A secretive ‘cell’ of civil servants is being blamed by Ministers for blocking moves to speed up Britain’s exit from all Covid restrictions – including the early end of quarantine for the double-jabbed.
The Covid-19 Task Force, which is run out of the Cabinet Office, sits in on meetings held by Ministers, and then offers ‘advice’ on the implementation of measures which have been agreed.
But one Cabinet Minister told The Mail on Sunday the group had been a ‘huge pain in the a***’ with ‘a series of Sir Humphrey-style frustrations’ – a reference to the smooth mandarin in the BBC’s Yes Minister series who would endlessly outfox politicians.
Andy Helliwell, a career civil servant who makes his personal views clear on his Twitter page, proclaiming his support for gender-neutral language and his criticism of Britain’s colonial legacy
Ministers say that the group has increasingly flexed its muscles, including stopping an attempt to end isolation rules early
It includes operations director Andy Helliwell, a career civil servant who makes his personal views clear on his Twitter page, proclaiming his support for gender-neutral language and his criticism of Britain’s colonial legacy.
The 14-strong task force, which was set up in May last year and is headed by former Treasury official Simon Ridley, is meant to enact the decisions reached at ‘Covid-O’ meetings, attended by Boris Johnson, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and other key Ministers.
But Ministers say that the group has increasingly flexed its muscles, including stopping an attempt to end isolation rules early.
At a Covid-O meeting held on June 23, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove led calls to bring forward the August 16 date when the double-jabbed will no longer have to self-isolate for ten days if they are ‘pinged’ by the NHS Covid app for being in close contact with someone who has tested positive. Business leaders and Tory MPs have called for an end to the ‘pingdemic’, which last week saw 1.2 million people ordered into quarantine.
The rules are due to end in Wales from August 7 and in Scotland two days later. But Ministers claim that the move was frustrated by the task force.
A source said: ‘It’s always the same – these officials sit silently on the side, writing away. We think we’ve agreed something, then an hour after the meeting we get calls of the “sorry old chap, that won’t be possible” variety. That is what they did with quarantine. They are basically keeping us in prison.’
The source added: ‘It feels to us as if there is some sort of informal strategic alliance between the Cabinet Office gang and the scientists on Sage to tie us up in restrictions.’
A ministerial adviser who helped to mobilise the original Government response to the pandemic added: ‘It has been maddening almost from the start.
‘Ministers would agree something, then you’d get a message saying sorry, the task force isn’t happy with this. It used to drive Gove mad, as he wanted to press on with stuff but this random unit in his department was putting the brakes on it.’
The Mail on Sunday has also been told that the Covid-O meetings could be disbanded because No 10 regards them as ‘too leaky’.
Mr Helliwell, who joined the Civil Service fast stream after finishing a geography degree at Cambridge, has used Twitter to enter the debate over whether statues of figures from Britain’s colonial past should be removed.
In May, he posted a picture of a statue of Cecil Rhodes saying: ‘A lot of people on here tonight seem to think that statues are educational tools. They are not. They are an expression of the people we want to, very literally, put on a pedestal.’
He included the Church in his criticism, saying: ‘Behind the pulpit of the new church, there is a whole other story of colonialism’, and welcomed the National Trust’s decrying of buildings, including the former home of Winston Churchill, for their historical links to slavery. ‘People who say “you can’t rewrite history” often seem least inclined to accept that what they know might be partial. I fully support the National Trust,’ he said.
On June 18 last year, in response to newspaper reports about sailors being forced to stop using Navy terms such as ‘unmanned’ and ‘man power’, he said: ‘Lots of people upset by this. Good. I’m done being polite about it.
‘If you reject gender-neutral language you favour exclusion of and bias against women. You fail to listen to women who say this matters. The basic lack of courtesy and respect amazes me.’
Mr Helliwell, who joined the Civil Service fast stream after finishing a geography degree at Cambridge, has used Twitter to enter the debate over whether statues of figures from Britain’s colonial past should be removed
Ironically, after the resignation of former British Ambassador to the United States, Kim Darroch, following the publication of diplomatic cables in this newspaper, Mr Helliwell – who has moved between the Ministry of Defence and the Cabinet Office since 2008 – said: ‘Civil Service impartiality has immeasurable value, but is under attack.
‘We must call this out, and make the positive case for its importance. Ironically, some will claim this is itself a political act.
‘But this is not party politics, it is about our democratic institutions.’
A Government spokesman said: ‘Ministers are responsible for making decisions about Government policy. The role of the Covid-19 Task Force is to provide advice and co-ordinate the Government’s collective response to the pandemic.’
Tyranny of the Covid experts: Finger-wagging SAGE scientist and influential Government adviser penned a book about how HE’S the only person Boris Johnson should ever have listened to, writes ex-supreme court judge JONATHAN SUMPTION
Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar is a distinguished epidemiologist, a member of the Sage scientific committee, the director of the Wellcome Trust health research charity and an influential government adviser. He is also the most hawkish of lockdown hawks, and he has written a book with journalist Anjana Ahuja, called Spike. It is a revealing read.
Spike is basically about Farrar himself: how he saw it all coming, how he personally forced the Chinese government to release the genetic sequence of the Covid-19 virus that allowed scientists to develop a vaccine, how he warned the world of imminent doom, how the Government could have saved lives by treasuring his words more, and how he risked assassination by the Chinese (‘If anything happens to me, this is what you need to know’, he told friends).
