Written evidence submitted by Sir Lawrence Freedman

  1. I do not claim any particular expertise on many of the issues to be addressed by the Inquiry but I have considered, as a historian, the question of why the UK experience of Covid-19 turned out to be so painful.
  2. I attach three articles [Note by Committee: These are not published, but links have been added]. These largely cover the period from January to April 2020.

              [https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/coronavirus/2020/06/where-science-went-wrong]

 

  1. As a historian I have sought to explain the decision-making that led to the various policy responses. The first piece was written with a number of primary sources although not SAGE’s minutes which were published later. The second and third used these minutes, and in certain respects they qualify some of the historical narrative in the first piece (especially with regard to the events of 12-16 March 2020).
  2. In all these pieces I argue that the government was largely following scientific advice and the ‘science encouraged the UK to be relatively slow in imposing stringent measures. This advice could and should have been questioned by ministers. Other countries were acting after 9 March with greater urgency and the public was moving, without official guidance, to adopting social distancing measures. Although the problem of expert advice is often posed as a tension between ‘truth’ and ‘power’ in practice problems can arise when ‘truth’ and ‘power’ are in agreement and fail to challenge each other’s assumptions.  Politicians should not be passive recipients of whatever expertise comes their way, but should rather engage with the experts to explore alternative options and their empirical foundations.
  3. The delay in imposing a lockdown provides part of the explanation for the high level of fatalities in Britain but it is not sufficient on its own. The problem was not so much that individual outbreaks were more severe than elsewhere New York suffered much more than London for example – but because the outbreaks were much more uniformly spread across the country. It needs more investigation but it may be the case that the UK was caught out by people returning in late February/early March from half-term breaks and skiing holidays in countries where there was already a high incidence of Covid-19, such as Spain and Italy. 
  4. This highlights the UK’s main problem which was its inability to test at volume. SAGE’s scientific approach was very data-driven, which would have been fine had the data been readily available and timely. Until late April, it had only patchy information on the incidence and impact of Covid-19. 
  5. It is now widely acknowledged that far too little attention was given to what was going on in care homes. A substantial proportion of all cases and deaths was consequential on transmission in hospitals and care homes.
  6. The objective of ‘saving the NHS’ and preventing it being overwhelmed by cases made sense and provided a focus for government efforts. Saving the social care sector would always have been more challenging given the number of separate homes and the variety of providers but the NHS focus meant that there were delays in addressing the social care aspect of the pandemic.
  7. There is nothing inherently wrong with the SAGE system. It draws on a wide variety of disciplines and the top scientists from around the country. The various sub-groups of SAGE provided advice on the science of the coronavirus, treatments and vaccines, and also epidemiology. It also provided views on the behavioural issues raised by alternative interventions. Its strengths reflected those of the UK scientific community. There was however no clear scientific answer to the issues that faced HMG in February and March 2020, and even judgements informed by science can go awry.  Inevitably they involved judgements – on public attitudes and responses – that were more for politicians.
  8. It was geared to first-order policy decisions but less so the vital but practical matters of ensuring supplies of reliable tests and PPE. This is not a criticism of SAGE but points to the need to integrate policy advice with operational issues (can testing be scaled up? What will be the impact of a global pandemic on supply chains? What is best practice to contain transmission within care homes?).
  9. A major question concerns the ‘lost month’ of February. The starting point for thinking on pandemics at this point was the H1N1-09 experience of 2009-10. This warned of the dangers of worst case scenarios and of being panicked into exaggerated and expensive responses. SARS in 2003, which had a major influence on Southeast Asian preparations and responses, suggested that new diseases could be contained in their region of origin. One lesson from this crisis is that lessons learned from one crisis may be inappropriate when applied to the next crisis.
  10. There is a degree of unreality with regard to many of the claims made about the ability of a government to impose disruptive measure on the country in the absence of many known cases and no deaths. It is also doubtful whether attempts to control incoming travel to the UK could have prevented its spread into the UK as this effort would most likely have been focused on visitors from China and neighbouring countries rather than Europe. In addition, it was the case that the ability of a population to stick with lockdown was underestimated in early March. But when lockdown came it was against pervasive evidence of the infectiousness and lethality of Covid-19. We know now that lockdowns, as blunt instruments, made a major difference in suppressing a rampant virus but not in its elimination. Timing was always important, and while there is a compelling case that lives could have been saved if it had been introduced a week earlier there would have been issues implementing and sustaining a lockdown much before that.
  11. A more serious charge is whether more could have been done to get in more ventilators, build up testing capacity and ensure stocks of personal protective equipment.
  12. The performance of UK biomedical sciences with regard to treatments and vaccines has been exceptional.

 

7 September 2020