Dodgy data debacle fuels growing lockdown scepticism: Andrew Vine

IT isn’t only in my house where there’s a sense of scepticism about this lockdown we’re all labouring through with gritted teeth.

It’s there in the conversations with friends and family as well, all of whom wonder whether we’ve been bounced into it unnecessarily on the back of dodgy data and a Government beset by jitters when it should instead have a firm grip on events.

We’re all, of course, doing exactly what we’ve been asked, just as we did first time round. Nobody sensible – and law-abiding – would do otherwise, or downplay the seriousness of the threat posed by coronavirus, especially to the elderly and those with underlying health problems.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

But even so, that nagging doubt persists in my mind, and in those of virtually everybody I know, and that’s yet another measure of the Government’s mishandling of the pandemic.

Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the announcement of a second national lockdown for England. Picture: Alberto Pezzali/PA Wire

In spring and summer, there was no question about the need to put our lives on hold. Covid-19 was raging out of control, and there was an extraordinary upsurge of national solidarity. Everybody had their part to play, and we all knuckled down to it.

There isn’t that sense of solidarity this time, nor anything like the acceptance that the Government was taking an extraordinary decision because there was no alternative.

Instead, at best, there’s a weary resignation underpinned by a touch of resentment that the Prime Minister hasn’t been straight with us. And that’s dangerous territory for any Government to stray into when so much of the effort to tackle a pandemic depends on public goodwill. The figures on projected rates of infections and deaths used as the justification for the lockdown unravelled even before the new restrictions took effect. On the admission of both the Government’s chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer when questioned by MPs, they overstated the threat and the figures were quietly amended.

Then came Office for National Statistics figures that showed the numbers of infections and deaths were falling in a majority of areas of the country. Hardly surprising then that the Government got a rough ride in the Commons over the new lockdown, with the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, saying: “It looks as though the figures are being chosen to support the policy, rather than the policy being based on the figures.”

That’s a pretty damning verdict, especially from so cautious a figure as Mrs May, and one that has been echoed in any number of conversations I’ve had since then.

Were the Tier 3 restrictions introduced in areas including South Yorkshire given enough chance to work before a near-total shutdown of our economy again, with all its consequences for people’s livelihoods?

The question nags at many and the Government’s tone towards the public is not helping to bolster confidence in it. There has been a little too much relish from Home Secretary Priti Patel in demanding that the police crack down hard on anyone breaching lockdown restrictions. This is an excessively authoritarian attitude, which risks alienating the public.

Policing of the last lockdown was overwhelmingly sensible, being done with a light touch that only penalised wilful transgressors. Ms Patel’s heavy-handedness and apparent keenness to pitch officers into increased conflict with the public is unhelpful and ill-judged.

Boris Johnson hasn’t been persuasive enough this time round. A shambolic announcement and figures that didn’t bear close scrutiny saw to that, and he’s going to be in even deeper trouble if there’s any attempt to extend lockdown beyond December 2.

At the weekend, the leader of his backbench MPs, Sir Graham Brady, warned of a Tory revolt if that was to happen. Allied to that, moves by senior Conservatives including former Cabinet Minister David Davis to ensure greater Commons scrutiny of the Government’s actions on Covid are a measure of disquiet being expressed by constituents.

This isn’t just about the fatigue that everyone feels to a greater or lesser extent about the seemingly never-ending scourge of Covid. It’s about rightly questioning the justification for loss of liberty, and for too many, the loss of livelihoods too.

The public cannot be taken for fools and fobbed off with inaccurate figures that result in profound changes to their lives. Nor can they be threatened into complying with restrictions they would willingly observe if a proper case had been made for them. It’s to the credit of the people of Yorkshire and beyond that we are putting such thoughts to the backs of our minds and getting on with lockdown as best we all can. But doubts aren’t going away, and will only multiply if there are any more shenanigans with dodgy data. It’s high time Mr Johnson and those around him are straight with us.

Support The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today. Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you’ll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app and receive exclusive members-only offers. Click here to subscribe.