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Sensemaker: Covid truth or dare

Sensemaker: Covid truth or dare

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The head of Russia’s Wagner group said its position around Bakhmut was at risk without more ammunition. 
  • At least 12,000 Rohingya refugees were left without shelter after a huge fire tore through a crowded camp in southern Bangladesh.
  • Toblerone will remove the Matterhorn logo from its packaging as some of the chocolate bar’s production moves from Switzerland to Slovakia.

Covid truth or dare

It’s day eight of the Lockdown Files, the Telegraph’s biggest scoop since the parliamentary expenses scandal. In today’s story Matt Hancock, the former UK health minister, is shown to have resisted cutting Covid isolation times even when advised it would be safe by England’s Chief Medical Officer, for fear of looking as if “we’ve been getting it wrong”.

So what? The Telegraph’s justification for running this series based on 100,000 leaked WhatsApp messages from Hancock’s account is that 

  • they reveal ministerial malpractice at the heart of the UK’s Covid response; and 
  • the official public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic has been delayed too long, will take too long and could turn out to be a whitewash. 

Both these rationales are solid. But the kind of whitewash the paper and the leaker of the messages, Isabel Oakeshott, appear to fear is not the kind of whitewash that’s likely, or that the public should fear. 

Since 2020 explanations have been urgently needed as to why the government delayed the UK’s first lockdown, why the NHS was disastrously ill-equipped to confront the pandemic and why vital lessons from the first wave were not acted on before the second.

The three-year delay in producing these explanations is unconscionable. But it’s also increasingly clear that while the Hancock leaks have yielded genuine exclusives they’re being shoehorned into a project driven by an eccentric anti-lockdown agenda that

  • has little scientific basis of its own;
  • ignores the reality in hospitals during the pandemic (more below);
  • forgets that ministers’ overwhelming priority was to keep the NHS functioning; and
  • risks damaging the impact of the official inquiry by prejudging its conclusions.

WhatsApp Matt? Hancock and his allies say his messages are being analysed without the context of other sources of information that go into ministerial decision-making. Perhaps. But they do provide compelling evidence that he disastrously misjudged the impact of community infection on care home residents; was more concerned with hitting testing targets than analysing the spread of the virus; and was desperate to take personal credit for the accelerated vaccine rollout as a “Hancock triumph”.

The long wait. Team Hancock also says there’s no public interest in the leaked messages because all 2.3 million words have already been made available to the public inquiry. Yet the inquiry doesn’t start public hearings until June. France opened judicial proceedings against ministers accused of mishandling their Covid response in July 2020. Sweden completed its inquiry a year ago.

The rewrite tendency. The Hancock messages show a minister attempting to re-write history in real-time. Boris Johnson appears to have done likewise, seizing on the success of the vaccine rollout as his own, resisting demands for a prompt inquiry throughout his last two years in Downing Street and in the meantime crafting a narrative that marginalises the catastrophic delays and PPE failures of February – April 2020 as well as the school testing fiasco of September 2020. Setting the record straight will be the inquiry’s central task.

Remember. At the peak of the first and second waves of infection the NHS was on its knees. The precise effectiveness of lockdowns, masks and isolation periods will be argued over by scientists for years, but it’s already clear that without them hospitals would have been overwhelmed.

Last week Dr Kevin Fong, a consultant anaesthetist at UCL Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust who studied 6,000 A&E workers’ mental health during the pandemic, told a conference they showed PTSD rates of over 46 per cent, compared with 17 per cent for combat veterans after tours in Afghanistan.

“Please don’t conflate WhatsApp messages with the reality and scale of the Covid19 pandemic and the impact it had on NHS staff,” he tweeted.

Good advice. 


Cautious growth
Last year, China’s government missed its GDP growth target by a wide margin. This year, it appears to be playing it safe. On 5 March China’s outgoing prime minister Li Keqiang told the annual National People’s Congress, the Communist Party-controlled parliament, that the country was aiming for 5 per cent growth in 2023, its lowest target in decades. The government did set a higher employment target of 12 million new urban jobs, suggesting that officials hope China’s recovery will be driven by labour-intensive consumer sectors like retail and catering, rather than government-funded infrastructure projects. Big picture: this is an easy target to hit as Xi Jinping and his new team prepare to further centralise power. 


