An Oxford University paper dubbed by the Daily Mail an “anti-lockdown” plan has emerged as the likely inspiration behind Boris Johnson’s messages declaring “get Covid and live longer”.
The WhatsApp messages revealed by his former chief aide, Dominic Cummings, showed the prime minister was holding out against lockdown measures as cases spiralled in October 2020 and appear to suggest he was unconcerned by the deaths of people in their 80s.
According to the texts released by Cummings to the BBC, Johnson says: “I must say I have been slightly rocked by some of the data on Covid fatalities. The median age is 82 – 81 for men, 85 for women. That is above life expectancy. So get Covid and live longer. Hardly anyone under 60 goes into hospital (4%) and of those virtually all survive.
“And I no longer buy all this NHS overwhelmed stuff. Folks, I think we may need to recalibrate.”
Johnson’s statistics echo a report by the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, covered by the Sun and Daily Mail a week earlier, which found that the average age of deaths from coronavirus was 82.4 years although that does not suggest the NHS would avoid being overwhelmed.
The data analysed by the study also suggested that 30,000 people who contracted coronavirus were already dying from another illness, and that six people per thousand were likely to die from it.
The statistics spread on social media, where lockdown sceptics pointed out that 82.4 years is above life expectancy (which is 81.26 in the UK) though that number is an average and will include people dying very young. That may have led Johnson to joke “get Covid and live longer”.
According to the Office for National Statistics, men who reach 80 can expect to live another nine years and women another 10.
On 20 September, three weeks before the texts were sent, Johnson had held a summit in Downing Street with some prominent scientists sceptical of lockdowns, including the author of the paper.
The scientists who gave a presentation to the prime minister and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, were Prof Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, and his Oxford University colleague Prof Sunetra Gupta, as well as Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s leading epidemiologist, whose country had chosen not to lock down.
The other scientist present was Prof John Edmunds, who presented the view of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
Johnson sided with the first three scientists, and told ministers and advisers that regional measures and weaker restrictions could contain the virus, it is understood.
In the strategy presented to Johnson, Heneghan made the point that “over-85s and those with pre-existing pathologies account for the vast majority of death with Covid-19”, the scientists later said. But the strategy also made the case for more stringent protective measures of the elderly and for improvements to testing and detection of cases.
By mid-October, when Johnson sent the texts, the situation was grave, and worse than when he met the scientists in Downing Street.
On 15 October, the day Johnson told aides “it shows we don’t go for nationwide lockdown”, according to the exchange that Cummings gave to the BBC, up to 95% of intensive care beds were reported to be full in some hospitals in Liverpool, half with coronavirus patients.
Two days earlier, Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s leader, had called for a “circuit breaker” lockdown of the kind recommended by Sage in September. The government was locked in a bitter battle with the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, over tier 3 restrictions. London was to be formally moved up to the second tier of Covid restrictions as cases soared.
But on the day before Johnson sent the texts, Sunak told the Commons that any form of national lockdown would cause “significant damage” to lives and livelihoods. He said evidence still supported a regional, tiered approach, saying: “The entire country would suffer, rather than targeting that support preventing a lockdown in parts of the country where the virus rates are low.”
By 31 October, Johnson had announced a second national lockdown of four weeks. That was when, as alleged by Cummings and others, he told aides he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than call another lockdown – a statement No 10 vociferously denies.
Weeks later, Johnson was forced to think again. As Christmas approached and Covid-19 cases rose, he called off plans to allow mixing over the festive period and eventually closed schools and began a lengthy period of business closures and bans on social contact.