Monday 20 April 2020

Off Beam

The limitations of our comments system make it awkward to insert direct hyperlinks, so following a comment (by Anonymous)  - and for clarity, I'm posting the Government's rebuttal of the Sunday Times article below the fold. 
Michael Gove described the article as 'off beam." The Government sets out the 'claims' made by the Sunday Times and offers its 'responses' in full.  

A Government spokesman said: ‘This article contains a series of falsehoods and errors and actively misrepresents the enormous amount of work which was going on in government at the earliest stages of the Coronavirus outbreak.’
‘This is an unprecedented global pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided at all times by the best scientific advice.
‘The Government has been working day and night to battle against coronavirus, delivering a strategy designed at all times to protect our NHS and save lives.
'Our response has ensured that the NHS has been given all the support it needs to ensure everyone requiring treatment has received it, as well as providing protection to businesses and reassurance to workers.
‘The Prime Minister has been at the helm of the response to this, providing leadership during this hugely challenging period for the whole nation.’
On the Sunday Times claims:
Claim – On the third Friday in January Coronavirus was already spreading around the world but the government ‘brushed aside’ the threat in an hour-long COBR meeting and said the risk to the UK public was ‘low’.
Response – At a very basic level, this is wrong. The meeting was on the fourth Friday in January. The article also misrepresents the Government’s awareness of Covid 19, and the action we took before this point. Health Secretary Matt Hancock was first alerted to Covid 19 on 3 January and spoke to Departmental officials on 6th Jan before receiving written advice from the UK Health Security Team.
He brought the issue to the attention of the Prime Minister and they discussed Covid 19 on 7 January. The government’s scientific advisory groups started to meet in mid-January and Mr Hancock instituted daily coronavirus meetings. He updated Parliament as soon as possible, on January 23rd.
The risk level was set to “Low” because at the time our scientific advice was that the risk level to the UK public at that point was low. The first UK case was not until 31 January. The specific meaning of “public health risk” refers to the risk there is to the public at precisely that point. The risk was also higher than it had been before - two days earlier it had been increased “Very Low” to “Low” in line with clinical guidance from the Chief Medical Officer.
The WHO did not formally declare that coronavirus was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) until 30 January, and only characterised it as a global pandemic more than a month later, on 11 March. The UK was taking action and working to improve its preparedness from early January.
Claim -  ‘This was despite the publication that day of an alarming study by Chinese doctors in the medical journal The Lancet. It assessed the lethal potential of the virus, for the first time suggesting it was comparable to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed up to 50 million people.'
Response -  The editor of the Lancet, on exactly the same day – 23 January - called for “caution” and accused the media of ‘escalating anxiety by talking of a ‘killer virus’ and ‘growing fears’. He wrote: ‘In truth, from what we currently know, 2019-nCoV has moderate transmissibility and relatively low pathogenicity. There is no reason to foster panic with exaggerated language.’ The Sunday Times is suggesting that there was a scientific consensus around the fact that this was going to be a pandemic – that is plainly untrue.
Claim -  It was unusual for the Prime Minister to be absent from COBR and is normally chaired by the Prime Minister.
Response - This is wrong. It is entirely normal and proper for COBR to be chaired by the relevant Secretary of State. Then Health Secretary Alan Johnson chaired COBR in 2009 during H1N1. Michael Gove chaired COBR as part of No Deal planning. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps chaired COBR during the collapse of Thomas Cook. Mr Hancock was in constant communication with the PM throughout this period.
At this point the World Health Organisation had not declared COVID19 a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’, and only did so only 30 January. Indeed, they chose not to declare a PHEIC the day after the COBR meeting.
Examples of scientific commentary from the time:
Prof Martin Hibberd, Professor of Emerging Infectious Disease, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said:
“This announcement is not surprising as more evidence may be needed to make the case of announcing a PHEIC. WHO were criticised after announcing the pandemic strain of novel H1N1_2009, when the virus was eventually realised to have similar characteristics to seasonal influenza and is perhaps trying to avoid making the same mistake here with this novel coronavirus. To estimate the true severity of this new disease requires identifying mild or asymptomatic cases, if there are any, while determining the human to human transmission rate might require more evidence.”
Dr Adam Kamradt-Scott, Senior Lecturer in International Security Studies, University of Sydney, said: “Based on the information we have to date, the WHO Director-General’s decision to not declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern is not especially surprising. While we have seen international spread of the virus, which is one of the criteria for declaring a PHEIC, the cases in those countries do not appear to have seeded further local outbreaks. If that was to start to occur, it would constitute a greater concern but at the moment the outbreak is largely contained within China.”
Claim -  'Imperial’s Ferguson was already working on his own estimate — putting infectivity at 2.6 and possibly as high as 3.5 — which he sent to ministers and officials in a report on the day of the Cobra meeting on January 24. The Spanish flu had an estimated infectivity rate of between 2.0 and 3.0, so Ferguson’s finding was shocking.’
Response -  Infectivity on its own simply reveals how quickly  a disease spreads, and not its health impact. For that, it is necessary to know about data such as associated mortality/morbidity. It is sloppy and unscientific to use this number alone to compare to Spanish flu.
