How the lockdown lobby rewrote history
They claim they were calling for a lockdown last autumn. This is simply untrue.
A bizarre Covid-19 conspiracy theory appears to have taken root among the epidemiologists and public-health officials who still support lockdowns. According to their claims, the UK government’s pandemic response was secretly captured at some point in the autumn of 2020 by lockdown critics – including Great Barrington Declaration co-author Sunetra Gupta, her Oxford colleague Carl Heneghan, and Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell.
Seizing on an article in The Times, supporters of this theory allege that Gupta and her colleagues convinced UK prime minister Boris Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak to abandon a so-called ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown during an audience in late September. Had the UK gone back into lockdown around the beginning of October instead of a month later – proponents of this theory maintain – it would have avoided its disastrous second wave over the autumn and winter months.
Even the basic narrative flies in the face of empirical reality. In November 2020 and again in January 2021, the UK went through two successive rounds of draconian lockdowns of the exact type that Gupta and her colleagues advised against. Championed by Boris Johnson as a way to avert the second wave, these policies utterly failed at their stated purpose. On 5 November, the date the second lockdown took effect, the UK’s death toll stood at 48,000. Over the next four months, three of them spent under recurring lockdowns, the UK’s fatality numbers exploded to over 120,000.
Equally telling, the timing of the UK’s autumn/winter wave almost perfectly matched that of Sweden, which remained open throughout the same period – except the UK’s results under lockdowns were visibly worse. As a growing body of scientific literature attests, lockdowns did practically nothing to contain the pandemic. Instead, the performance of this policy shows no discernible advantage over states and countries that opted against suspending the basic operations of daily life, and in many cases lockdown countries actually did worse than those that remained open.
Still, proponents of the newest UK conspiracy theory hold that something very different would have happened if only Johnson had enacted an earlier lockdown around the beginning of October instead of on 5 November. Its underlying narrative has gained an unusually intense following among public-health activists and pundits in the UK.
Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist at Queen Mary University in London and a principal organiser of the pro-lockdown John Snow Memorandum, has aggressively promoted the alleged wresting of pandemic policy away from the lockdowners as an explanation for why the UK’s second and third lockdowns failed. As early as December, Gurdasani blasted Downing Street for supposedly listening to the ‘dangerous ideology’ of Gupta, Heneghan and Tegnell, which ‘has cost thousands of lives’ and sought to replicate the ‘dangerous’ Swedish strategy. Never mind that Sweden, without lockdowns, has a much lower deaths-per-million residents total (1,303 as of 1 April) than the UK (1,890) under three harsh lockdowns.
The same narrative has become a favorite of Devi Sridhar, an anthropologist and Snow Memorandum co-signer who frequently appears in the UK media to advocate the fringe ‘Zero Covid’ strategy (the same one that claims we need more lockdowns to prevent future lockdowns, apparently unaware of the contradiction that entails). Attempting to explain why her own lockdown approach did not work, Sridhar wrote on 5 January that ‘chancellor Sunak invited Heneghan, Gupta and Tegnell to advise on strategy. That says it all.’
Other variants of the same conspiracy theory permeate the UK’s pundit ranks. Leftish Guardian columnist Owen Jones repeated it in a December column targeting Sunak and the scientists for allegedly delaying the lockdowns until it was ‘too late to bring coronavirus rates down to anywhere near the level needed to suppress the virus’.
A little over a month later, Sam Bowman, a right-leaning self-described ‘neoliberal’, penned an almost identical argument to Jones’ in the same newspaper, writing ‘Sunak was reported as having been the decisive voice in government against an autumn lockdown that might have brought cases low enough to make things like test-and-trace viable’, all because of ‘Sunetra Gupta, Carl Heneghan and Anders Tegnell being invited to speak via Zoom at Downing Street’.
Note that none of these commentators are even willing to consider the possibility that lockdowns do not deliver on their promises, or that Britain’s dismal performance under the policies they advocated is a direct testament to their failure as public-health measures. The validity of lockdowns has become an axiom to them, and the only conceivable reason they do not work must be some form of malfeasance preventing them from working the way the epidemiology models claim they should. Sunak and the three dissenting scientists accordingly became a natural scapegoat for Britain’s dismal public-health performance over the winter months.
