David Davis: The Covid public inquiry should open in October, be held in two stages – and prepare for the unexpected

26 Mar

David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.

While the dedicated staff of our NHS and public services have managed superbly under extreme pressure, it is clear that mistakes have been made during the Coronavirus crisis.

No, let me rephrase that piece of Blairite prose. We have made mistakes. The whole British ruling class. Government, advisers (scientific and otherwise), Whitehall, the lot. And not just this Government, the previous one, and the ones before that.

So it is essential that lessons are learnt. Not just by this Government, but by future governments as well.

So we must establish a public inquiry on the handling of the pandemic.

Needless to say, the architects of our strategy throughout the crisis are nervous about the implications for them, and unsurprisingly they are saying “Yes, but not yet.” Not before the next election, or not before they retire, or move on to their next job.

Unfortunately, that will not do. The principal aim of the public inquiry is not recrimination about the past, it is preparation for the future. Pandemics come out of an apparently clear blue sky, or seem to. They are a peculiar class of threat, one whose eventual arrival is certain, but whose timing is entirely unpredictable.

The sloppy thinkers in Whitehall tend to imagine that if it is going to happen in the next 20 years, the most likely time is in about ten, so we have time to prepare for the next one. They are wrong. There is an approximately equal chance of a new pandemic in every year. There are “wet-market” style interfaces between wildlife and urban populations in Asia, Africa, and South America, and as the urban populations expand there are new opportunities for zoonotic pathogens jumping species all the time.

As public health services expand, depending too much on antibiotics, the risk of new drug resistant bacteria continues. It is probably only a limited time before we have a really virulent strain of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, for example. We do not know whether the next threat will be bacterial, viral or fungal. We do not know whether it will be transmitted by air, by touch, or in our food. All we know is that there will be another pandemic at some entirely unspecified time in the future.

So we need to get a move on with the inquiry, and start as soon as possible. Of course the inquiry must be thorough, and must thoroughly review what went right and what went wrong in the Government’s handling of the pandemic. The public will expect it, and the Opposition will demand it. But the most important thing is that we learn the lessons and develop the template for the next crisis as soon as possible.

What is different from other inquiries is that there is a vast amount of data to design this rapid template for pandemic management, and most of it comes from abroad. Although we have had a spectacular success with our vaccination programme, and a lesser but important success with the RECOVERY programme (that delivered dexamethasone as a valuable therapy), the majority of the most successful strategies were in other countries, most obviously in East Asia.

There is a vast amount of data to evaluate all the national strategies and operational arrangements. There are reasonably accurate data on mortality, infection, recovery and excess other deaths on a daily basis for virtually every country in the world. Similarly there are accurate economic impact assessments available. Along with the genetic mutation data this allows us to track very accurately how the disease travelled, grew, was suppressed and was treated, and assess the effectiveness of dozens of different preventive and therapeutic approaches.

This argues for a two-stage inquiry. The first stage, which could start in October, should report on what the best template is within one year, giving us the best possible chance of dealing with another pandemic whenever it appears. The second stage can (and will) take years, and should review what we did right and what we did wrong.

While such inquiries are normally run by judges, the first stage of the inquiry might be better led by a leading scientist, possibly a past President of the Royal Society or some similarly recognised intellect. What it should not be is chaired by anybody who was an adviser to the Government in the crisis.

So this week the Health Secretary – Matt Hancock – announced that his Department will be setting out plans for a new UK Health Security Agency. The Agency will plan for, prevent and respond to external health threats, such as pandemics.

This is a welcome development to better protect the UK, our population, and communities from future external health hazards.

However, the Government has chosen Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, to head up the Agency. I am not at all sure that this is wise. This is not a reflection on Harries, who may be brilliant. However the Prime Minister himself accepts that there were a number of missteps in the crisis.

These missteps taken by the Government were often based on questionable advice provided by the very same medical advisers who are now being handed the job of looking at what went wrong.

These public inquiries must be led in an unfettered way by an independent actor who is not consciously or unconsciously committed to the strategies that have failed in the past.

In due course the inquiry will review the errors that have plagued some of our Covid strategy. Before the current Government gets too nervous it should realise that many of the errors are rooted in the past, long before the current Prime Minister came to power, and often before the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government government took over in 2010.

