A new set of documents released last week in the U.K. as part of the “Lockdown Files” shed more light on how U.K. government officials made COVID-19 public health policy decisions and revealed how the country became the first to roll out the vaccines — against the advice of medical experts.
Part of an ongoing release by The Telegraph, the documents also included additional details about how U.K. Parliament members made public health decisions based on political, rather than scientific, criteria — including fast-tracking the vaccines even though government ministers knew the virus wasn’t deadly enough to warrant it and medical advisers warned against it.
Other documents showed how government officials’ fear of being labeled racist factored into how they made public health decisions.
The first release of the Lockdown Files — private WhatsApp messages between U.K. health officials, including former health secretary Matt Hancock — generated substantial media coverage in the U.K., but U.S. media interest was minimal and quickly tapered off.
Scientists mum on Alpha variant until just before 2020 holiday season
The latest Lockdown Files show U.K. scientists knew of the Alpha variant as early as Sept. 20, 2020 — but didn’t inform government officials until Dec. 11, 2020.
The timing raises questions about whether the announcement was withheld intentionally, so as to align it with the 2020 holiday season.
Sharon Peacock, professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, chairs the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, which sequences and analyzes the virus. She reportedly was aware of the variant in September.
Hancock discussed the variant with his media adviser, Damon Poole, in WhatsApp messages dated Dec. 13, 2020.
Hancock said it was “a total outrage” that he was not informed about the existence of the variant. Poole said that “back then, [scientists] wouldn’t have known the implications.”
Nevertheless, it appears that Hancock sought to take political advantage of the situation. He spoke with then-Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove and “floated cancelling Christmas,” which Gove said he could “see the point of.”
At the time, the U.K. had entered into its second lockdown, but a temporary easing was scheduled to take effect Dec. 18. On Dec. 19, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the cancellation of Christmas, in response to the spread of the Alpha variant.
Documents previously released as part of the Lockdown Files showed that on Dec. 13, 2020, Hancock and Poole discussed using fear and guilt as “vital tools” to ensure compliance with new lockdown measures.
Poole suggested to Hancock that “we can roll pitch with the new strain,” referring to the Alpha variant, to which Hancock responded, “We frighten the pants off everyone with the new strain.” Poole replied, “Yep that’s what will get proper bahviour [sic] change.”
Medical advisers warned against fast-tracking vaccines
U.K. government medical advisers believed COVID-19 wasn’t deadly enough to fast-track the development of vaccines, and instead emphasized the need for safety, according to the latest Lockdown Files.
Nevertheless, on Dec. 8, 2020, the U.K. became the world’s first country to administer COVID-19 vaccines to the general public.
Previous releases of the Lockdown Files revealed that in April 2020, Hancock and media adviser Jamie Njoku-Goodwin had discussed how “pushing on vaccine” and being “first out of the blocks on vaccine” would be “politically beneficial.”
This strategy was described as “purely a comms/political thing.”
Politicians worried about optics of locking down certain communities
In deciding whether to impose local lockdowns, Hancock and his advisers were concerned about potential accusations of racism and targeting areas politically opposed to the ruling Conservative party.
The U.K.’s national lockdown ended July 4, 2020, but throughout that summer, local lockdowns were implemented in areas with a high COVID-19 caseload.
With COVID-19 feared to be spreading fastest in poorer, densely populated areas with large Black and Asian communities, Hancock was warned by advisers that they could be labeled “racists” if those areas were locked down while neighboring areas were not.
In response to these concerns — and citing fears the government was “very white” — officials mobilized non-white cabinet ministers, including Kemi Badenoch, Priti Patel and Nadhim Zahawi, to spread the government’s public health message to these communities.
Hancock also was warned that “race riots” could ensue if the government decided to lock down “white working-class” areas.
Files elicited strong reactions in the UK
The release of the “lockdown files” elicited strong reactions from public figures and the general public in the U.K., which were then shared by The Telegraph.
British journalist, television presenter and author Rachel Johnson — sister of Boris Johnson — wrote that she had “profound misgivings about lockdown” from the start, stating that her father was pursued by police for alleged lockdown violations while her “lonely” mother “endured care home prison.”
Lockdowns “must never, ever, happen again,” she wrote.
Calling Hancock “slithy,” columnist Allison Pearson said he “should be arrested for wilful misconduct in public office” and must “be dragged before a Select Committee and made to answer for his actions and the vast hurt they have caused.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, former leader of the British House of Commons and a Conservative, said decisions about lockdowns and other COVID-19 countermeasures were made by a “quad” of political figures, and that he and other members of Parliament were denied evidence needed to make an anti-lockdown case.
Esther McVey, a Conservative member of Parliament and television presenter, wrote that the U.K.’s public inquiry into the response to COVID-19 must answer “inconvenient questions” that must “go beyond the direct costs of the disease and quantify the unintended damage that COVID policy inflicted.”
In justifying her decision to release Hancock’s WhatsApp messages, Oakeshott has accused the official public inquiry of moving slowly and warned of a “whitewash.”
Camilla Tominey, associate editor of The Telegraph, wrote that it is “time for the lockdown nostalgics to confront the true horror of what Britain lived through.”
British physician Karol Sikora, Ph.D., said backlogs in the U.K.’s National Health Service as a result of COVID restrictions led to “thousands of non-COVID excess deaths” — but that he was called a “killer” for opposing lockdowns.
Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, compared the U.K.’s response unfavorably to that of Sweden, which never imposed lockdowns or mask mandates. He questioned how the U.K. ended up with more than twice as many excess deaths as Sweden and warned that “Britain may well repeat its lockdown blunders sooner than anyone thinks.”