Sedwill: Government was 'too focused on whether Covid worst case scenario would happen'

Ex-cab sec says government's "measured" response to the Covid outbreak was based on 1 in 10 likelihood of reasonable worst-case scenario pandemic hitting the UK
Mark Sedwill at Covid Inquiry. Photo: Covid Inquiry/Youtube

By Tevye Markson

08 Nov 2023

The government was too focused in the early days of the Covid outbreak on the likelihood of a reasonable worst case scenario occurring and not enough on what was likely to happen, former cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill has told the Covid Inquiry.

Sedwill, who was cabinet secretary and head of the civil service from October 2018 to September 2020, said the government should have considered a wider range of possible outcomes in its early-pandemic decision-making.

Discussing two pieces evidence from two meetings – on 29 January and 6 February, 2020 – Sedwill said the government’s decision-making was based on the likelihood of “the reasonable worst case scenario” at the time – 820,000 deaths – rather than the expected outcomes.

KC Hugo Keith firstly questioned Sedwill about a document presented to the Inquiry which showed minutes from the second Cobra meeting on the Covid held on 29 January.

The minutes state that chief medical officer Chris Whitty had said “the UK planning assumptions were based on the reasonable worst case scenario” but that there were two scenarios “to be considered”: either the virus being confined to China or spreading across the world and there being a pandemic in the UK.

Asked by Keith if the government would have understood from Whitty’s comments that once the virus left China there would be an inevitable crisis, Sedwill said: “I think we wouldn't have understood that to be inevitable [at] the scale of the crisis that we faced a couple of months later.

“And that's partly because...this was a discussion of the reasonable worst case scenario and in late January, early February, at Cabinet for example, the chief medical officer gave that around a one in ten probability. By the end of February, I think it was about one in five.”

Keith suggested that this showed the government’s thinking was too focused on the “doctrine of the reasonable worst case scenario and the probability of that occurring, rather than what the chief medical officer was saying would happen”.

“I think that is a fair summary,” Sedwill responded.

He also accepted the KC’s supposition that the dividing line between worst case scenario and what was likely to happen “blurred throughout the course of this time”.

The issue of overemphasis on worst case scenarios came up again when Keith questioned Sedwill on the minutes of a Cabinet meeting on 6 February, 2020, where Boris Johnson said it was “important that the government remain measured in its response”, warning against “damaging confidence”.

Sedwill said this thinking from Johnson was again based on the scientific advice during this meeting which was “essentially suggesting that the worst-case scenario is…very unlikely”.

At this point, Inquiry chair Heather Hallett intervened, questioning Sedwill on why the government was so reliant on worst-case scenario advice.

She asked: “If the worst case is 800,000 deaths, a bad case…could be 500,000. So I'm not understanding why there's this focus always on the reasonable worst case scenario. How about a fairly predictable scenario?”

Sedwill agreed, adding that if briefings had “suggested that the probability of a quarter of the number of casualties were significantly higher [than the reasonable worst case scenario] I think that would have changed the way that ministers would have thought about it”

More than 230,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the UK.

Hallett asked if anyone told ministers to focus on “the probability of this virus coming to the UK and causing an awful lot of unnecessary death” rather than reasonable worst-case scenario.

In response, Sedwill said: “There was too much focus, including in the briefings to cabinet, on the reasonable worst case rather than…experts [saying] here’s what I think will happen.”

Sedwill added that “one of the lessons [from the pandemic] is that we shouldn’t be over-focused on reasonable worst case, we should be focused on the range of cases and the likelihood of impact.”

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