Is there even a kernel of truth behind the lockdowners’ conspiracy theory? Gupta, Heneghan and Tegnell did meet with Downing Street via Zoom on 20 September to voice their opposition to lockdowns in general – a position they have consistently held throughout the pandemic. Unfortunately, as Gupta has explained, and as the next four months repeatedly demonstrated, the prime minister largely ignored their advice.
The conspiracists’ alleged ‘smoking gun’ is a series of minutes from the UK government’s SAGE advisory committee on 21 September, which included a ‘circuit-breaker lockdown’ among a ‘short-list’ of policies ‘that should be considered’ in response to rising Covid-19 cases. Apparently in their minds, being ‘considered’ equates to adoption, and the fact that Johnson did not lock down the very next day is proof that the dissenting scientists had wrested the reins of the UK’s pandemic policy from those who advocated lockdowns, delaying the necessary response until 5 November, after which it was too late.
There are multiple immediate problems with this narrative. First off, Wales tried a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown that almost exactly followed the proposal being considered by the SAGE committee, announcing it on 19 October and implementing it a few days later. Although it had a lead of almost two weeks before the rest of Britain went into lockdown in November, Wales’ per capita case numbers followed the same trajectory as the rest of the UK, including the sharp spike in late December and early January. Far from working as intended, Wales’ ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown only slightly shifted the timing of this pattern. Its maximum daily peak of 87 cases per 100,000 residents nearly matched England’s peak of 96, and its curve for Covid-19 fatalities followed the same pattern as the rest of Britain.
Equally telling, several conspiracy-theory adherents were themselves singing a very different tune when these events were unfolding. Gurdasani, Sridhar and other lockdown advocates of the John Snow Memorandum crowd want you to believe that they were patiently counselling the government to adopt an early lockdown between the end of September and mid-October, only to see their advice deflected by Downing Street due to the interference of Gupta and the other dissenting scientists. The record reveals a very different story.
On 24 September, only three days after the SAGE meeting minutes, an interesting editorial appeared in the British Medical Journal. Written by Karl Friston, a frequent collaborator with Gurdasani and fellow John Snow Memorandum organiser, the editorial advocated a ‘third way beyond lockdown or herd immunity’ premised on implementing a contact-tracing regime over the next few weeks. Far from raising alarms about the immediate need for another lockdown, Friston attempted to assure calm.
‘We have already developed a substantial population immunity (around eight per cent in the UK) and our physical distancing policies remain adaptive and effective’, he explained, arguing that a contact-tracing regime could synergistically harness and augment their effectiveness. As far as the autumn case surge went, he predicted a comparatively mild trajectory: ‘When one models what is likely to happen… in terms of viral spread and our responses to it – a plausible worst-case scenario is a peak in daily deaths in the tens (eg, 50 to 60) not hundreds, in November.’ As it happens, the UK topped 400 deaths per day during the November lockdown, and surged to 1,200 deaths per day at the peak of the January lockdown.
Just over two months later, Friston joined Gurdasani and several other Snow Memorandum signers in a letter to the Lancet that blamed the UK’s second wave on failing to heed pro-lockdown advice that they now claimed as their own, even as it conflicted with their public messaging from September that downplayed the very same recommendation. Writing in hindsight and with a liberal amount of revisionism, they recast themselves as proponents of an earlier lockdown all along: ‘On 21 September 2020, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) advised the UK government to institute a circuit breaker in England to suppress the epidemic. Instead, the government opted for several weeks of ineffective local tiered restrictions, and cases continued to rise exponentially.’
A similar messaging came from the ‘Independent SAGE’ group – a private organisation of scientists who now generally support the lockdown approach, but also spent early autumn advocating less restrictive measures that would supposedly avoid another lockdown. On 20 September, the same day that Gupta and the other scientists met with Downing Street, the Independent SAGE group released a 10-point plan ‘to avoid a national lockdown’.
The scheme warned of a point ‘when the situation is so far out of control that the only possible response will be a second national lockdown’, but advised ‘we can only avoid it if we take urgent action’ as recommended by Independent SAGE. They sought a variety of restaurant restrictions limited to outdoor dining, plus the same testing and contact-tracing programmes espoused by Friston. Six months later, Independent SAGE member Kit Yates is now faulting the anti-lockdown scientists for Johnson’s failure to implement a policy last September that his own group purported to oppose and sought to forestall.
