'Murderous' 'reckless' 'diabolical'

The eyes of the world fall on UK government's herd immunity strategy

Welcome to Keeping the Receipts— a newsletter from the Citizens, written this week by Carole Cadwalladr. You can read about the mission behind this here.

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The Road to Unfreedom

In 2018 the Yale historian Timothy Snyder wrote a book called The Road to Unfreedom. An expert on authoritarianism, he described the path by which Russia had descended into autocracy: the identification and destruction of enemies, the deliberate sowing of disinformation and, above all, the use of lies as a political tool. Tim Adams in his review for the Observer explains:

The more outrageous the official lie was, the more it allowed people to demonstrate their faith in the Kremlin.

We started this newsletter as a way of keeping track of the assaults on our democracy. This week we have no choice but also to track where it leads. Tomorrow a government led by a performative liar, which came to power by deploying a barrage of disinformation at a scale that had never before been possible, will embark on a strategy that experts from around the world describe as “murderous”, “reckless” and “diabolical”.

#UnFreedomDay

The government spin machine and its allies in the press are calling tomorrow, July 19, Freedom Day. It’s not, it’s #UnFreedomDay. It’s a day on which the powers of unreason and untruth will triumph. A triumph that will kill people you know. It will leave tens of thousands with a debilitating, long-term condition that we aren’t even at the beginning of learning to understand.

The culture of impunity that this government has created - the lack of accountability, the lack of transparency, the deliberate use of performative lies – has produced the conditions in which it can ignore scientific advice and evidence. Its deliberate, systematic and ongoing destruction of our institutions, norms and systems of oversight and scrutiny, its privileging of propaganda over facts - this is what is enabling it to forge ahead with a strategy that it acknowledges will kill many more people: herd immunity by mass infection.

If you want to know why that is a “reckless and unethical experiment”, read the letter to the Lancet signed by 122 scientists and supported by over 1,200 more.

We’ve been working with its lead author Dr Deepti Gurdasani on these and multiple other fronts over the last two months. In our second newsletter, on June 1, we detailed our quest with her to find the truth about the spread of the Delta variant in schools: to uncover why the government was suppressing the data on it and why it removed all mitigations in schools despite the spread. We failed. These reservoirs of the unvaccinated - schools - allowed Delta to become dominant. For the past weeks Deepti, Independent SAGE and others have been warning that the government is following a strategy of herd immunity by mass infection.

For weeks, they were seen as fringe voices. At the Citizens we have done everything we can to amplify them. This week, we finally succeeded. It’s just far, far too late.

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Our international emergency summit

On Monday we hosted an emergency summit and press conference to respond to the Prime Minister’s announcement that he was moving ahead with the July 19 lifting of restrictions.

This was our second emergency summit. Our first was with Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of the Lancet, on the publication of the Lancet letter

Samira Ahmed stepped into host it at the last minute and we went live straight after Boris Johnson’s 5pm press conference.

Here’s what Dr Helen Salisbury, a GP and lecturer at Oxford University, said about what she thought the government’s strategy meant:

And on Friday, as cases and hospitalisations relentlessly rose, we helped Deepti pull together our third emergency summit in just over a week again with hours notice.

We drew on an extraordinary panel of international experts.

They gave up time to warn us that we are on the cusp of another colossal mistake. We have been here before, throughout this pandemic. We have seen failure after failure. And death and after death.

And here we are again. The livestream is an hour long and I can’t recommend more firmly that you watch it in its entirety. Because it features extraordinary statement after extraordinary statement:

We had official government advisors from three countries - Israel, Italy and New Zealand. And former advisors from two more - Australia and Taiwan. They all spoke of their utter disbelief at what the UK government is doing.

The condemnation was unanimous. We are embarking on a path no other country apart perhaps from Brazil has contemplated. This is a leading US virologist who did groundbreaking work on HIV and AIDS:

These are advisors to some of our nearest neighbours in Europe. They are going to be impacted by what the UK government is doing. It is not only an act of monumental self-harm. It is, these scientists said, an act of global harm. If you wanted to engineer an ideal breeding ground for a new variant, one scientist said, letting it rip through a half-vaccinated population is how you’d do it.

And this from a former advisor to the Taiwan government - a country with 151,000 fewer Covid deaths than the UK - was one of the most affecting. Professor Shu Ti-Chiou couldn’t imagine a country where you would fail to protect those who need protection:

This was an intervention: Britain is the reckless addict endangering not only its own health but that of the world. This summit was the equivalent of friends and family coming together to tell us that we can’t run away from this virus. That our denial is only making it worse. That this is “murderous”, “diabolical”, “reckless”.

It made headlines around the world:

It was written up everywhere from America’s CNBC to Germany’s Tagesspiegel to France’s Le Monde to Italy’s Corriere Della Serra to India’s Hindustan Times. It featured in editorials in the Guardian and Observer.

We put up a crowdfunder this week. Our work supporting Independent SAGE is funded through a small grant from UCL and a seperate crowdfunder. And we have received grants from Luminate and the Ford Foundation to support our fledgling organisation. But the work with Deepti started in a totally ad-hoc fashion. We just tried to help because we could. We understood the vital importance of what she was trying to do and we’ve thrown everything at it.

That has avalanched into us providing operational and media support for a group of scientists and medics endorsed by a network of 1,200+ others from the UK and around the world, all desperately trying to stop what feels like a suicide mission. We’ve had well over 300k views across Twitter and YouTube of our three emergency summits and tens of thousands more of the clips we have produced. We have no project or other funding for this.

Any funds we get from subscriptions to this Substack newsletter also go to supporting this work. We are using evidence-based journalism to support evidence-based science in a country where evidence and expertise are not enough.

None of this would have been possible without the support of the public. There is no opposition in this country at the moment.

It is down to us now. With this herd immunity experiment, we are entering uncharted waters. We are all in danger.

We will continue to try and raise the voices of those who need to be heard, especially the 3.7 million clinically vulnerable, the sufferers of long Covid, the families of the victims, all abandoned, forgotten and recklessly ignored by a government that is now not just failing to protect us, but actively doing us harm.

Carole

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