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UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser “told off” for advocating for early lockdown

Published on 15/09/20 at 12:19pm
Photo by The Royal Society

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, was “told off” for advocating for an early lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus. 

This has been revealed through a BBC Freedom of Information request which showed in emails that Vallance had admitted to being “told off” by other officials in the government. The email exchange came in May, where staff were discussing a Sunday Times investigation which revealed that Britain suffered a rapid rise in COVID-19 infections in the nine days leading up to lockdown.

In Vallance’s email, he refers to himself arguing with the government more strongly than anyone else for a full lockdown early on, which led to him being criticised by Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and then-Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill.

Although the emails don’t point exactly to what date Vallance advocated for an early lockdown, it is likely to be shortly after a meeting he had with the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) on 16 March, where he suggested immediate additional social distancing measures. This led to the government advising against social gatherings and unnecessary travel, but pubs and restaurants were not closed until 20 March, and a full lockdown was not implemented until 23 March. 

The delayed response by the UK government to significantly lock down has drawn widespread criticism and is thought to have played a significant role in the UK having one of the highest numbers of coronavirus deaths per capita in the world.

Two high profile mass gatherings occurred while many officials were advocating for a lockdown. The Cheltenham Festival went ahead without any extra restrictions, with about 150,000 people attending the four-day event which ended on 13 March. During this same period, Liverpool’s Champions League game against Atletico Madrid took place, which was attended by 52,000 supporters. This included 3,000 supporters from Spain where a partial lockdown was already in force and the country was suffering from more COVID-19 deaths and cases than Britain. At the time, the government defended both events, with Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries saying that they were “following the science” in not banning mass gatherings at sporting events.

Conor Kavanagh

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