So the advisory arrangements – SAGE et al – date back to the Blair years. They were first activated for the H1N1 swine flu outbreak in 2009. They frankly do not work very well. The idea of dumping all scientific advice into one committee is a bit bizarre, the sort of thing that liberal arts dominated Whitehall might do. It can often become dominated by a single strong character with a speciality that is beyond many of the members, as happened with Neil Ferguson and his poorly constructed and opaque mathematical model at the beginning of the crisis.

Similarly the Whitehall structures that are supposed to cope with crises are pretty poor too. The best demonstrator of this was the Operation Cygnus pandemic preparation exercise that was run a few years ago. This so-called command post-exercise was positively harmful, because it persuaded Whitehall that it was ready for a pandemic when all it rehearsed were the coping mechanisms – how many body bags you need, and should you have a mass mortuary in Hyde Park – rather than what you would actually do to minimise deaths. This is a generic problem, not just applicable to pandemics. Their “worst case” Brexit preparation was pretty poor too.

Some of the deep-rooted problems come a little later. The Public Health England structures were largely a product of the Lansley reforms, and they too were visibly not fit for purpose. It was their poor leadership that meant that we failed to hit the target of 10,000 test a day before the end of March, while Germany comfortably hit 15,000 a day in mid March. That incompetence denied the Government the strategies that worked so well for Germany in the first wave.

Then of course there were many decisions made on the fly during 2020. Obviously many of these were wrong, notwithstanding Matt Hancock’s cheerfully optimistic gloss earlier this week. But the public, and frankly anybody with any sense, knows that any government was making decisions based as much on guesswork as on hard data, and the public are very tolerant of that.

The primary area where an inquiry’s criticism is likely to fall is poor strategic management in, for example, the upper levels of NHS management. While their staff were doing a brilliant job, I am not too sure that the decisions on, for example, the deployment of the Nightingales and the private sector hospitals were entirely sensible.

These are the sort of things that will be unpicked over a few years by the second stage of the inquiry. The data will be complex and sometimes hard to establish, so it will take a significant time to resolve. Since it may be commenting on the decisions of individuals it is right that it takes its time. But that is all the more reason to start soon.

So my message to Boris Johnson is do not fear this inquiry: grasp this nettle soon, get the actionable insights quickly, reform and prepare accordingly, and then allow the commission to take its time doing a detailed inquiry over several years. History will judge you well for doing the right thing on this.

David Davis: We must vote today to bar our spies from inflicting torture and our police from deploying children

27 Jan

David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.

Today, MPs will be asked to vote on a hugely consequential piece of legislation granting the intelligence agencies, police and other government bodies the power to both authorise children as undercover agents, and to allow all agents to commit the most serious of crimes.

If passed in its original form, the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill would continue the practice of children being sent into dangerous situations with minimal safeguards in place. It would also open the prospect of state-sanctioned murder, torture or rape. This is a grave mistake.

I was one of the Ministers who took the Intelligence Services Act through the Commons in 1994. I worked closely with our intelligence services to safeguard Britain from foreign adversaries and terrorist plots, so I know the value of information derived from undercover sources.

I also know that they sometimes need to infiltrate gangs and even commit crime in order to protect us. No-one is suggesting that they should do so with one hand tied behind their backs.

However, adults doing this work is one thing. Children is an entirely different matter.

As it stands, the Code of Practice governing the use of children in these circumstances is not backed by statute, and falls far short of providing adequate protection for the most vulnerable.

The use of child spies can result in children being put in incredibly dangerous positions. It is a morally repugnant policy, with minimal safeguards in place.

It has already been confirmed by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner that these child spies can often themselves be the victims, whether that is because they are part of violent gangs or victims of child sexual abuse.

These are precisely the people we should be helping. When their involvement in crime comes to light, we should be doing everything possible to remove them from that situation, not sending them back into harm’s way.

Not only does the Bill run the risk of putting children in dangerous situations without appropriate safeguards, but it also raises the possibility of 16 and 17-year-olds being authorised by any of dozens of different state agencies to spy on their parents.

These agencies include police forces and the intelligence services, but also extends to the Food Standards Agency and the Gambling Commission. Do we really want to give such arbitrary and unfettered powers to such agencies?

To address these concerns, the House of Lords passed an amendment which drastically improves the Bill. The amendment limits the deployment of child spies to only “exceptional circumstances”, where all other methods to gain the information have failed and only if there is no risk of “any reasonably foreseeable harm”.

