Number 10’s response to coronavirus has been ‘disastrously wrong’, a government scientific adviser dramatically claimed today.
Professor Stephen Reicher, a behavioural scientist on a panel that feeds into SAGE, accused ministers of making bad decisions throughout the crisis.
It is not the first time Boris Johnson and his cabinet have come under fire by leading experts in the outbreak, which statistics show has killed at least 53,000 Brits.
Downing Street has been repeatedly criticised for being too slow to ramp up testing, imposing lockdown too late and abandoning contact tracing too early.
Britain has Europe’s worst Covid-19 death toll, with official figures showing almost 43,000 people have died after testing positive for the virus, and more detailed stats putting an extra 10,000 on top of that.
Professor Reicher — based at the University of St Andrews — attacked Number 10’s response, arguing they should have listened to behavioural scientists more.
Professor Stephen Reicher, a behavioural scientist on a panel that feeds into SAGE, accused ministers of making ‘bad decisions’ throughout the crisis
Such experts have taken flak in the crisis after ministers cited ‘behavioural science evidence’ for not imposing lockdown sooner.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said people ‘tire’ of social distancing measures, ‘so if we start them too early, they lose their effect and actually it is worse’.
Professor Reicher’s comments were in a response to a column in The Times, which argued listening to behavioural experts was one of ‘the biggest mistakes’.
Author Martha Gill wrote they ‘led the government directly to a fatal delay in imposing lockdown’, which was finally introduced on March 23.
Ms Gill called for behavioural scientists to be ditched ‘altogether’, accusing them of being ‘lobbyists for their own brand of thinking’.
Professor Reicher said ‘the vast majority’ of experts disagreed with the idea of crisis fatigue and clashed over it with ministers.
He added that SPI-B — the SAGE sub-committee he sits on — ‘vigorously opposed the notion of fatigue… or its use to argue against restrictions’.
In a lengthy Twitter thread criticising The Times piece, he argued the government ‘desperately needs guidance on behavioural science’.
Detailed statistics show that more than 44,000 people have already died with COVID-19 in the UK, but this study from the University of Southampton suggests that number could have been kept to 11,200 if lockdown was introduced earlier
The study suggested that a lockdown which began a week earlier – on March 16 – would have led to a total of 11,200 people dying and just two per cent of the population catching the virus (98 per cent susceptibility)
A second model, which most closely aligns with what is happening in the UK right now, suggests that six per cent of the population get infected and around 39,000 people die. The demand for hospital beds is considerably higher than in the previous estimate. Britain is known to have more than 44,000 deaths already so this estimate is still too low
Professor Reicher said: ‘They have got things disastrously wrong and they should have listened more to their independent behavioural science advisors.
‘Everything we can do to contain the pandemic, from washing your hands to getting tested to self isolating, has a behavioural dimension.
WHEN DID OTHER COUNTRIES GO INTO LOCKDOWN AND HOW MANY PEOPLE HAVE DIED IN THEM?
An report published in March by the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team outlined the dates on which various countries in Europe started their lockdown measures.
The numbers on their own do not suggest a direct link between the timing of lockdown and the number of people who died, showing that other factors come into play.
The most comparable countries in size to the UK are France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
- Austria: March 16
- Belgium: March 18
- Denmark: March 18
- France: March 17
- Germany: March 22
- Italy: March 11
- Norway: March 24
- Spain: March 14
- Sweden: No lockdown
- Switzerland: March 18
- United Kingdom: March 23
‘So how do we get the public on board with these things? How do we create a sense of community and mutual responsibility? How do we gain trust?
‘These aren’t arcane academic discussions any more. They are matters of life and death. And there are clear evidence-based suggestions on how to address them.’
He added: ‘By arguing they should be ignored, you undermine the efforts against the pandemic.’
And Professor Reicher said there was an important point raised, asking: ‘Is one view of human behaviour overly dominating in No 10 and has it led to bad decisions?’
He also said that ‘people are resilient, that they can cope with tough times if given adequate information and adequate support’.
Professor Reicher has previously attacked the government over its handling of the Dominic Cummings saga, warning people would die because of his decision to travel 260miles to his parents’ house during lockdown.
Scores of scientists have echoed Ms Gill’s lockdown argument, saying thousands of lives could have been saved had it been implemented sooner.
Even ‘Professor Lockdown’ — Imperial College London’s Neil Ferguson — said 25,000 deaths could have been avoided if it was imposed one week earlier.
Mr Johnson imposed lockdown on the back of the Imperial’s grim modelling, which predicted 500,000 people could die if the virus was left unchecked.
Another SAGE member, Sir Ian Boyd, argued last month it ‘would have made quite a big difference’ if ministers acted sooner to curb the outbreak.
And a mathematician at Southampton University claimed introducing lockdown on March 16 could have kept the death toll to around 11,000.
Polls of Brits show around two thirds of people think the government took too long to put the UK in lockdown.
But other experts say ministers ‘lost sight’ of the evidence and rushed into lockdown, praising Sweden for holding its nerve and not shutting down the economy.
A TIMELINE OF THE UK’S COVID-19 LOCKDOWN
February 28: Virus started spreading uncontrollably in Britain, according to the World Health Organization.
March 3: Government and NHS officially launched campaign urging people to wash their hands more often.
March 12: Anyone who developed a fever or a new cough, regardless of whether they got tested for COVID-19, was told to self-isolate for two weeks.
March 16: Social distancing begins:
- Public were told to avoid contact with people outside of their homes, to work from home where possible, and to only take essential travel, such as to and from work or medical appointments.
- Pubs and restaurants are not forced to close but people are encouraged to avoid them.
- Likewise, the Government refused to ban large gatherings and sports events but said police and ambulances would no longer be provided for them.
March 20: Major businesses were ordered to close immediately, including gyms, leisure centres, pubs, cafes, restaurants, theatres and cinemas.
March 23: Full lockdown introduced:
- In a speech to the nation Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged everyone to stay at home unless necessary, only leaving to shop, to go to medical appointments or to exercise once per day.
- Gatherings of people were banned, regardless of size, and people prohibited from mixing with others outside of their household.
- Everyone was told to work from home if possible. Many non-essential workers were forced to stop working if they couldn’t do it from home.
- Schools shut their doors except to the children of essential workers.
March 24: All non-essential businesses, including clothing shops and hairdressers, were ordered to close.