Britain's 'Lockdown Files' Reveal the Sordid Thinking Behind Pandemic Policy

Eye-opening insights into the messy motivations behind restrictive COVID-19 responses.


When cornered, some politicians grudgingly admit COVID-19 restrictions went too far and made little sense. But that still leaves us wondering as to their thinking when they locked playgrounds, mandated masks, restricted travel, shuttered businesses, closed schools, confined people to their homes, sent cops after paddle-boarders floating on the lonely sea, ignored their own rules, and otherwise inflicted harms worse than a virus could ever manage. Now an important disclosure of communications among British officials reveals just how government officials' minds work when exercising extraordinary power. It's not a pretty sight.

Belated Regrets

"We had to make some decisions, that in retrospect, don't make a lot of sense," Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer recently conceded with regard to lockdown orders issued after COVID-19 appeared. "Some of those policies, I look back and think: that was maybe a little more than we needed to do."

Those policies arbitrarily parsed between "essential" and "nonessential" businesses for the imposition of draconian rules, even banning the sale of gardening supplies to people stranded at home. They were notoriously ill-considered and intrusive, making an admission of error necessary, if consequence-free. It was also belated, since the state Supreme Court ruled Whitmer's use of emergency powers unconstitutional in 2020, and lawmakers repealed them in 2021 in response to a citizen initiative.

But, if they're sorry-ish now, what in the hell were Whitmer and her ilk thinking when they cooked up restrictive policies? For a peek behind the dank and musty curtain we turn to Britain, where The Telegraph this month published The Lockdown Files drawn from 100,000 messages exchanged among government officials. They reveal powerful people warned that restrictive policies would cause more harm than the disease, decisions made for public relations reasons, media enlisted to suppress dissent, and officials gloating over inconveniences to the public.

A Peek Behind the Scenes

"WhatsApp conversations contained in The Telegraph's Lockdown Files show that those running the country privately acknowledged the 'terrible' price of lockdowns and twice reimposed the national shutdowns, even as they discussed the damage they were causing to physical and mental health, children's prospects and mental health," the newspaper's team noted. Among the consequences of which they were directly warned were interrupted medical treatments and ill effects on children.

"A civil servant [in then-Health Secretary Matt] Hancock's private office sent him a WhatsApp message alerting him to a child respiratory virus that was expected to surge in the summer months as a result of the virus being suppressed during lockdown—known in Whitehall as an NPI, or non-pharmaceutical intervention," The Telegraph reports. In fact, cases of the virus, RSV, subsequently soared in 2021 among children shielded from the bug by social distancing orders, trading one infection for another.

In addition, officials were "worried about the Government being sued by the families of those who had died because of the backlog on cancer care and elective treatments."

When the British public became resistant to damaging restrictions on business, gatherings, and movement, Hancock openly embraced plans to "deploy" news of COVID-19 variants to "frighten the pants off everyone" to encourage compliance with lockdown rules. The idea was sufficiently well accepted that officials referred to their efforts as "Project Fear."

Fomenting panic was in keeping with the seat-of-the-pants decision-making driving much pandemic policy. Then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson boasted of making decisions based on "science," but was more driven by polling—and sometimes by what he himself feared was bad data that overstated risks.

Johnson "appeared to express a desire to lift the country out of lockdown earlier than planned, but said his media advisers – Lee Cain and James Slack – warned him that such a move was 'too far ahead of public opinion'," reports The Telegraph. "When Mr Johnson broached the subject of opening schools before the summer, his health secretary argued against doing so, saying that 'everyone's accepted there won't be more on schools until September'."

"The exchanges call into question the prime minister's insistence that lockdown decisions were made on the basis of the best scientific evidence," adds The Telegraph. "They also raise the prospect that Britain spent many weeks living under restrictions that could have been avoided."

What's the English Word for Schadenfreude?

And at least a few officials gained pleasure from the pain they imposed on others, openly applauding harsh enforcement of rules that were open to interpretation.

"Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, said it was 'hilarious' that 149 people had been told to stay in government-approved hotels on their return from Red List countries in 2021," the newspaper summarized. "He also joked about passengers being 'locked up' in 'shoe box' rooms. Those on the receiving end of the quarantine policy at the time said it was like being 'in Guantanamo Bay'."

For his part, Hancock "was an advocate of using the police to crack down on anyone deemed to have broken quarantine or lockdown rules, even though the regulations were often open to interpretation. He expressed satisfaction when the 'plod' were given their 'marching orders'."

No Dissent Allowed

It wouldn't be 2023 if we didn't talk about policymakers compiling enemies lists of lockdown opponents and "threatening to withdraw funding for projects" in the districts of dissident legislators. Or of the media's role in promoting establishment talking points and suppressing dissent.

"What was most alarming was the alacrity with which the broadcast news media fell into line – with boundless enthusiasm – as they were given a key role in the day to day dissemination of government authority," observed The Telegraph's Janet Daly. "As the medium through which the official information was conveyed – with, as we now know, often misleading modelling projections and outdated death figures – they went from being public service news media to what the BBC notably has always insisted it is not: state broadcasters. From disinterested journalism to Pravda in a single bound."

That should sound familiar to Americans who have had a similarly revelatory peek through the Twitter Files and similar leaks into government efforts to suppress inconvenient (to the powerful) viewpoints. We've also seen politicians demonize critical journalists such as Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger.

The correspondence in the "Lockdown Files" was leaked to The Telegraph by journalist Isabel Oakeshott, who was collaborating with Matt Hancock on his memoir and was disturbed by what she saw.

"We were all let down by the response to the pandemic and repeated unnecessary lockdowns," she commented earlier this month. "Children, in particular, paid a terrible price. Anyone who questioned an approach we now know was fatally flawed was utterly vilified; including highly respected and eminent public health experts, doctors and scientists."

We may never know exactly what members of America's own pandemic-exploiting political class were thinking when they turned the screws on people's liberties. But thanks to the Lockdown Files, we can make a good guess.