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Cummings: government’s key Covid assumptions ‘were wrong’

Image: Number 10 [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

PM’s former adviser blames science assumptions and lack of data for delayed action on Covid-19

Key scientific assumptions made by the UK government early on in the pandemic were wrong, the prime minister’s controversial former adviser has claimed.

Reflecting on the first few months of the Covid outbreak in the UK in 2020, Dominic Cummings (pictured, second from left), who left his role in late 2020, said it was obvious that the national lockdown should have been imposed by the start of March “at the latest”.

However, he claimed that the official view was that a lockdown would only delay the peak of the virus, and that herd immunity was seen as an “inevitability”—something that government ministers have repeatedly denied.

“You will either have herd immunity in September after a single peak, or you will have herd immunity by January with a second peak,” he told MPs on 26 May during a joint House of Commons committee session on lessons learned during the crisis. “Those are the only two options we have. That was the whole logic of all the discussions in January, February and early March.

“That’s why in the week of [9 March], people from Sage [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] and elsewhere in the government started to talk publicly about herd immunity.”

A UK lockdown was eventually imposed on 23 March, at which time it was realised that the country was following the trajectory of Italy with cases rising more quickly than anticipated.

Behavioural science

Cummings also challenged assumptions he says were made by behavioural scientists in the Sage sub-group known as Spi-B, the Independent Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours.

“One of the things that was completely wrong in the whole official thinking in Sage and in the Department of Health in February and March was first of all that the British public will not accept the lockdown,” he said. “Secondly, the British public will not accept what was thought of as a kind of East Asian-style track-and-trace system and the infringements of liberty around that.”

These two assumptions, he claimed, were “completely central to the official plan and were both obviously completely wrong”.

‘Graphs were wrong’

He also took aim at early testing data and modelling graphs, which he said contributed to a lack of urgency in responding to the virus.

“All of these health graphs…had time to peak with [the peak being] 12 weeks away,” he said. “Everyone was thinking ‘we’ve got ages to think about this, the peak is not until June’.

“There was a fundamental misunderstanding about how far this already was in the country, how fast it was spreading in the country.”

He added: “Even a week after we locked down on 23 March, official graphs were still showing this thing going up and peaking in June, even though we already knew from the numbers [of] ICU [occupancy] and deaths that the official graphs had to be completely wrong.

“The testing data was wrong, the graphs that we were shown on the models were all wrong…and that massively contributed to the whole lack of urgency.”

Cummings described the lack of testing data early in the pandemic as a “critical disaster because we didn’t realise early enough how far it had already spread”.

He added there was a lack of easy access to data in No 10 up until April 2020. “In all sorts of ways it didn’t exist,” he claimed, explaining that he had to scribble numbers cited by officials in meetings on a whiteboard and use a smart phone calculator to figure out trends.

“There was no functioning data system,” he said, adding that because of the country’s lack of testing capacity, the available data was also “weeks and weeks” out of date.

On the slow build-up of test and trace, he said, “It took too long to get set up…Fundamentally, this should have been happening from January.”

“The problem is,” he added, “that between January and roughly mid-March everyone was thinking—given we’re doing a single-peak herd immunity by September—‘there’s no point building up this whole thing’.”

He described the government’s delay in locking down and lack of an action plan as similar to the 1996 disaster film Independence Day, in which aliens invade the Earth, comparing his colleague Ben Warner to a scientist in the film played by Jeff Goldblum whose warnings were ignored.

“It was almost surreal, the whole experience,” he said. “The whole thing seemed like an out-of-control movie. In retrospect, it’s clear that we should have acted earlier.”

‘Groupthink in action’

Asked why a lockdown had not been ordered earlier, Cummings said it was a “classic historical example of groupthink in action”.

“The process was closed—that’s what happens in closed groupthink bubbles,” he explained. “Everyone just reinforced themselves, and the more people from the outside attacked, the more people internally said they don’t understand and they don’t have access to all this information.”

Similarly, he said contingency plans for a pandemic and other risks prior to Covid-19 fell “far short” of what was actually needed, adding that the “process around them, as with the pandemic plan, is just not open” and that there was “not a culture of talking to outside experts”.

“One thing I did say to the cabinet secretary last year in the summer—and which I ardently hope is actually happening—is there ought to be an absolutely thorough, total review of all such risk register programmes,” he said.

“There ought to be an assumption of making this whole process open by default and only closed for specific things.”

An inquiry is ongoing at the House of Lords about the risk assessment and risk planning.

Cummings also claimed that there was no existing plan to implement financial incentives, telling MPs the furlough scheme had been conjured “out of thin air in a few days”, as had been the case with testing and shielding policies.

Sage secrecy

Elsewhere in the session, Cummings condemned the so-called secrecy of Sage, which came under heavy scrutiny for failing to make the minutes and names of its members public early on in the pandemic.

“There’s absolutely no doubt at all that the process by which Sage was secret—and overall the whole thinking around the strategy was secret—was an absolute catastrophic mistake because it meant that there wasn’t proper scrutiny of the assumptions and the underlying logic behind it,” he said.

Cummings added that Sage and the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, had agreed with him when he had suggested making the models and codes public.