This goes someway towards correcting the currently inadequate policy.

However, the use of child spies is not the only area in which the Bill falls down.

It also authorises agents to commit a broad range of crimes. So, if we are to permit the use of child spies in exceptional circumstances, we also need hard limits on the types of crime they – and intelligence sources more generally – can become involved with.

There can never be justification for agents of the British state being authorised to commit murder and torture. Yet that is precisely what this Bill will allow, if left unamended.

Our ‘Five Eyes’ security partners recognise the need for limits: nowadays the US, Australia and Canada all have common-sense limits on what their covert agents can do.

If the CHIS Bill becomes law without these limits, it is almost certain to be challenged in the courts and may eventually be overturned. We have been here before. The last time a security bill was rammed through Parliament in such haste, I took the government to court over the resulting Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act. It was found to be unlawful within a year.

The Government has claimed that if we specify that agents of the state may never be authorised to commit murder or torture, criminal gangs will weed out undercover operatives by challenging them to commit acts of extreme violence to prove they are not working for the state.

This is nonsense. This is a scenario from Reservoir Dogs or 24, not a sound basis on which to pass legislation – a point made well by the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken MacDonald, who encouraged Ministers to “peel their eyes away from The Sopranos and acknowledge that public confidence in official lawbreaking is a fragile thing that requires the reassurance of boundaries.”

We need only look to the example of America’s FBI, which runs thousands of informants within terrorist and mafia groups – all under clear limits on what they allow their operatives to do. Is the Government seriously suggesting that we can’t learn from their example? This is the FBI – not some leftie human rights organisation.

The Intelligence Services Act, which I took through Parliament in 1994, allowed MI6 to commit crimes overseas. At the time, we thought this was a licence for MI6 agents to bribe, burgle, blackmail, and bug, not to kill or to torture.

Nevertheless, within a decade, it was being used to authorise rendition and torture. We must not make the same mistake again.

Only last month, the intelligence watchdog uncovered serious concerns over the very practices the Government is seeking to put into statute. The Investigatory Powers Commissioner uncovered a case in 2019 in which an MI6 agent broke informal “red lines” set by the agency against very serious criminality. But instead of stopping their work with this criminal or telling a Minister, they sought to have him reauthorised regardless.

Again, the Lords have recognised these issues and, earlier this month, peers handed the Government a defeat by voting in favour of an amendment preventing murder, torture or sexual violence from being authorised.

The amendment was backed by a list of peers with deep experience of working with the security services to keep Britain safe, including the former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Lord Anderson, and several former heads of the Home Office, Foreign Office, and Cabinet Office, such as Lord Wilson of Dinton and Lord Jay of Ewelme, as well as the former National Security Adviser Lord Ricketts and the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald.

The breadth of this coalition, and the combined experience it brings to bear, should give the Government pause.

I urge my colleagues in the Commons to support these two common-sense amendments backed by peers which would curtail the use of child spies and establish hard and sensible limits on the crimes agents can be authorised to commit.

Retaining these amendments would ensure that this vital legislation is fit for purpose and not wide open to abuse.

David Davis: Parliament needs more time to scrutinise this Agreement than the single day it has been given

28 Dec

David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.

The deal Boris Johnson brought back from Brussels last week looks pretty good on the face of it. It seems to achieve the aim of regaining control of our laws, borders and money promised by Johnson himself in the Leave campaign. When Parliament votes for it this week – as it will – it will bring to an end the eternal wrangling in British politics over our involvement with the European Union. Even Nigel Farage has declared, “The war is over”.

So why are some of us so determined that Parliament should spend a serious period of time reviewing the 1,200 plus pages of the new UK EU treaty? Johnson himself has said that he believes it will stand up to the “scrutiny of the scholiasts of the Star Chamber.” Of course scholiasts are commentators on ancient and classical texts. But this text is neither ancient, nor classical. It is a complex document that will dictate our future, not our past. Indeed it will determine our relationship with the European Union for the rest of our lives.

There is nothing wrong with giving the Prime Minister the authority to sign the treaty, in the same way that Ursula von der Leyen is given that authority by the European Union. In that case, the document then has to go to the European Parliament in the New Year. If it follows its normal procedure, the parliament’s equivalent of a select committee will provide a report to the Parliament, and MEPs will vote on it in their own time.

