Dominic Cummings, scientists and the media successfully demonised anyone who questioned the lockdown.
In October 2020, along with Professor Sunetra Gupta, we authored the Great Barrington Declaration, in which we argued for a ‘focused protection’ pandemic strategy. We called for better protection of older and other high-risk people, while arguing that children should be allowed to go to school and young adults should be free to live more normal lives. We understood that it might lead to vigorous and heated discussions, but we did not expect a multi-pronged propaganda campaign that gravely distorted our arguments and smeared us. We are just three public-health scientists, after all. So how and why did this slanderous counterattack emerge?
In his recent book, Spike, Jeremy Farrar – a SAGE member and director of the Wellcome Trust – has provided a helpful hint: the political strategist and the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, planned a propaganda campaign against the Great Barrington Declaration. Farrar’s exact words are that Cummings ‘wanted to run an aggressive press campaign against those behind the Great Barrington Declaration and others opposed to blanket Covid-19 restrictions’. Cummings and Farrar preferred a blanket lockdown strategy, believing it would avoid a winter Covid wave. We do not know what transpired behind closed doors, but Farrar’s admission raises two interesting questions.
First, who would you expect to prevail in a political battle over which pandemic strategy to implement? Would it be (a) the campaigning mastermind who has won multiple elections and referendums, or (b) three public-health scientists with scant media and political experience? Secondly, whose proposal would better control the pandemic, minimise Covid deaths and avoid other non-Covid health harms? Would it be (a) the campaign led by an individual with little knowledge of epidemiology and public health? Or (b) the one authored by three epidemiologists with extensive experience and knowledge of infectious disease and public health?
As we all now know, Cummings and Farrar got their way in the UK. We Great Barrington Declaration authors failed to sway any politicians, except Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Governments worldwide re-imposed lockdowns in the autumn and winter of 2020. The lockdowns’ failure to control Covid’s spread was catastrophic. And they resulted in devastating collateral harms, especially to children, the working class in rich nations and the very poorest people in the developing world.