- Boris Johnson faces new claims his decision to reject scientific advice in September led to tens of thousands of deaths
- Top government scientists say the emergence of the Kent variant wasn’t just “bad luck” and might have been stopped in its tracks before it went on to spread across the world
- New details revealed about key Downing Street weekends where the Prime Minister fought against lockdown
- Conservative MP Steve Baker, one of the country’s leading lockdown sceptics and vice-chair of the Covid Recovery Group, tells Dispatches how the Prime Minister arranged for him to take scientists into Downing Street in order to challenge SAGE data
- Poor border measures led to a Spanish variant brought into the UK last summer from returning holidaymakers sparking the second wave in September
- As fears grow over the Indian variant, evidence uncovered of big gaps in current border controls risking lethal variants being imported into the UK.
Days after the Prime Minister announced a public inquiry next Spring into his government’s handling of the pandemic. Dispatches investigates why two-thirds of all British Covid deaths occurred when the second wave took hold across the country last Autumn.
As Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings is set to give evidence to a Westminster committee next week [May 26th] reporter Antony Barnett hears from a number of figures who reveal fresh details about two key weekends at Downing Street where the Prime Minister battled against his own official scientists’ advice to lockdown.
Border Control failings:
As concerns grow about a dangerous variant from India, this Dispatches investigation also uncovers major failures of the border control measures in place designed to stop lethal variants from being imported into the UK.
The programme learns how the second wave last Autumn was sparked by a Spanish variant brought into the country by returning holidaymakers during the summer. Although travellers were asked to quarantine for 14 days many failed to do so. A senior border policy officer tells the programme the measures brought in by ministers were a “complete joke” and the numbers of passengers checked dropped as queues built up, “It went down…to eighty per cent and then it went down to fifty percent and eventually it went down to roundabout thirty odd per cent.”
- Despite thousands breaking rules only 461 fines were issued for non-compliance.
Although in February the government introduced stricter border controls to stop variants that might evade vaccines, Dispatches discovers new gaps in the current raft of border measures. A Dispatches researcher travelling back from Spain discovers the authorities’ telephone calls to passengers have no way of checking whether they are at home or have taken the required Covid tests.
Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, calls on ministers to act, “The government got it badly wrong in the first wave. They got it badly wrong in the second wave as well. It is essential that lessons are learned now and that we don't go backwards again, when so much work has been done and that we can protect the vaccine program going forward.”
September Surge – experts speak out:
The programme focuses on a key weekend in September when Boris Johnson rejected advice from SAGE, which warned him that the rising number of infections meant the country was facing a “very large epidemic of catastrophic consequences”. SAGE wanted the Prime Minister to immediately impose a two-week lockdown or circuit breaker and a package of other measures.
Boris Johnson’s then chief adviser Dominic Cummings is also understood to have been pushing for the Prime Minister to act and it will be a period that will come under intense scrutiny next week [May 26th] when Cummings gives evidence to a Westminster committee on what he says went “catastrophically wrong”.
On Sunday 20th September, alongside a scientist from SAGE, Boris Johnson invited three lockdown-sceptic scientists to a Zoom meeting at Downing Street with Chancellor Rishi Sunak. Nobody has spoken before but Professor Sunetra Gupta tells the programme about the meeting and explains how she argued against lockdowns saying it would be better to keep the vulnerable sheltered and let Covid spread through the rest of society.
Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling led to the first lockdown in March 2000 and sits on one of the key government's scientific advisory committees, told Dispatches that it was possible that “had we acted earlier to stop the overall rising transmission we saw in September perhaps the Kent variant wouldn't have arisen or that it would have been slower in taking off”
He tells the programme that had the Prime Minister followed government scientific advice in September 2020 which warned of a “very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences” then it would have saved a “considerable number of lives” and stopped “ a substantial proportion of the deaths... we saw from that point onwards.”
- The B117 Kent variant has been blamed for more than 60,000 Covid deaths in Britain and was first detected in the UK towards the end of September.
Professor Sharon Peacock, who leads the UK’s variant tracking programme as director of COG-UK, rejects the claim by some that the emergence of the Kent variant was just bad luck. “There's no such thing as bad luck in biology. Bad luck and good luck doesn't come into that equation. The virus is doing what viruses do, and that is evolving over time in survival of the fittest so that it can become the fittest form of virus it can be….The more infections you have, the more possibility there is for mutations arising”
It’s a view backed up by Professor Ravi Gupta who’s at the forefront of investigations into the origins of the Kent variant. He believes it first took shape in a person whose immune system was affected by treatment for cancer or a damaged immune system who then caught Covid, “These new variants are thought to emerge in people with damaged immune systems. We believe that the reason variants such as the UK, South African and Brazilian variants have arisen is that those areas have had high transmissions, high numbers of infections and therefore the probability of someone having a chronic or long-term infection and developing a variant is then raised. If we were to reduce the total number of infections, of course, those people would not be infected in the first place.”
Dr Erik Volz, the scientist who discovered that the Kent variant was 70% more transmittable, said in his first-ever television interview: “At that point, in September, we don't know how many infections there were. It could have been in, in the low dozens. And if there were a lockdown at that point, then we might get lucky and the new lineage might actually go extinct. It’s impossible to predict. “
Conservative MP Steve Baker, one of the country’s leading lockdown sceptics and vice-chair of the Covid Recovery Group, tells Dispatches how the Prime Minister called him up twice on the evening of October 30th and asked his advice. Baker reveals the Prime Minister arranged for him to take a few scientists to Downing Street but before the meeting could take place, the Prime Minister was bounced into lockdown by a leak from Downing Street that a lockdown was due to be announced.
Mapping analysis undertaken for Dispatches shows that the second surge in September was largely sparked by holidaymakers returning from Spain and not following quarantine rules.
Professor Peacock says: “During the summer a variant emerged in Spain…the variant first detected in Spain was introduced by travellers returning from their holidays….and then became our dominant lineage in this country as a cause of disease.”
She adds: “I worry that the virus will continue to mutate and so that evades vaccine efficacy. That is my biggest concern. We will need to keep watching the virus in the United Kingdom as well as worrying about what is introduced.”
The government told Dispatches that throughout the pandemic it has been guided by data and scientific advice and has acted quickly and decisively to save lives and livelihoods.
The government told us addresses are verified by Public Health England and that the government has a contract for 10,000 quarantine support officers to check people are obeying the rules.
Second Wave: Did the government get it wrong? Channel 4 Dispatches
Monday 17th May, 10pm, channel 4
Prod/Dir: Roger corke
Prod: balinder Bhogal
Exec Prod: Eamonn Matthews
Prod Co: quicksilver