That is unlikely to be the end, however. Since it is a complex treaty, it is very likely to involve what is known as “mixed competences”, which mean that national parliaments throughout the 27 will need to vote on it too. We should remember that when the (simpler) Canadian free trade treaty went through this approval process, it was held up by the Walloon Parliament. It would be extraordinary if the Walloon Parliament had months to vote on our future, but the Westminster Parliament were constrained to one day.

But this is not simply a question of Parliamentary amour propre. Complex international treaties often generate incredibly important outcomes that are not always foreseen by one or other parties.

This is particularly true with the European Union. Back in the 1990s, the Swiss people rejected the idea of membership of the European Union, despite the enthusiasm of their own establishment. After that there was a tough negotiation between the Swiss government and the EU, which generated over 20 trade treaties. A few years ago, the Swiss people voted in a referendum to restrict migration into Switzerland, including that coming via the EU. The European Commission saw this as an affront to the free movement of people, and threatened to use previously unnoticed guillotine clauses to stop every single treaty. Unsurprisingly, Switzerland gave in to these ruthless hardball tactics: given its dependency on the EU it had little choice.

We do not want find ourselves in an equally difficult bind over some unforeseeable problem at some point in the future. We hope and intend to have a good and friendly relationship with our European cousins. Indeed, one of the great benefits of a deal is avoiding the acrimony that might have accompanied a No Deal outcome.

But we should not be naïve about it. As their handling of Switzerland demonstrated, and in another context, their management of the Greek crisis, when they think their fundamental principles are at stake the European Union is completely ruthless. So we should act accordingly.

This means that detailed wording matters. Take one example that will almost certainly be a bone of contention in the future – namely, the so-called “level playing field”. This argument centres around a European belief that United Kingdom is, or wants to be, a “wild west” of deregulation, determined to undercut and outcompete our European neighbours.

This is of course in defiance of the facts. It ignores the fact that the current balance of physical trade is so heavily slanted in the continental mainland’s favour, to the tune of a hundred billion euros every year. This is no accident.

So, for example, the UK has amongst the highest industrial electricity costs in the EU, because of our commitment to green objectives. As for the future, the UK is the only country actually to legislate for net zero by 2050. On another front the UK has the highest animal welfare standards in Europe: ask any pig farmer.

But the most easily quantified existing disparity is, ironically, in labour law, particularly on wages. The minimum wage in the United Kingdom ranks alongside nations like Germany and France. But most new industrial competition actually comes, directly or indirectly, from the more recent accession countries in the old Eastern Europe, where minimum wage levels are less than half ours. So for example, when the new Jaguar Land Rover plant was built in Slovenia, it benefited from €125 million of state aid, in a country where labour costs are a fraction of what they are in the UK.

When the arbitration panels rule on “level playing field” issues, will the criteria imply maintaining the current disparities in favour of European industry, or will they imply a real level playing field? Or will they evolve between the two? This matters not just because it may influence any judgement on the deal, but also because it should influence the regulatory strategy that will be followed in the future by government and Parliament. If we do not think this through, we may end up in some treaty-driven checkmate position, as the Swiss did recently.

So how this will work will depend upon the detail of the wording of the treaty. And there will be hundreds, if not thousands of similar issues that can only be understood by close analysis of the text. That will take time, and Parliament must do it.

In headline terms, this new treaty is clearly going in the right direction. The negotiating team under David Frost have undoubtedly done a great job. But Parliament has to understand details because they are what will dictate our whole approach to our regulatory relationship with the EU in the future. The success or failure, and the amity or acrimony of that relationship will colour every other aspect of the way we get along with our continental friends and neighbours in the future. Getting that right will require Parliament and government to understand exactly what we are signing up to, which will take more than one day.

David Davis: We are on course to be trapped in never-ending shutdowns with no exit route. Here is an alternative strategy.

1 Nov

David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.

The first question that Boris Johnson will face when he addresses the House of Commons tomorrow about his lockdown plans is: “what will you do on December 2 if the R number is greater than one”?

The probability, of course, is that it will still be greater than one on that date – and that the lockdown, whilst it may have mitigated the infection, will not have stopped it. And in that circumstance, the shutdown will continue.