Claim -  No10 ‘played down the looming threat’ from Coronavirus and displayed an ‘almost nonchalant attitude…for more than a month.’
Response -  The suggestion that the government’s attitude was nonchalant is wrong. Extensive and detailed work was going on in government because of Coronavirus, as shown above.
Claim -  By the time the Prime Minister chaired a COBR meeting on March 2 ‘the virus had sneaked into our airports, our trains, our workplaces and our homes. Britain was on course for one of the worst infections of the most insidious virus to have hit the world in a century.'
Response -  This virus has hit countries across the world. It is ridiculous to suggest that coronavirus only reached the UK because the Health Secretary and not the PM chaired a COBR meeting.
Claim - 'Failure of leadership' by anonymous senior advisor to Downing Street.
Response - The Prime Minister has been at the helm of the Government response to Covid 19, providing the leadership to steer his Ministerial team through a hugely challenging period for the whole nation. This anonymous source is variously described as a ‘senior adviser to Downing Street’ and a ‘senior Downing Street adviser’. The two things are not the same. One suggests an adviser employed by the government in No10. The other someone who provides ad hoc advice. Which is it?
Claim - The government sent 279,000 items of its depleted stockpile of protective equipment to China during this period in response to a request for help from the authorities there.
Response - The equipment was not from the pandemic stockpile. We provided this equipment to China at the height of their need and China has since reciprocated our donation many times over. Between April 2-April 15 we have received over 12 million pieces of PPE in the UK from China.
Claim - Little was done to equip the National Health Service for the coming crisis in this period.
Response - This is wrong. The NHS has responded well to Coronavirus, and has provided treatment to everyone in critical need. We have constructed the new Nightingale hospitals and extended intensive care capacity in other hospitals.
Claim - Among the key points likely to be explored are why it took so long to recognise an urgent need for a massive boost in supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers; ventilators to treat acute respiratory symptoms; and tests to detect the infection.
Response - The Department for Health began work on boosting PPE stocks in January, before the first confirmed UK case.
  • Discussions on PPE supply for COVID-19 began w/c 27 January (as part of Medical Devices and Clinical Consumables), with the first supply chain kick-off meeting on 31 January. The first additional orders of PPE was placed on 30 January via NHS Supply Chain’s ‘just-in-time contracts’. BAU orders of PPE were ramped up around the same date.
  • Friday, 7 February, the department held a webinar for suppliers trading from or via China and the European Union. Over 700 delegates joined and heard the Department’s requests to carry out full supply chain risk assessments and hold onto EU exit stockpiles where they had been retained.
  • Monday, 10 February, the department spoke with the major patient groups and charities to update them on the situation regarding the outbreak and to update them on the steps it was taking to protect supplies.
  • Tuesday, 11 February, the department wrote to all suppliers in scope of the Covid 19 supply response work – those trading from or via China or the EU – repeating the messages from the webinar and updating suppliers on the current situation relating to novel coronavirus.
  • The NHS has spare ventilator capacity and we are investing in further capacity.
Claim - Suggestion that ‘lack of grip’ had the knock-on effect of the national lockdown being introduced days or even weeks too late, causing many thousands more unnecessary deaths.
Response - The government started to act as soon as it was alerted to a potential outbreak. Mr Hancock was first alerted to Covid 19 on 3 January and spoke to Departmental officials on 6th Jan before receiving written advice from the UK Health Security Team. He brought the issue to the attention of the Prime Minister and they discussed Covid 19 on 7 January.
The government’s scientific advisory groups started to meet in mid-January and Hancock instituted daily meetings to grip the emerging threat. We have taken the right steps at the right time guided by the scientific evidence.
Claim -  Scientists said the threat from the coming storm was clear and one of the government’s key advisory committees was given a dire warning a month earlier than has previously been admitted about the prospect of having to deal with mass casualties.
Response - The government followed scientific advice at all times. The WHO only determined that COVID 19 would be a global pandemic on 11 March. Claiming that there was scientific consensus on this is just wrong. Sage met on January 22 but the first NERVTAG meeting was held on 13 January (NERVTAG is the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group – see here ).
Claim - The last rehearsal for a pandemic was a 2016 exercise codenamed Cygnus, which predicted the health service would collapse and highlighted a long list of shortcomings — including, presciently, a lack of PPE and intensive care ventilators.
Response -  The Government has been extremely proactive in implementing lessons learnt around pandemic preparedness, including from Exercise Cygnus. This includes being ready with legislative proposals that could rapidly be tailored to what became the Coronavirus Act, plans to strengthen excess death planning, planning for recruitment and deployment of retired staff and volunteers, and guidance for stakeholders and sectors across government.
Claim - By February 21 the virus had already infected 76,000 people, had caused 2,300 deaths in China and was taking a foothold in Europe, with Italy recording 51 cases and two deaths the following day. Nonetheless NERVTAG, one of the key government advisory committees, decided to keep the threat level at “moderate”.
Response - This is a misrepresentation of what the threat level is. This is about the current public health danger – and on February 21, when the UK had about a dozen confirmed cases, out of a population of over 66 million, the actual threat to individuals was moderate. In terms of the potential threat, the government was clear – on 10 February the Secretary of State declared that “the incidence or transmission of novel Coronavirus constituted a serious and imminent threat to public health”.


