The image spoke volumes. During Monday’s dramatic press conference, Boris Johnson was flanked by two of the country’s most influential men.
To his right, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, whose only duty is to save lives. On his left is Chancellor Rishi Sunak whose only duty is to save the economy. Johnson must do both and save the nation.
Until yesterday, the Prime Minister seemed to be siding firmly with Whitty and his fellow scientists. His followers watched in dismay as he seemed to strangle every libertarian fiber in his being and chose to follow the science, ignoring the fact that there was no consensus among the experts.
But the press conference changed all that. The Prime Minister might have been in the middle, but he might as well have shared the Sunaks’ podium with Professor Whitty on a branch. Any semblance of unity was shattered when the professor said that even the crackdown announced in dark tones by Johnson for Liverpool did not go far enough.
During Monday’s dramatic press conference, Boris Johnson (center) was surrounded by two of the country’s most influential men – Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (right) and England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty (left)
The new restrictions were only basic measures, he said before calling on civic leaders to introduce restrictions that the prime minister had rejected as too severe. Confirmation of the split came later with details of a September 20-21 meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
It showed that SAGE, which includes Professor Whitty, had urged the Prime Minister to go much further than he did yesterday.
Indeed, the advisers wanted it to put the whole country in an extreme Tier Three style category. It would have ended all domestic mixing, closed every pub, restaurant, and cafe, and made everyone work from home. But the advice was rejected by Johnson.
The first sign he was preparing to defy SAGE advice came on September 22 when the Covid slogan changed to Save Lives, Protect the NHS and Shelter the Economy.
The inclusion of the economy was at the behest of Sunak, who won a power struggle with Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Cabinet Minister Michael Gove. The couple had led a Cabinet faction urging Johnson to stick to the advice of Professor Whitty and his colleagues. But they were overtaken by Sunak, Interior Minister Priti Patel and Business Secretary Alok Sharma.
Sunaks supporters have insisted the country risks heading into an economic catastrophe that would have far more serious consequences for jobs, businesses, mental health, physical health and, yes, lives lost.
Until yesterday, the Prime Minister seemed to be firmly on the side of Whitty and his fellow scientists, but the press conference changed all that. The Prime Minister may have been in the middle, but he could just as easily have shared the Sunaks’ platform. Pictured: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) leaves 10 Downing Street with Chancellor Rishi Sunak
To say you are following the science seems reasonable enough but cannot be used as a substitute for decision making, said a prominent Tory MP. If we don’t save livelihoods as well as lives, there will be no money for the NHS for generations.
A minister who worked with Professor Whitty said: No one is questioning Chriss’s integrity. As a doctor, his only responsibility is to save lives. Every member of Sage knows that when the inevitable public inquiries into Covid take place, they will all be judged on one factor: did they try to save all lives.
Significantly, Johnson has consulted with experts who favor a very different approach. He and the Chancellor followed the advice of the architect of the Swedish anti-lockdown strategy, Professor Anders Tegnell.
They also heard eminent epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta, professor at the University of Oxford, one of the authors of a petition against the lockdown, the Great Barrington statement.
This amounts to a powerful rebuke to Professor Whitty.
And what has become clear is that Johnson not only agrees with much of the statement, but uses it, in tandem with the dark statements of Professor Whitty and SAGE, to shape the Covid policy. Momentarily, he turned his back on scientists for the sake of the economy. The question is, will he keep his cool and continue to keep them at bay?