That is what we, and many other countries, should have learned from the last general lockdown. The disease only really stopped with the onset of summer, and has restarted with the onset of winter.

When the Prime Minister announced the first lockdown on March 23, he was hoping for it all to be done in four weeks, and in practice it turned out to be four months. This time he is announcing a lockdown at the beginning of winter, and we may well be locked down for six months, until next summer.

Unfortunately, even the scientists admit that the evidence for the effectiveness of general lockdowns is quite weak. The evidence for the economic damage that they do, however, is so strong that it is obvious.

In truth, there is only one strategy that has worked in the other countries faced with this problem. This was a very early and draconian lockdown that brought the disease under control when it still only affected a small proportion of the population – followed by an extremely focused test, track, and isolate policy. At the moment, no element of this policy is fully operational in the UK.

The complete failure of Public Health England to deliver a functional testing system early in the pandemic crippled Tthe Government’s ability to deliver such an outcome. This is compounded by the worst decision in the whole crisis – on March 12, when we gave up our attempt to test all the suspected cases.

To be fair to Matt Hancock, he has driven the system to deliver a large testing capacity today, but that is too late. It is a little like having ten fire engines outside your house after it had burnt down.

What is needed from the testing system today is immediate availability for everybody with symptoms or exposure, and very rapid response so that action can be taken quickly to suppress the outbreak.

The Government is now talking about a 15 minute test, rather belatedly. Tests that deliver a very accurate result in less than an hour have been available in the United States since March. If there is any doubt at all about delivering the rapid test in the UK, the Government should licence existing foreign technology, and set about creating the capacity to deliver that domestically as soon as possible. The South Koreans achieved more in six weeks at the beginning of the crisis than we have in six months, and we should model our delivery policy on that.

The track and trace system is currently hopeless. It will only ever be useful if it delivers results within a few days of someone testing positive. Otherwise, it is too late to check the infection. It is long past time for the Government to read the riot act to the big companies that are making profits out of failure in this area. If they cannot deliver they should be replaced, ideally by a regional structure, which, as the Germans demonstrated, is much more likely to be effective.

Most important of all, however, is the isolate policy. We currently do not have one. Telling people to stay at home if they are ill simply means that they infect their families, and possibly the supermarket assistant when they do their shopping.

And of course, not everybody who is infected obeys even those rules, and the probability is that even more will flout them after a year of Covid fatigue. So self-isolation at home will be even less effective this winter than last.

Every successful strategy to date has properly isolated the infected, and often their closest contacts as well. In Wuhan, the Chinese government created a number of Nightingale-style hospitals, and used them to immediately isolate those who tested positive, and those closest contacts thought most likely to be infected. It worked, as did similar approaches in other East Asian countries.

We need more Nightingales, and we need to use them as the anterooms to the major hospitals, not as the (empty, unused) overspills. In a Nightingale, patients can be monitored properly, and receive treatment rapidly as they need it.

We should do the same with the private hospitals that we have sequestered. We should also have an explicit strategy to separate the conventional patients from the Covid patients – ideally in different hospitals. We should remember that this is an exercise in saving lives, not in hospital capacity management. Losing track of that aim leads to more excess deaths, rather than fewer. I fear that the slogan “Save our NHS” conflates and confuses those aims. It is said that a number of NHS managers were uneasy for exactly that reason.

During the first round of this crisis, there were four categories of unnecessary excess deaths.

First, there were those who were told to stay at home, unless they were very seriously ill. Many of those turned up in hospital too late to save

Second, there were those, mostly the elderly, that were triaged out of intensive care. The NHS denies this, but the numbers show that many elderly died untreated.

Third, tthere were those who were dispatched to care homes before they had recovered, leading to new rounds of infection amongst the most vulnerable.

Fouth, there were those who were displaced from hospital, leading to excess deaths both now and in the future from untreated non-Covid diseases, most obviously cancer. Much of this was avoidable with more focused management and a little bit of foresight.

Finally, when we do get the virus under control, we should rethink our “local” strategy. The successful countries interpret this at a really micro level, in some cases locking down one street or even one block of flats. It is possible to enforce lockdowns at that micro level.

When you lock down the Greater Manchester region, it is near certain that of its millions of residents, thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people will break the rules. Such a strategy maximises economic harm and minimises lives saved. So when we return to local lockdowns, we should make them very local indeed.

