Vallance and Whitty set the scene for government to impose more restrictions

By Tim le Couilliard, Public Affairs

Back during 2016, Michael Gove infamously said “People have had enough of experts… People from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” Today it was the turn of the government’s most senior scientist and doctor to give their view as to what’s best. The GCSA and CMO duo of Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty unusually for a Coronavirus briefing led an expert only statement – this time people will be hoping that they are wrong.

During the press conference, the Chief Scientific Adviser gloomily warned that unless the country does “something”, the UK could be experiencing 50,000 new coronavirus cases a day by mid-October, which could lead to “200-plus deaths a day” a month after that. The numbers suggest that the epidemic is doubling roughly every seven days, with exponential growth. Sir Patrick warned that action is urgently needed to make sure that the doubling time does not stay at seven days. That “something” is likely to be wider-reaching than just the local lockdowns announced today with areas in north-west England, West Yorkshire, the Midlands and four more counties in south Wales facing further restrictions from Tuesday.

Scientists estimate that roughly 70,000 people in the UK currently have Covid-19 with about 6,000 new cases a day. Best guestimate is that less than 8% of the population has had the disease, although likely to be higher in urban areas, but this does not guarantee those people protection from the virus indefinitely.  

Unlike the briefings we have got rather used to, today’s was without a government figure, and without the opportunity for questions, either from the media or the public. It arguably left more questions unanswered than answered and dropped the stark bombshell of the estimate (not prediction) that there could be 50,000 cases a day within a month. Since the briefing, it has been confirmed that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to make an Oral Statement to the House of Commons tomorrow, widely predicted to be the action following today’s briefing. There will then, of course, be the chance for questions from the Leader of the Opposition and other MPs. Speaker of the House, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who has regularly criticised the government for communicating major policy outside of the Chamber, will be pleased regarding the procedure being taken for this development. Judging by the solemnness of today’s experts’ briefings, however, we should expect something severe and restricting. 

Adding to the widespread expectation of major action, the Prime Minister called for meetings this afternoon with the leaders of the devolved administrations, suggesting a unified, pan-UK response, and will be chairing COBRA tomorrow morning – the first time it has convened in four months. Only today, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, stated additional lockdown restrictions will “almost certainly” be put in place in Scotland in the next couple of days. Throughout this pandemic response, almost all actions taken in Scotland have been implanted in England days later. 

Perhaps now will be the final chance to get away before another lockdown – I have heard that Perugia, Italy, is lovely this time of year.