  1. I was a civil servant in the days before we grandly called the Cabinet Office Briefing Room A "COBRA". The arrangements for handling crises were highly flexible. There was always a mixture of ministers and officials and the Prime Minster seldom got directly involved. The flexibility added to the effectiveness of the response to crises.

  2. Thanks for posting this Sue. It shows clearly (just in case there was any doubt) that the Sunday Times along with the BBC and other MSM have 'the take down of the Conservative government and Boris in particular' in their sights. It won't be long before the call for GNU with Starmer in a key position becomes louder, and then, Who Knows? The Brexit transition period might be delayed substantially whilst moves to rejoin the EU are set in motion.

    1. That is no doubt the objective of the PC Gobalist Alliance. But that doesn't blunt much of the criticism.

      My criticisms are as follows:

      1. Clearly there was no adequate pandemic plan in place and furthermore when the scale of the threat became apparent, say by mid Jan, the Government took virtually no action to put one in place.

      2. The Government appears to have been guided by Prof Ferguson who has an appalling track record of making alarmist predictions of huge death tolls that never come to pass. How did he ever get to the position of government key advisor. There's something wrong at No 10 if advisors of such importance aren't thoroughly checked out.

      3.It is no doubt the case that the Government was caught in a trap but it was partly a trap of its own making. They failed to prodcue a plan to cope well with the emergecncy. There was no need to reference "herd immunity" for instance with its whiff of cold calculation.

      4. The Government has relied too much on supplies and charity from abroad, when we could make our own PPE and make our own ventilators. What was required was a plan and someone to oversee its implementation.

      5. The Government seems to have weak people like Matt Hancock and Gavin Williamson in key positions. Take for instance Education. I saw Seema Malhotra for Labour very smoothly take the initiative by seeming to organise laptops for poorer chldren who don't have access to them at home, so they can follow school lessons. Why wasn't the pathetic Williamson on the case on that? If you are going to derpive children of school, it's the least you can do as a national government.

      6. A final criticism is the way Boris's lllness has been handled. Napoleon called for generals to be "lucky" - even more so leaders!
      There is no doubt Boris has failed us all terribly by falling ill at this crucial time.
      That might sound slightly irrational but leadership has many irrational elements, not least the feeling we want to know our leaders are physically strong. But the failure has been compounded by pathetic attempts to cover up the seriousness of his illness until after the worst had passed: "precautionary - my a*se" as Mr Royle might say. These things have an effect at a sub-conscious level. It left Raab in a difficult position and he appeared more weak than he might have otherwise.

    2. Arthur T,
      Quite. You rarely see an alternative (or a constructive) suggestion coming out of the relentlessly negative criticism of the government’s meandering journey through the crisis.

      With hindsight it’s easy to blame the government for the wrong calls and cul-de-sacs it has apparently gone down, but no-one has had the audacity to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn and the ‘Trots’ would have done better.
      Heaven help us if they’re pinning their hopes on Keir Starmer and his team.

  3. This was my comment from earlier:

    The government seems to have taken leave of its senses....

    "This is an unprecedented global pandemic".

    Er - no it's not. There have been several of equal or greater intensity over the last 100 odd years.

    "The Prime Minister has been at the helm of the response to this"

    FFS - he nearly died with it. He was totally incapacitated for at least a week.

    "The risk level was set to “Low” because at the time our scientific advice was that the risk level to the UK public at that point was low. "

    If that's how the Government goes about risk assessment, then there is something very wrong! You assess risks for both the likelihood of them happening and for the severity of their impact should they happen. That's how business does it and how anyone sensible would do it.

    You don't assess a risk as "low" simply because it hasn't happened yet!

    "The WHO did not formally declare that coronavirus was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) until 30 January, and only characterised it as a global pandemic more than a month later, on 11 March."

    So the Government is admitting it was led by by the nose by the Chinese Communist controlled WHO! Brilliant!!

    I skim-read the rest of their depressing response. Seems clear that absolutely nothing was done to trigger a massive PPE manufacturing effort within the UK? Why?? Sounds like they went to the normal suppliers who source from abroad.

    1. ' Seems clear that absolutely nothing was done to trigger a massive PPE manufacturing effort within the UK? Why??'

      This is my point from the open thread:

      'Monday, another day and another letter 'seen by the BBC' critical of the Government. What a surprise! This time it's a delivery of PPE from Turkey which has failed to arrive as expected. This is akin to an army in wartime running out of ammunition. Why not turn to the expectant group of UK manufacturers who are keen to help in some way? The NHS supply chain must be examined to find out why such obvious options are rejected.'

  4. You don't recover from an ignominious failure of leadership by pretending it hasn't been a failure. You recover by showing you can lead and succeed.

    I'd say going forward, the key factors are:

    1. We need to switch from messages of doom and gloom to innovation and resolution. They need to pull that appalling advert which lyingly claims everyone is equally at risk from the virus - all age groups, all parts of the country. That would be a start.

    2. We need to shift the emphasis from "Lockdown = Saving Lives" to making the point the Lockdown was necessary to save the NHS. It has been saved. Job done. We are now ready to deal with any subsequent waves.

    3. We need to emphasise that the impact of the disease has been far less than first suggested. This should be coupled with briefing against Ferguson to let him carry the can for totally misleading the Government, since he has with his "forecasts".

    4. We need to publish a Normalisation Plan and begin implmenting it. At all stages Government should reference the similar measures being taken in Europe in places like Austria, Germany and Belgium to reopening shops, schools and so on. This message will need to be ramped up strongly. We should form a diplomatic alliance with Sweden over this issue, acknowledging they got it right and there is much we can learn from them.

    5. We need to create a new agency e.g. "Emergency Preparedness Agency" to oversee fully domestic production of sufficient PPE, ventilators, swabs, reagents etc, together with antibody and other testing, training of auxillary staff and cyclical warehousing of emergency supplies. It shouldn't be part of the incompatent NHS but should have statuory powers to require NHS co-operation.

    1. No. 5. We need to create a new agency e.g. "Emergency Preparedness Agency"

      To do this, the inertia, complacency and established mechanisms of the NHS supply chain must be changed for the better. When we hear little other than adoration of the NHS from the BBC et al, this is a tall order. Strong leadership from the PM is required, but so also is the will of the general public prepared at last to denounce a failed system.

    2. You're not going to get the general public to accept the NHS could be a failure (except in the sense of a failure called by government "underfunding"). So, I think it would have to be presented as "The NHS has done a wonderful job fighting the virus and saving lives. They need to focus on that medical battle. But we need another agency that can look to the long term and focus on our preparedness for emergencies by ensuring we are self-sufficient in all we need." The public would back that 99% I think. Even the trade unions would grudgingly like the idea of domestic job creation that would go with such an approach.

    3. called = caused of course

    4. On 2. the emphasis of the carefully considered message wasn't saving lives in the first place. It was always: [first], protect the NHS; [second], save lives. It was probably designed that way to appeal to public sentiment and tap into latent fear if we didn't have an NHS, as much as to say that it was a necessity. Strange that that should be more immediate and more potent than asking people to save their own and other people's lives. But they wanted to simplify their messages to us, as well as being in a panic themselves.

  5. H/T to the always informative Pugnazious on Biased BBC. He quotes Steerpike from The Spectator who has some questions for Mr Ferguson. Here's what Steerpike wrote:

    ‘Given that it’s the trend these days for former spinners, hacks and politicians to suggest questions that the media isn’t currently asking of politicians, Mr S has decided to do his bit for public discourse by penning a few for Ferguson. Below are six questions Steerpike would like to see Neil Ferguson pressed on the next time he embarks on a media round:

    In 2005, Ferguson said that up to 200 million people could be killed from bird flu. He told the Guardian that ‘around 40 million people died in 1918 Spanish flu outbreak… There are six times more people on the planet now so you could scale it up to around 200 million people probably.’ In the end, only 282 people died worldwide from the disease between 2003 and 2009.