Cheaper batteries
Last week we noted how tough it is to make a better, cleaner battery. But making them cheaper may not be so hard. The WSJ reports that economies of scale and gradual technological advances are bringing down their cost per kilowatt-hour – despite supply chain bottlenecks and efforts to freeze out Chinese suppliers – to the point where driving an electric car costs about the same as driving a petrol one over the life of a typical American lease. Federal and state tax credits for EV buyers help, but Lyft, the rideshare firm, says it saw the cost premium of battery power over internal combustion fall by 90 per cent between 2010 and 2020. In a market where price matters above all, that’s big.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Iran’s schoolgirls
Last November, 18 schoolgirls in the Iranian city of Qom fell ill and were taken to hospital. Since then, more than a thousand schoolgirls across the country have suffered from suspected poison attacks. The victims report similar symptoms: nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, with some feeling sick after reporting a strange smell, similar to rotten tangerines. The cause is unclear. Some politicians have blamed religious groups opposed to girls’ education (although Iran has no history of fundamentalists targeting girls’ schools). Iran’s teachers’ union described the attacks as “bioterrorism” aimed at creating fear among the young women and girls who have led recent anti-government protests. Iran’s government only acknowledged the issue last week (the country’s supreme leader called it “unforgivable” this morning) – as the incidents create a fresh sense of outrage against the country’s leaders. Expect more protests this week as the world marks International Women’s Day. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Saving the ocean
The Sargasso Sea is a nursery for eels and turtle hatchlings. The Emperor Seamount chain is a vast underwater mountain range in the Pacific, home to coral colonies that date back thousands of years. Both lie in the high seas, outside areas that can traditionally be protected by national governments. The Treaty of the High Seas agreed by UN member states in New York on Saturday changes that. It provides a legal framework to shield international waters, allowing governments to create marine protected areas and requiring an assessment of the impact of economic activities on high seas biodiversity. Greenpeace described it as a “monumental win” for ocean protection, noting that previous attempts to protect areas of the high seas by consensus between governments have failed.


Drag queen ban
Tennessee has become the first US state to introduce a drag show ban in public spaces. Other states will likely follow suit. Why ban an art form that dates back to ancient Greek theatre and has found huge success in mainstream culture? The Republicans pushing the bill say it is “harmful to minors”, building on an unfounded rhetoric found across the US – and in parts of the UK – that conflates drag with child grooming and “sexualising” minors. Although the law does not ban all drag performances, it sends a clear message to the LGBT+ community and performers that they are not welcome in the state. The law will take effect on 1 April. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, who was pictured wearing drag in a re-surfaced yearbook photo, also signed a ban on gender-affirming youth health care. 

Week ahead


6/3 – Unite workers at Drax power station go on strike; British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly to meet; parole hearing for 70 year-old Charles Bronson; Andy Burnham speaks at Transport for the North conference; Wayne Couzens sentenced for indecent exposure, 7/3 – SNP leadership candidates debate on STV; Child health profiles for 2023 released by UKHSA, 8/3 –  Belarussian political activist Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to address RUSI; no smoking day, 9/3 –  Channel 4 SNP leadership candidates debate; results of 2022 NHS staff survey released; Crufts dog show begins in Birmingham, 10/3 – Rishi Sunak hosted by Emmanuel Macron for bilateral summit; Balfour Beatty and RMT union workers go on strike; UK GDP and trade statistics published, Women of the World Festival held in London, 11/3 – Green Party spring conference; SOS NHS demonstration in London. 


6/3 – Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launches H3 rocket; International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors meeting in Vienna; World Trade Organization General Council meeting in Geneva, 7/3 – Major industrial action expected in France over pension reform; Micronesia hold parliamentary elections; Holi, the Indian festival of colours 8/3 – International Women’s Day; Jewish festival Shushan Purim; US House committee hearing on the administration’s emergency evacuation from Afghanistan, 9/3 – Joe Biden presents 2024 fiscal year budget; Belgium, Turkey, Sweden and Finland to hold talks about the Nordic nations’ Nato membership bids; International Narcotics Control Board release annual report, 10/3 – South by Southwest festival held in Texas; Japan interest rate decision, 11/3 – State houses of assembly and gubernatorial elections in Nigeria, 12/3 – 95th Academy Awards; US daylight savings time begins.

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Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by

Photographs Getty Images

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