The Daily Telegraph
Troubling insistence on harsh Covid rules
Exactly three years have passed since the first recorded UK death from Covid-19. The Government’s initial response was relatively restrained at first, despite deepening concerns that a global pandemic was about to hit. Boris Johnson, then prime minister, urged people to wash their hands for the same length of time that it took to sing Happy Birthday twice.
Within three weeks we had gone from advice on hygiene to full-scale lockdown.
Most people accept that the first responses were legitimate, even too slow, given how little was known about the impact of the virus. What this newspaper’s Lockdown Files reveal, however, is how reluctant ministers were to remove restrictions when it became apparent that they were no longer needed and could usefully be eased. As we report today, a case in point arose in Nov 2020. At this time, people who had come into contact with someone testing positive for Covid were required to isolate for 14 days. This was having a profound impact on efforts to restart economic activity at a point when infections had abated, though they would rise again as Christmas approached.
Matt Hancock, then health secretary, was advised by the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Chris Whitty, that the 14-day quarantine could be replaced with five days of testing. Whatsapp messages suggest that the 14-day period had likely been “too long all along”. By then, nearly a million people in England had been told to self-isolate for a fortnight, even if they had no symptoms. However, rather than seize the opportunity to relieve people of this rule, Mr Hancock rejected it because it would “imply we’ve been getting it wrong”.
Although the Government reduced the selfisolation period to 10 days, another eight months would pass before the so-called “pingdemic” forced the Government to end mandatory quarantine even for those who had been vaccinated. The extent to which pandemic planning became an exercise in back-covering and self-aggrandisement is one of the more depressing aspects of this whole episode.
Mr Hancock and his colleagues say the messages represent only a partial picture, and a full account will be available to the official inquiry, which has yet to start its public hearings. When it does, it needs to consider whether some ministers were more concerned with protecting their own reputations than the well-being of the country.