Comments on the handling of the pandemic show Truss and Sunak to be reckless, populist libertarians. Letter to the editor

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Dear West Country Voices,

Last week, Rishi Sunak said the government gave too much power to scientists during Covid lockdowns and was not honest about the potential downsides. His recollection differs from mine.

I remember the anxiety I felt on a journey on a crowded Piccadilly line, on my way back to Dorset after a hospital appointment, urging my son to avoid touching surfaces such as door handles. I remember how relieved I was to be able to alight and get straight to the washroom facilities at the station so we could wash our hands. I recall seeing people on the Tube with little bottles of hand sanitiser, a few wearing facemasks and some even wearing surgical gloves. This was February 2020, and a new, highly infectious SARS-like ‘respiratory disease’ was dominant in the news.

At that time, at the start of the pandemic, the government had access to advice that was provided by virologists, epidemiologists, and others, including mathematicians specialising in modelling how infectious diseases spread and impact populations. And even though less was known then about how the virus was transmitted, it was obvious that it was spreading fast. I remember the urgent warnings from Italian doctors, imploring the UK to take urgent action to prevent us from going through the nightmare they were experiencing. But where was the leadership? Johnson dithered. He boasted about having shaken hands with patients who were infected. He suggested on live TV that we could “take it on the chin” and let it run its course. Do nothing, and downplay the risk, in other words.

Now we have learned, in the most devastating and tragic way, so much more about how the virus is transmitted. Thankfully, the programme of vaccination has been highly successful. But the risk is not over. The virus, in the form of several new variants, is still infecting large numbers of people. Immunity is waning, with many people becoming ill more than once.

It has since been estimated that, in England, had measures been introduced one week earlier, the number of Covid infections would have been reduced by 74 per cent by June 2020, preventing up to 34,000 deaths. The lockdown might have been halved from 69 to 35 days in length, and acting two weeks earlier could have reduced cases by 93 per cent, resulting in between 26,000 and 43,000 fewer deaths.

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss both recently said that they believed the scientists had too much power – the exact opposite of the truth; the scientific advice was too often ignored or downplayed. Truss went on to say she would not lock down and even that the handling of the pandemic was “draconian”!

To say what they said, with all the benefit of hindsight, the contenders for the Tory party leadership, and therefore the role of our future prime minister, are showing themselves to be utterly reckless, populist libertarians of the worst kind. They must know that modelling predicts with a great deal of accuracy the consequences of the actions they take. Therefore, they appear quite prepared to live with the prospect of having blood on their hands, by potentially allowing history to repeat itself. The line between making a policy that is a leadership blunder and one that would have people rounded up and put to death as a mass sacrifice in honour of their libertarian cult is becoming blurred.

Heaven help us, and the NHS, and those working in the health and care services, and the economy the leadership pretends to protect, should there be a wave of a new, vaccine-evading, deadly variant of Covid. Indeed, heaven help us if they have to deal with anything that requires a practical solution which benefits people – which is essentially their job description.

Simon Polkinghorn