Rory Stewart has hit out at the “unbelievably hostile” treatment he received when advocating for tougher measures at the onset of the Covid pandemic – and revealed that the government asked him to stop publicly advocating the use of face masks.
In an interview with Newsnight, the former Conservative minister said the situation in February and March 2020 was “heartbreaking” and “bizarre” – and questioned British politicians’ relationship with the scientists advising them on their coronavirus policy.
“If we go back to February and March last year, it was clear that people were doing totally different things in east Asia, it was clear by the end of February that there was a very serious problem in Italy,” he said. “But people like me who were advocating for simple measures were attacked.
“I advocated for face masks and the deputy chief medical officer (CMO) of England went out on television and said there was no scientific basis for face masks. I tried to suggest that we control flights coming in, I tried to suggest that we should lock down gatherings and shut schools – and the tone at the time was unbelievably hostile. People who tried to say those kind of things were accused of being populists.”
Stewart – who left Parliament after the 2019 general election, having challenged Boris Johnson for the leadership of the Tory party – said Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians accused him of being “a hysterical populist” because he suggested that Britain follow the example of “what other countries were doing successfully”.
He said: “You can see it. You can watch the deputy CMO of England on television, naming me. I was getting calls from the Cabinet Secretary and the Health Secretary and various others to try and tell me to stop saying these things.
“The problem was that we don’t have a good system in Britain for politicians having a respectful but challenging conversation with scientists. Other countries are much better at doing this.
“Somebody should have said to the CMO: why are you so confident that there won’t be a vaccine by the end of the year? Why are you so confident that face masks won’t make a difference? How can it make any sense to keep letting flights in from Milan?
“These weren’t very difficult questions, but it required politicians to be interested in the detail.”
Stewart’s intervention came after the publication of a damning report by a cross-party group of MPs, which said the pandemic represented “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”.
The study, from the cross-party Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee, said the UK’s preparation for a pandemic was far too focused on flu, while ministers waited too long to push through lockdown measures in early 2020.
MPs said the UK’s pandemic planning was too “narrowly and inflexibly based on a flu model” that failed to learn the lessons from Sars, Mers and Ebola.
Former chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies told MPs there was “groupthink”, with infectious disease experts not believing that “Sars, or another Sars, would get from Asia to us”.
Once Covid-19 emerged in China, MPs said the UK policy was to take a “gradual and incremental approach” to interventions such as social distancing, isolation and lockdowns.
In their study, they said this was “a deliberate policy” proposed by scientists and adopted by UK governments, which has now been shown to be “wrong” and led to a higher death toll.