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What the Covid Lockdown Files Tell Us

To quote Mark Twain, "suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress, but I repeat myself." Oops, I meant parliament. Haha.


What the Covid Lockdown Files Tell Us

British politicians exploited a variant to ‘frighten the pants off’ the public.

By The Editorial Board, WSJ

March 7, 2023 1:16 pm ET


They were “following the science,” politicians told the public at every opportunity during the height of the Covid pandemic. The public in many countries has learned that was often far from true, and now we have proof from what our British friends are calling the Covid lockdown files.


The United Kingdom has witnessed in recent days the release of some 100,000 text messages that government officials sent each other during the pandemic. The glib resort to casual authoritarianism is shocking even for those who are cynical about politicians.


From the start, Britain’s Covid policies became a question of politics rather than science. Health Secretary Matt Hancock, a leading lockdown hawk, mused in January 2020—after news of the virus emerged in China but before the crisis in the West—that an outbreak could be good for his political career. He shared with a media adviser a message purportedly from “a wise friend” telling Mr. Hancock that “a well-handled crisis of this scale could propel you into the next league.”


The text messages show then Prime Minister Boris Johnson wondering in June 2020 whether to lift the country’s first lockdown on a faster timetable amid favorable data. His media advisers told him easing would be “too far ahead of public opinion.” Rather than explaining the latest data to the public, Mr. Johnson kept restrictions in place.


In the most serious incident exposed to date, Mr. Hancock conferred with colleagues about how to “deploy” news of the so-called Kent variant of Covid in December 2020 at the right moment to “frighten the pants off everyone” in order to build support for a new lockdown and boost compliance.


A month after Mr. Hancock scared everyone’s pants off, a senior civil servant suggested that a new national mask mandate would be worthwhile because it was “effectively free and has a very visible impact.” He appears to mean “visible impact” in the sense of creating an appearance of government action, not that masks would slow the spread of the virus. “Yep,” Mr. Hancock replied, before discussing the politics of various proposed measures.


Mr. Hancock and others schemed to suppress scientific research that didn’t support their political goals. In the most significant example, Mr. Johnson was persuaded to ignore evidence that the data used to justify Britain’s second national lockdown in 2020 were out of date and unduly alarmist.


These quotes and many more come from messages sent via WhatsApp to and from Mr. Hancock, who was forced to resign in June 2021 after a lockdown-busting romantic affair was exposed. He hired a lockdown-skeptic journalist to help him write his memoir. That journalist, Isabel Oakeshott, decided she had a public obligation to hand the messages to The Telegraph newspaper, and more may be released in the coming days.


Mr. Hancock says the messages released so far have been cherry-picked to cast him in a negative light. But if he has exculpatory messages anywhere, they’re locked down more tightly than the British public was. Anyone willing to look honestly (which excludes much of the news media) has known for a long time that “the science” about Covid was confused and conflicting especially in the pandemic’s early days. Some policy mistakes were inevitable, but that was all the more reason for politicians and the press to be honest about trade-offs.


The big news here is how quickly and easily the expansive powers that governments exercised in that period bled into the personal ambitions of the politicians making the rules. Politicians said they were using Covid science as a tool to protect the public. Instead they contorted science to impose the most onerous peacetime restrictions in history on the liberty of their fellow citizens. When lockdown skeptics demand “never again,” this is why.

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