The talk is all of wars, battle plans, and people heading for precipices. All this is a bit melodramatic and self-obsessed for my taste. but Farrar is a distinguished scientist who means well. He is terrifyingly sincere and really does have the interest of mankind at heart. Therein lies the problem.
There are few more obsessive fanatics than the technocrat who is convinced that he is reordering an imperfect world for its own good.
If Spike is largely about its author, it also tells us much about those who have been in charge of our lives through Covid-19. Farrar represents most of what has gone wrong. His main target is the British Government. But he actually agrees with nearly everything they have done. Farrar’s complaint is that they did not do it quickly or brutally enough when he suggested it, and stopped doing it before he gave them the all-clear.
Farrar represents most of what has gone wrong. His main target is the British Government. But he actually agrees with nearly everything they have done
His views about how governments should deal with public health crises are broadly the same as those of Dominic Cummings. Both men are frustrated autocrats who believed that from Day One we needed ‘a command-and-control structure’. He speaks well of Chinese methods of disease control.
‘Panic was called for,’ in March 2020, he says at one point. At another, he tells us that at a time when governments were panicking all over Europe, there was not enough panic in Britain.
THIS is all very odd. It does not seem to have occurred to Farrar that the jerky, ill-considered and inconsistent improvisations that passed for policy-making in the Johnson Government, and which he rightly criticises, were the direct result of the panic that he recommends.
The great object is of course to ensure that ‘the science’ is applied. No ifs, no buts and no delay. In Farrar’s world, this is easy as there is only one science, namely his own.
He is convinced he’s right and the Government should listen to no one else. Challenge from other scientists is normally regarded as fundamental to scientific advance. But for Farrar disagreement is a ‘hurdle’. It just gets in his way.
So, serious scientists such as Professors Carl Heneghan, Karol Sikora and Sunetra Gupta, who have had the temerity to offer opinions differing from his own, are dismissed as being ‘responsible for a number of unnecessary deaths’, although Farrar has had a great deal of influence on Government policy and they have had almost none.
This kind of attitude to colleagues is, frankly, unworthy of a scientist of Sir Jeremy’s eminence.
Anders Tegnell, the Swedish state epidemiologist, is dismissed in a brief footnote, although Sweden is a standing repudiation of much that Farrar stands for. Sweden has avoided a lockdown, yet has done much better than the UK.
Like many technocrats, Farrar believes in coercion. Otherwise, people might not do what he wants. ‘You cannot tell people to stay at home only if they feel like it,’ he says.
This is an obtuse misunderstanding of the argument against coercion. The point is that people differ widely in their vulnerability to Covid-19. It causes serious illness among the old and those with severe underlying conditions, but the symptoms are mild for nearly everyone else. We therefore have to be able to make our own risk assessments. It is simply untrue that the vulnerable would ignore advice ‘if they felt like it’. People have a basic sense of self-preservation.
This was Sage’s consistent advice right up to the first lockdown. Farrar denies it, but the record speaks for itself.
On March 10 and 13, the minutes record that Sage advised guidance on isolation, selectively directed to the old and vulnerable. On March 13, they said that the public should be treated as ‘rational actors, capable of taking decisions for themselves and managing personal risk.’ Farrar participated in both meetings.
Of course, selective coercion would be impractical, as he points out. But universal coercion is pointless, inefficient and wasteful.
It treats people as if all were vulnerable, when only some are. Instead of spending several times the cost of the NHS on paying young, healthy people who were at negligible risk not to work, we should have been pouring resources into protecting the vulnerable.
Interestingly, Farrar accepts that lockdowns only push infections and associated deaths into a future period after they are lifted.
He also appears to accept it would have been intolerable to lock down the whole population until a vaccine was developed and everyone had received it, which would have taken at least 18 months and possibly never happen.
His preferred course seems to be a series of lockdowns starting each time that we look like approaching the intensive care capacity of the NHS. In other words, very much what we have had. However, Farrar has wagged his finger every time that restriction has been lifted.
In theory, we can switch lockdown on and off like a malfunctioning internet router, but in practice it seems that the time is never ripe. We only have to look around us to see that lockdowns have failed to halt the virus, either here or anywhere else in the world. The problem is in the concept, not the application.
This brings me to the most remarkable feature of this book, which is Farrar’s brushing aside of the appalling collateral consequences of lockdowns: other illnesses which go untreated such as cancer or accelerate like dementia, impacts on education, equality and public debt, not to speak of the worst recession in 300 years.
Farrar regards all this as a regrettable but unavoidable result of desirable measures, and not as reasons for questioning whether they were ever desirable in the first place.
Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar’s views about how governments should deal with public health crises are broadly the same as those of Dominic Cummings. Both men are frustrated autocrats who believed that from Day One we needed ‘a command-and-control structure’
In keeping with this blinkered approach, he refers to the collateral disasters as consequences of Covid-19. They are not. They are man-made consequences of the policy responses he has been advocating.
I shall resist the temptation to apply to him the criticism he gratuitously and unfairly applied to Messrs Sikora, Heneghan and Gupta.
Entirely missing from Farrar’s worldview is any conception of the complexity of the moral judgments involved. Of course public health matters, but it is not all that matters. Interaction with other human beings is a fundamental human need. Criminalising it is a sustained assault on our humanity. Doing so without assessing the wider consequences is irresponsible folly.
Sir Jeremy Farrar adopts the current habit of using ‘libertarian’ as a word of abuse.
But I am proud to be a libertarian. Personal autonomy is a basic condition of human happiness and creativity. I am a libertarian because the opposite of liberty is despotism.