‘WE ARE F***ED!’ Director of No10’s ‘nudge unit’ reveals Downing Street colleague leaned over and scribbled over his note saying country was ‘not ready’ for ‘unstoppable’ Covid wave during gloomy March 2020 meeting
- Dr David Halpern heads ‘nudge unit’ used to encourage Covid rule-following
- He made note that ‘we are not ready’ in March 2020 crunch meeting
An explicit note stating ‘we are f***ed’ was passed between two scientific advisers to the Government during a crunch meeting at the start of the pandemic.
Dr David Halpern, president of No10’s ‘nudge unit’ which encouraged people to stick to rules during the pandemic, said the ‘penny dropped’ among officials about the seriousness of the incoming Covid wave in a sit-down discussion on March 13, 2020.
He wrote that ‘we are not ready’, which was seen by a Downing Street colleague, who scribbled over the note so that it read ‘we are f***ed’, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry heard today.
Speaking at the inquiry, he said the note was made after hearing evidence that the NHS would be overwhelmed by the ‘unstoppable’ wave, there was insufficient testing capacity and modelling of the impact of the virus had been ‘overconfident’.
Dr David Halpern (pictured), president of a ‘nudge unit’ used by No10 to encourage people to stick to rules during the pandemic, said the ‘penny dropped’ among officials about the seriousness of the incoming Covid wave during a meeting on March 13, 2020
He wrote that ‘we are not ready’, which was seen by a colleague, who scribbled over the note so that it read ‘we are f***ed’ (pictured), the UK Covid-19 Inquiry heard today
The inquiry is in its second module, which is examining core UK decision-making and political governance. During a hearing today, counsel Dermot Keating asked whether Dr Halpern made the note.
Dr Halpern said: ‘I did indeed, wrote it in capital letters, it was so striking.’
Mr Keating said: ‘A No10 colleague leaned over, crossed out your entry, which we see at the bottom of the page, and what was written instead of “we are not ready”?’
Dr Halpern said: ‘We are f***ed.’
He confirmed that the remark was written by Ben Warner, a data scientist at No10, who worked with Dominic Cummings on the Vote Leave Brexit campaign and attended Sage meetings.
Asked whether that represented his concerns and readiness for the ‘unstoppable wave that was about to come’, Dr Halpern said: ‘Yes. Remember, the one play that you had in a strategy as was expressed to us, was that you can shape the wave.
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‘As referred to endlessly, you could flatten it etc. and you were trying to do it to stop the NHS being overwhelmed.
‘But in this meeting, you’re hearing evidence that, on current trajectory, it is going to be overwhelmed, that we don’t have the testing ready, the models seem over-confident, there’s a lot of grounds for concern.
‘And so, hence, I really felt quite shocked and depressed. I felt it’s not our role to do all those things. We’re working on the behavioural aspects.
‘The overall sense was that, as in my notebook, we, the country, the policy, is not ready for what’s unfolding.
‘I felt that on people’s faces in the room, that there was some realisation of it. A sort of cracking in the confidence.’
Others in the meeting had felt, like him, that the Government should be pursuing suppression strategies, he said.
It came 10 days before the first national lockdown was announced on March 23 and three days before then-prime minister Boris Johnson told people to stop non-essential contact and travel.
Dr Halpern is president of the Behavioural Insights Team, which was launched under David Cameron’s Government, the group was responsible for positively influencing behaviour with tiny changes without introducing legislation.
Its previous successes included boosting diversity in the police force, helping the Job Centre get more people off benefits and increasing the number of organ donors.
The nudge unit was involved in much of the government’s messaging during the pandemic, including the ‘Hands, Face, Space’ and ‘Stay home-Protect the NHS’ slogans.
However, earlier this year its co-founder accused the Government of using scare tactics to get people to follow Covid rules during the pandemic.
Behavioural scientist Simon Ruda suggested there had been an overemphasis on modelling and data that he warned was ‘propagandistic’.
Dr Halpern told the inquiry today that ‘hubris’ and ‘overconfidence’ that the UK would not be hit as hard by the pandemic hampered its learning from other countries.
He said that pride in UK science led to a delay in considering approaches by other nations affected at the start of the crisis.
In a letter to senior officials in July 2020 criticising the initial response, he wrote: ‘Ironically, the pride in our science and our capabilities slowed our ability to learn lessons from other countries under cover of variations of “it is very different there”, there was an arrogance that we knew better and would do better.’
He said anchoring — a difficulty in moving away from prior assumptions — among the medical community led to a presumption that Covid would be a flu-like wave.
Dr Halpern said this was ‘the most fundamental misstep’ in the early handling of the virus and prevented the expansion of supressing its spread.
There was ‘a touch of hubris that we knew better and we would do better, alongside criticisms of how badly other countries were doing,’ he wrote.
He said overconfidence ‘characterised a lot of what was happening from early on to those very early comparisons to other countries — Japan, Germany — and it made us slower to look really carefully at what they did and learn the lessons from them.
‘It also had many other manifestations. Masks would be an example. We felt that the evidence became very compelling, certainly by late March, early April, for masks, and there was a strong anchoring in scepticism in many of the medical community.’
Dr Halpern also criticised Boris Johnson’s government’s ‘stay alert’ messaging. ‘It tells you to worry and doesn’t tell you what to do — the worst combination,’ he said.
Speaking at an event in January, Dr Halpern revealed that he subliminally shamed Mr Johnson into wearing a mask by showing him comparable world leaders doing so.
Speaking to the Reckitt Global Hygiene Institute, he said: ‘We did share with him a slide pack at one point. It had a series of images of pretty much every single world leader wearing a mask, and then a picture with him not’.
He added that this has the effect of showing that ‘a normal thing for a world leader to do right now is wear a mask’.
Mr Johnson’s mask wearing habits hit the headlines in November 2021 when he apologised for failing to cover up during a visit to a hospital.
He insisted he broke the rules for ‘barely 30 seconds’ after he was photographed without a face covering during a trip to Hexham General Hospital.
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