    How did he get this forecast so wrong?

    In 2009, Ferguson and his Imperial team predicted that Swine Flu had a case fatality rate 0.3 per cent to 1.5 per cent. His most likely estimate was that the mortality rate was 0.4 per cent. A government estimate, based on Ferguson’s advice, said a ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ was that the disease would lead to 65,000 UK deaths.

    In the end Swine Fly killed 457 people in the UK and had a death rate of just 0.026 per cent in those infected.

    Why did the Imperial team overestimate the fatality of the disease? Or to borrow Robinson’s words to Hancock this morning: ‘that prediction wasn’t just nonsense was it? It was dangerous nonsense.’

    In 2001 the Imperial team produced modelling on foot and mouth disease that suggested that animals in neighbouring farms should be culled, even if there was no evidence of infection. This influenced government policy and led to the total culling of more than six million cattle, sheep and pigs – with a cost to the UK economy estimated at £10 billion.
    It has been claimed by experts such as Michael Thrusfield, professor of veterinary epidemiology at Edinburgh University, that Ferguson’s modelling on foot and mouth was ‘severely flawed’ and made a ‘serious error’ by ‘ignoring the species composition of farms,’ and the fact that the disease spread faster between different species.

    Does Ferguson acknowledge that his modelling in 2001 was flawed and if so, has he taken steps to avoid future mistakes?

    In 2002, Ferguson predicted that between 50 and 50,000 people would likely die from exposure to BSE (mad cow disease) in beef. He also predicted that number could rise to 150,000 if there was a sheep epidemic as well. In the UK, there have only been 177 deaths from BSE.

    Does Ferguson believe that his ‘worst-case scenario’ in this case was too high? If so, what lessons has he learnt when it comes to his modelling since?

    Ferguson’s disease modelling for Covid-19 has been criticised by experts such as John Ioannidis, professor in disease prevention at Stanford University, who has said that: ‘The Imperial College study has been done by a highly competent team of modellers. However, some of the major assumptions and estimates that are built in the calculations seem to be substantially inflated.’

    Has the Imperial team’s Covid-19 model been subject to outside scrutiny from other experts, and are the team questioning their own assumptions used? What safeguards are in place?

    It has been reported that Imperial College London’s model of Covid-19 disease is based on 13-year-old computer code, that was intended to be used for a feared influenza pandemic, rather than a coronavirus.

    Is this the case? If so, how many assumptions in the Imperial model are still based on influenza and is there any risk that the modelling is flawed because of these assumptions?’

  6. I had already formed my own opinions and my fears about the handling of this by the government, regardless of any BBC agitating or letters in the press from whomever. For me, there has been an absence of leadership and I have my own theory about why - speculative maybe and therefore will be kept private.

    However that may be, in the absence of focus or a strategy or ability to think or take decisions or get decisions and direction, it appears to me that they deferred to the science and scientists, effectively delegating responsibility to them; they hid behind them to cover up for the lack at the heart of government; and yes, the PM should probably have been at COBRA when something as massive as the outbreak in China is on the horizon; without that, it is only a structure and a co-ordinating committee and the various ministers are separate parts of the estate.

    They have put Gove forward to shore up the PM and cover up for the government's failings as he is a very good speaker and robust defender. But that detailed rebuttal posted here above isn't telling the truth when it states that the NHS performed well and provided critical care to all that needed it; it clearly didn't and there was a practice of keeping people who needed it, out of hospital, if they phoned up, and more especially if they happened to be elderly, ill and reliant on care homes and the NHS; it's striking how quickly and easily the much talked-of 'vulnerable' became the 'disposable' and 'invisible'. It's frightening actually. They weren't even counted in the figures for infections or deaths issued daily or whenever, until there was public disquiet about it and Mr Hancock was forced away from his bureaucratic web, to notice what was in front of him. And that's just one example that stuck out. Liars, I call them. They've brought levels of incompetence and duplicity, not to mention carelessness, to government, equal to or worse than the worst previous ones we can think of.

    And that was just about the patients. The fact that doctors, nurses, midwives and other NHS and care staff are dying is the most shocking thing. Yet government ministers are carrying on with their frontmen scientists, quango bureaucrats of Public Health England and pathetic PR and spinning techniques as if they are addressing some ordinary everyday thing. Words fail me on that one.


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