Everybody wants to save lives, and ideally at minimum economic cost. A never-ending lockdown, without an explicit infection reduction strategy, and with it a lockdown exit strategy, offers little more than a winter of misery. The Australian and New Zealand governments initially tried a strategy like our current one, and very rapidly decided that the East Asian disease eradication model was a much better option. We should do the same – or this will be a very long winter indeed.

David Davis: My prescription for a Covid Plan B? A strategic dose of vitamin D.

26 Oct

David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.

Remdesivir, the much-touted anti-Covid drug, has failed its tests, and has been shown not to prevent any deaths. Vaccines, touted for September, are now delayed at least until the second half of the winter, will be rationed, and are expected to be only partially effective.

Meanwhile, the various lockdown strategies tried by the government are of variable effectiveness, somewhere between partial and zero in their impact. The Government’s scientific advisers are recommending temporary lockdowns without hard evidence of their effectiveness. Only last week they admitted that the evidence base for the so called non-pharmaceutical strategies are “weak”, but that urgency requires their use.

Lockdowns have enormous economic cost, and have deadly side effects on the general health of the nation. Indeed if the lockdown strategy were a drug, it would have failed to meet the criteria that have now led to the rejection of remdesivir, hydrochlorquine, and countless other more or less promising medicines.

And the trouble with the “temporary” lockdown is that, without a very fast and effective test, track and trace system, backed up by a rapid isolation strategy, the lockdown will go on for months. The harm to lives and livelihoods will be enormous.

So what now? Is there an escape from this nightmare? Is there a game changer available to us that will allow us to create an effective plan B? I believe that there is.

In early May, I wrote to the Health Secretary pointing to two studies showing a strong association between the incidence and severity of Covid-19 with vitamin D deficiencies in the patients.

Vadim Backman, one of the authors of one of those studies, said about healthy levels of vitamin D that “Our analysis shows that it might be as high as cutting the mortality rate in half”.

Now I am a sceptic when it comes to vitamins and supplements. The supplements industry has a few too many salesmen too willing to make bogus or overblown claims for products that have are mostly harmless – but also mostly useless.

But this was a little different. The claims were, and are, coming from highly respected scientists, the vast majority of whom had no commercial interest. And the arguments were scientifically plausible.

Most of us learned in our GCSE science courses that vitamin D was important to calcium uptake for building healthy bones. Deficiency led to rickets and other bone diseases.

But less well known is that since the mid 1980s there have been a series of scientific discoveries that showed that the the role of vitamin D was massively greater than had previously been understood. Every cell in the body had a vitamin D receptor. At sufficient concentrations, the vitamin switches on thousands of genes.

In particular the immune system seemed to be hugely dependent on the availability of the vitamin. It enhances both innate immunity – the original primitive immune system that is the primary defence of young children – and adaptive immunity, the system that creates antibodies to kill pathogens.

Every year that passes sees more and more scientific insight into the role of vitamin D in resisting disease and controlling inflammation. There is hard evidence in particular in the role of vitamin D supplementation in resisting respiratory diseases. It can help suppress colds, influenza and pneumonia, which fact I also highlighted in my letter to Matt Hancock.

When the Secretary of State referred my letter to NICE, the Government’s body that assesses drug effectiveness, they essentially rejected it on the grounds of insufficient evidence. The evidence was, of course, stronger than for there so called “non-pharmaceutical strategies”, but that was not a matter for NICE. And since then, there has been a non-stop stream of supportive evidence.

Before we get to the hard science, there is already a vast amount of circumstantial evidence. Everyone is well aware that the risk of dying from Covid-19 is significantly increased if you are elderly, obese, come from a black or minority ethnic background or have a pre-existing health conditions such as diabetes.

A very large proportion of all those groups are people with Vitamin D deficiency. Of itself, that implies that vitamin D deficiency may be the common cause.

There are clear correlations with latitude and seasonality in the severity of the disease. Basically, the more sunshine, the more vitamin D, the fewer deaths. The exceptions are countries like Spain and Italy, whose cultural traditions (of covering up) lead to very low vitamin D levels, and to higher death rates. The example the other way is the Nordic countries, who are very northerly, but whose diet is either naturally or artificially rich in vitamin D.

So the physiology and biochemistry implies that there is an immunological effect. The evidence all around us implies that there is an effect. But for the scientists we need hard data.

