphs that they had shown on Saturday which presented the figures that Johnson couldn’t ignore. In particular one scenario – it was definitely not a forecast – suggested that 4,000 people could die every day by Christmas if no action were taken.
Vallance and Whitty could not disown it fast enough. It was a “reasonable worst-case scenario” that was owned by the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, rather than by their outfit, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. Did they wish they hadn’t shown it, they were asked. Vallance mumbled about the other graphs that were in their presentation, and Whitty said he had never used anything going beyond the next six weeks “with any minister”.
But the two so-called advisers had certainly told the so-called prime minister that the NHS would be overrun within weeks if he didn’t order a lockdown. As Greg Clark, the deceptively mild chair of the committee, said, this meant that their advice was not really “optional”.
Vallance and Whitty insisted that all they did was present information, and it was up to ministers to weigh up all the other factors before coming to a decision. They always pay lip service to the serious long-term economic consequences of lockdowns, but they didn’t sound, today, as if they thought these could possibly outweigh the health effects of the disease.
Vallance could not resist a dig at other, less powerful, parts of the government, saying that he and Whitty were in favour of disclosing as much information as possible, and that “other advice is less visible” – meaning the advice on the economic impact. If MPs were looking for the mythical economic impact assessment – a document that does not exist, as Alok Sharma, the business secretary, was reluctantly forced to admit this morning – they would not find it here.
The true problem of holding our government of experts to account was exposed towards the end of the session when Clark asked the duumvirate why children’s sport outside is being banned under the lockdown rules, when it is clearly a low-risk activity. Vallance said there are problems with “interactions around events” (presumably parents opening the orange juice cartons in the changing room), but Whitty said rather loftily: “We don’t go down to that level of individual activities.” His job was to set out the general principles, and it was for his subordinates, mere ministers, to put together the complex packages of policy: “It would be deeply unhelpful if we tried to unpick those packages now.”
Clark commented rather mournfully on the difficulty of getting the voices of his constituents heard by the real wielders of power.
MPs on the committee said several times that they needed answers before the vote tomorrow on the lockdown regulations; but everyone knows that this vote is a foregone conclusion, because Labour MPs will vote in favour and the Conservative rebellion seems unlikely so far to exceed the rule of six.
Katherine Fletcher, a new Conservative MP, asked the bluntest and most effective question: “Is this lockdown going to work?” If people abide by it, it will start to reduce the level of infections, said Whitty. But we mustn’t think that this would mean that coronavirus is over, he added. Our real government has spoken.