Indeed, what we see when we look at the words of these lockdowner scientists and pundits is nothing short of a conscious attempt to rewrite their own positions from the period when the conspiracy theory that they’ve now adopted was allegedly playing out. As I documented last autumn, the overwhelming media narrative from late September and early October explicitly deflected attention away from the prospect of a second lockdown. Scientists such as Gupta, Heneghan and the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) signers, they vigorously maintained, were arguing with a ‘strawman’ of renewed lockdowns that nobody was seriously proposing or considering anymore.
A typical version of this narrative appeared in Wired UK on 7 October as part of a media attack on the GBD. ‘The kind of lockdown that the Great Barrington Declaration seems to be railing against hasn’t been in place in the UK since mid-June’, argued the magazine’s science editor Matt Reynolds. Even in UK cities that were under local restrictions, ‘pubs, restaurants and schools are still open and it’s hard to find people who are advocating for a return to the lockdown we saw in March’. Reynolds continued: ‘When the Great Barrington Declaration authors declare their opposition to lockdowns, they are quite literally arguing with the past.’
Similar messages appeared throughout the UK media at the time, each insisting that lockdowns were no longer on the table. On 11 October, Guardian columnist Sonia Sodha wrote, ‘The [Great Barrington] declaration sets itself up against a straw proposal that nobody is arguing for – a full-scale national lockdown until a vaccine is made available’. By 30 October, Sodha was already contradicting herself and revising her own history, tweeting, ‘Wish we’d had a circuit breaker lockdown when SAGE first recommended it’. By mid-December, she was touting the conspiracy theory about Gupta, Heneghan and Tegnell’s Zoom meeting with Downing Street. More recently, she has become an advocate of de-platforming the same scientists from British media channels for their anti-lockdown heresies.
Sridhar’s own navigation of the lockdown question followed a similar course. Although she now chastises opponents of the ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown proposal from the events of 20-21 September, and faults them for Britain’s second wave, Sridhar wrote a bizarre op-ed in the Guardian on 10 October, purporting to oppose ‘continual lockdowns’. Much like the Zero Covid messaging she would later adopt, its argument is confused and self-contradictory, meandering from touting the model of Taiwan, which never locked down, to New Zealand, which continues to use aggressive lockdowns to suppress even the slightest outbreak. But it also sought to signal her opposition to the spectre of renewed lockdowns, which could be avoided – she insisted – by adopting less stringent localised restrictions and an extensive contact-tracing regime.
Sridhar would doubtless insist that her own re-adoption of lockdown advocacy about a month later arose from a failure to heed her earlier advice, as opposed to a more fundamental error with the lockdown approach. Even then, it’s difficult to square her mid-October position with her newfound claim to have recognised the wisdom of a national lockdown some two to three weeks earlier than the 10 October op-ed, only to see it derailed by the scientists who spoke to Downing Street.
The most astounding attempt at revisionism, however, came from Gurdasani – the Snow Memorandum organiser, who has since tried to blame the UK’s Covid failures on Gupta, Heneghan and Tegnell over the September Zoom conference. She now depicts herself as an early lockdown advocate whose advice from September was shoved aside and ignored. Yet as late as 26 October, Gurdasani was still pushing the same ‘lockdowns are a strawman’ line that had dominated the previous month of UK media coverage.
Writing for the Byline Times, a London-based blog that has pushed multiple unhinged conspiracy theories of its own about the Great Barrington Declaration, Gurdasani described lockdowns as ‘a strawman that the science is not only not advocating for, but very keen to avoid’.
Gurdasani was in the middle of a publicity campaign for the John Snow Memorandum at the time, its own language having been carefully crafted to present its recommendations as a strategy ‘to prevent future lockdowns’ by relying on nondescript localised ‘restrictions’ and a contact-tracing regime. As Gurdasani and another Snow Memorandum signer told the Byline Times’ readership, ‘Unfortunately, the proponents of herd immunity have had a huge impact on responses to the pandemic, effectively creating the lockdown strawman’, and insisting that this presented a ‘dangerous false dichotomy’.
With Gurdasani stressing that she was keen to avoid future lockdowns – a ‘strawman’, in her own words – as late as 26 October, one begins to wonder how she could have supported the very same ‘strawman’ over a month earlier on 20 September, the date on which the dissenting scientists allegedly wrested control of the UK’s pandemic response. Perhaps the lockdowners’ latest conspiracy theory has another, as of yet undisclosed twist to it – this one involving a time machine.
Phillip W Magness is a senior research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research.
This article was first published on the American Institute for Economic Research website on 2 April, 2021.
Picture by: Getty.