When I wrote to the Health Secretary, I laid out observational studies that had shown a significant reduction in infections, and a dramatic drop in the death rate above a certain blood level of vitamin D.

Since then, the evidence showing that vitamin D might help prevent Covid turning serious in some people continues to grow.

The gold standard of medical research is the randomised control trial. At the start of the pandemic we did not have such evidence, and NICE highlighted this in their June review.

However, since the review, researchers in Spain have published the results of the world’s first randomised control trial on vitamin D and Covid.

The results are startling and clear-cut.

The trial, which took place at the Reina Sofía University Hospital in Cordoba, involved 76 patients suffering from Covid-19. 50 of those patients were given vitamin D. The remaining 26 were not. Half of those not given Vitamin D became so sick that they needed to be put on intensive care. By comparison, only one person who was given Vitamin D requiring ICU admission.

To put it another way, the use of Vitamin D reduced a patient’s risk of needing intensive care 25-fold.

Two patients who did not receive Vitamin D died. None of those on vitamin D died. While the sample size is too small to conclude that Vitamin D abolishes the risk of death in Covid patients, it is nonetheless an astonishing result. Again, it is consistent with earlier studies showing large reductions in mortality.

This is just one element of the growing body of evidence showing a link between Vitamin D and Covid-19 outcomes. Recent analysis by Ben Gurion University suggests supplementation can cut the risk of infection from Covid-19 in half in some of the most at-risk groups. This 1.3 million person study backed up the conclusions of a previous 190,000 person research project in America. The mass of evidence is building and building.

Thankfully, the Government at last appears to be acting on this.

Last week, the Health Secretary confirmed his Department would be looking again at the evidence. He also confirmed that the Government would be increasing the public messaging around Vitamin D supplements. Crucially, he confirmed there are no downsides to taking supplements.

The vitamin D levels in the blood of the British population halve over the winter, which is one reason we catch so many colds then. They started going down in September. So this announcement is long overdue. Nevertheless we still have just enough time to act on this.

Vitamin D is readily available and – at a penny per pill – it is incredibly cheap. Providing supplements to those at risk due to pre-existing conductions, such as diabetes, would cost £45 million: to these, plus to every ethnic minority citizen, about £200 million.

For a little more, we could do what the Nordic countries do, and fortify some basic foods with vitamin D. And for tiny amounts of money, we could repeat the Spanish experiment in every British hospital, elevating vitamin D levels in Covid patients on arrival, cutting down the demand for ICU treatments.

These expenditures are trivial amounts compared to the £12 billion spent on test and trace and the billions being pumped into the NHS to help it through the crisis.

Furthermore, providing supplements for those at most risk would also help reduce other pressures on the NHS through the winter months, as we know Vitamin D can reduce the likelihood and severity of other acute respiratory illnesses, which flare up annually around this time. Imagine the thousands of lives that could be saved even if we just made prescription mandatory for care homes?

If we were really ambitious, we could fortify our food with it. Sweden puts it in milk as a matter of course, as do some of their Nordic neighbours.

In summary, correcting vitamin D deficiency could halve the infection rates in vulnerable groups: in addition it could more than halve the death rate for those who do get infected. At a time when we are considering yet another lockdown, with all the damage that that could cause, this could be a game changer.

Add this to the better techniques in medical handling of serious cases, and the availability of dexamethasone for the most severe. These are already cutting death rates in ICU from about 50 per cent to nearer 30 per cent. Combine it with the better organisation of hospital care which is now underway, and perhaps reinforce that with use of the Nightingales to isolate more infected people (rather than just as overspill capacity).

The pandemic mortality rate, properly managed, would begin to approach the severity of a serious flu outbreak. At that level, we would no longer need the massive economic self harm of national lockdowns. And as that pressure comes off, there may be a chance of the track and trace getting ahead of the disease, and controlling it further with a hyper-localised strategy, similar to the successful German and South Korean ones.

So while the review of the evidence is underway the Government must take the first step towards addressing the issue.

The Government must at very least provide free supplementation to the at-risk groups. This will no doubt save thousands of lives across the winter months and, in Matt Hancock’s own words, supplementation has “no downsides”. The odds of success are seriously better than the government’s existing strategy. Accordingly, the precautionary principle makes this a no-brainer.