My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friends Lord Howard of Rising and Lady Neville-Rolfe, whose regret Motion I am minded to support.
The Prime Minister has an unenviable task—that of balancing not just health and economic impacts, but conflicting evidence and views, the majority of which, I suspect, are opposed, within Cabinet and among his advisers, to his own instincts. He has been criticised for not imposing those well-known libertarian views on the majority in Cabinet. Prime Ministers are not, however, dictators. I remember Mrs Thatcher, after spelling out her support for a proposal, asking her Cabinet Ministers for their views, all of whom dissented, turning to Nigel Lawson and saying, “Am I alone in supporting this policy?”. To which he replied: “Yes, Prime Minister, but you are not without influence”. I am glad that some of the Prime Minister’s influence has been brought to bear, otherwise these regulations would be even worse.
But there are reasons we should be sceptical about these latest proposals. First, the Government claim to be “following the science”, but there is no such thing as “the science”—there are scientists, who have opinions, and there is the scientific method. That was explained by the great scientist Richard Feynman, who said: “You make predictions on the basis of your theory or model, you compare them with the facts; it doesn’t matter how beautiful your model is, or it doesn’t matter how smart you are, if the model doesn’t agree with the facts, it’s wrong”.
We know that the original assumption that coronavirus would behave like flu was wrong. We know that the Imperial model predictions of half a million deaths here and 85,000 deaths in Sweden were wrong. We know that Sir Patrick Vallance’s prediction of 50,000 cases by the end of October was wrong. We know that on the chart used to frighten us into lockdown on 5 November, every single forecast of deaths over the coming months—not just that of 4,000 a day—has proved wrong. We know that half the graphs used during that extraordinary press conference ahead of the second lockdown turned out to be mistaken or used outdated forecasts, which had subsequently been revised down—which was wrong. We know that the chart leaked to Laura Kuenssberg, showing hospital capacity being overwhelmed, was never issued and has proved wrong. It is reasonable to be sceptical about the projections of what will happen if we do not adopt the measures before us today.
Of course, we all make mistakes, but the second reason for being sceptical is that these mistakes have not been random errors. There have not been some too low, some too high, some too alarmist, some too complacent. All of them have been in the same direction: exaggerating the risks and dangers. I am sure that has not been deliberate, but when errors all point in one direction, it is a sure and certain sign of groupthink. Groupthink is a mindset which can grip any of us, especially if we are convinced that we are in the right and others are in the wrong. Those in the grip of groupthink tend to accept without questioning too closely any evidence which supports their beliefs and discount anything which casts doubt on them, and they tend to ignore the costs of their actions and exaggerate the benefits.
That brings me to the third reason for scepticism, which is that these proposals were not based on any systematic, quantitative analysis of their impact—positive or negative—nor of their costs and benefits. It is not just that the document the Government rushed out yesterday is, to put it mildly, less than convincing; it is because the Government did not even have such an analysis themselves when they reached their decision.
There is an underlying problem which lies behind the Government’s explanations. They seem to believe that R is a constant, and that consequently infections will double every X days—after X days there will be twice as many, after 2X days there will be four times as many, after 3X days there will be eight times as many, and so on. They seem to believe that infections, deaths and the numbers of people in hospital will slow down or decline only as a result of government restrictions, hence the official claim that national and regional peaks occurred after the new measures were introduced. It is simply not true: the peak occurred before these measures were introduced, and there are only two possible reasons for that. One is that R declines as the virus spreads, because the natural spreaders get it and cease to spread it thereafter, and because there is more natural immunity in the population than anything like herd immunity was expected to be. The second reason is that people began voluntarily to restrict their social interactions before they were compelled to.
Whichever of these reasons—and I expect both are the case—they are reasons for not relying on the Government’s projections, not relying on the restrictions being introduced in these measures and asking the Government to think again, which is why I am minded to support the amendment to the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe.