Monday, 21 December 2020
Spreading the Truth: how Johnson dissembled (again) over Covid19
In an update on Covid-19 made to MPs in Parliament on 14 December, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care [for England], Matt Hancock , revealed: “a new development in the virus itself. Over the past few days, thanks to our world-class genomic capability in the UK, we have identified a new variant of coronavirus, which may be associated with the faster spread in the south-east of England. Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants. We have identified over 1,000 cases with this variant, predominantly in the south of England, although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas and numbers are increasing rapidly. Similar variants have been identified in other countries over the past few months. We have notified the World Health Organisation about this new variant, and Public Health England is working hard to continue its expert analysis at Porton Down. I must stress this point: there is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease, and the latest clinical advice is that it is highly unlikely that the mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine, but it shows that we have to be vigilant and follow the rules, and that everyone needs to take personal responsibility not to spread this virus.” Two days later, on Wednesday 16 December at noon, Labour Party leader SirKeir Starmer asked Prime Minister Boris Jonson in the weekly parliamentary sparring session called Prime minister’s questions: “ It is now likely that the next big mistake will be over the easing of restrictions over Christmas—and it is not smarmy lawyers saying this. Let me tell the House what the British Medical Journal has said. The British Medical Journal said yesterday: “we believe the government is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives.” The Prime Minister should listen to that advice, not just ignore it as usual. If he really is going to press ahead with this, can he tell us what assessment has been done of the impact that it will have on infection rates and increased pressure on the NHS? What is the impact? Johnson blustered in a dismissive reply “I wish the right hon. and learned Gentleman had had the guts just to say what he really wants to do, which is to cancel the plans people have made and cancel Christmas. That is really, I think, what he is driving at. He is looking a bit blank; I think that is what he is driving at. But I can tell him that, as of today—just this morning—there is actually, as I say, unanimous agreement across the UK Government and across all the devolved Administrations, including members of all parties, including his own, that we should proceed, in principle, with the existing regulations, because we do not want to criminalise people’s long-made plans. We do think it is absolutely vital that people should at this very, very tricky time exercise a high degree of personal responsibility, especially when they come into contact with elderly people, and avoid contact with elderly people wherever possible. That is how, by being sensible and cautious, not by imposing endless lockdowns or cancelling Christmas, as he would appear to want to do—that is the only implication I can draw from what he has said, unless he wants to announce some other idea—we will continue to work together to keep this virus under control, to defeat it and take the country forward.” (https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2020-12-16/debates/E24005A4-10B2-437F-AAB0-E6B864F23FE5/Engagements) But a few days later, Johnson executed the latest of his now regular screeching policy U-turns: at 4 pm on Saturday 19 December, at 4 pm, from the now famous lectern at 10 Downing Street, flanked by his ubiquitous chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, a wan-faced, shaken-looking Johnson began: “I am sorry to report that the situation has deteriorated since I last spoke to you three days ago. Yesterday afternoon, I was briefed on the latest data showing the virus spreading more rapidly in London, the South East and the East of England than would be expected given the tough restrictions which are already in place. I also received an explanation for why the virus is spreading more rapidly in these areas. It appears this spread is now being driven by the new variant of the virus, which we first learned about earlier this week. Our advisory group on New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats – NERVTAG – has spent the last few days analysing the new variant. There is no evidence the variant causes more severe illness or higher mortality, but it does appear to be passed on significantly more easily. NERVTAG’s early analysis suggests the new variant could increase R by 0.4 or greater. Although there is considerable uncertainty, it may be up to 70% more transmissible than the old variant. …I am afraid, look again at Christmas. As Prime Minister, it is my duty to take the difficult decisions, to do what is right to protect the people of this country. Given the early evidence we have on this new variant of the virus, and the potential risk it poses, it is with a heavy heart that I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned.” (https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/prime-ministers-statement-on-coronavirus-covid-19-19-december-2020) But was Johnson once again being fast –and-loose with the truth on when and what the Government knew about the mutant virus? The evidence - from an academic paper, which must have been drawn to the attention of ministers – is yes. “Preliminary genomic characterisation of an emergent SARS-CoV-2 lineage in the UK defined by a novel set of spike mutations,” (written by: Andrew Rambaut1, Nick Loman2, Oliver Pybus3, Wendy Barclay4, Jeff Barrett5, Alesandro Carabelli6, Tom Connor7, Tom Peacock4, David L Robertson8, Erik Volz4, on behalf of COVID-19 Genomics Consortium UK (CoG-UK,9https://virological.org/t/preliminary-genomic-characterisation-of-an-emergent-sars-cov-2-lineage-in-the-uk-defined-by-a-novel-set-of-spike-mutations/563), it reported “Recently a distinct phylogenetic cluster (named lineage B.1.1.7) was detected within the COG-UK surveillance dataset. This cluster has been growing rapidly over the past 4 weeks and since been observed in other UK locations, indicating further spread……. The two earliest sampled genomes that belong to the B.1.1.7 lineage were collected on 20-Sept-2020 in Kent and another on 21-Sept-2020 from Greater London. B.1.1.7 infections have continued to be detected in the UK through early December 2020. Genomes belonging to lineage B.1.1.7 form a monophyletic clade that is well supported by a large number of lineage-defining mutations (Figure 1). As of 15th December, there are 1623 genomes in the B.1.1.7 lineage. Of these 519 were sampled in Greater London, 555 in Kent, 545 in other regions of the UK including both Scotland and Wales, and 4 in other countries.” So, Johnson says the Cabinet was informed on Friday of the implications of the viral mutation; Hancock said the previous Monday, four days earlier, that he had only just heard of the mutation. This paper suggests they are both dissembling. The outstanding question is why did they stay silent, and not change policy much earlier, when the facts had changed?