Sajid Javid accused world leaders of “herd behaviour” in their response to the coronavirus pandemic and likened them to panicked shoppers who hoarded toilet paper, The Telegraph can reveal.
The new Health Secretary made the comments in a research paper in December 2020 that he produced in his role as a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School.
Mr Javid, who this week ruled out any further extension of Covid restrictions beyond July 19, also spoke of the need for the economic responses to the virus to be “overhauled”.
His comments are likely to add to the optimism of some Conservative MPs that Mr Javid will take a less hardline approach to lockdowns than his predecessor Matt Hancock, who resigned last week.
Governments of democratic industrialised nations demonstrated “herd behaviour” by allowing the existing policies of other countries to dictate their virus response, the former Chancellor argued.
“Many factors that took place during Covid provided heightened conditions for herd behaviour … crisis, fear, volatility and uncertainty all increase [its] likelihood,” Mr Javid wrote.
“Or the interaction between global leaders’ identity grouping and decision making, as the fact that other types of herd behaviour were observed in most populations – e.g. hoarding of toilet paper – and the market (massive volatility).
“If indeed herd behaviour took place, it would be important to consider how this behavior can negatively impact equilibria, for example giving ‘first movers’ outsized influence in a final equilibrium.”
Eastern countries have responded better than West
Mr Javid’s research concludes that “behavioural differences in human contact” explain why South Korea and Taiwan’s rates of infection have been significantly lower than those in Western countries.
He cited mask-wearing, “obesity differences in East versus West” and the contrast between bowing and hugging as factors that account for the higher levels of cases, hospitalisations and deaths in the UK and Spain.
On Britain’s multiple lockdowns, he wrote: “The magnitude of the impact of Covid-19 is due in part to the economic and social pain that various forms of lockdown have caused.
“It is already clear that although the governments of developed countries had pre-existing, detailed plans to respond to a pandemic, few have managed this particular crisis well. The way we prepare for public health shocks of this nature will need to be overhauled.”
Profile | Sajid Javid
An aversion to trade-offs – including weighing up the needs of the economy against the health of the population – was among the “dangerous” biases shown by politicians during a crisis, he added.
Other trade-offs identified in the research include health versus privacy, health versus property rights and “optimism bias versus risk averseness”.
Mr Javid said the about-turns that had characterised much of the UK Government’s response to the virus were an “essential feature of good policy making” in light of new and changeable information, but added politicians must do more to defend U-turns’ “healthy role within democracies”.
Taking to the Despatch Box on Monday, he told MPs that no date of restrictions was risk-free and that Britons must learn to live with the virus.
“Make no mistake, the restrictions on our freedoms must come to an end,” he said. “We owe it to the British people not to wait a moment longer than we need to.”
Mr Javid’s appointment to his new role has cheered lockdown sceptics on the Tory back benches. He was the most high-profile Conservative politician to call for a reopening of the economy in May 2020.
Sajid Javid Health Secretary poll
The following month, Mr Javid authored a separate report for the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank which offered 63 different recommendations about restoring economic growth.
He used his introduction to the research paper to insist that the focus of the ministers “must shift from safeguarding the economy to rebuilding it”.
Proposals included significant temporary cuts to employer’s National Insurance, major planning law reform and fast-tracking plans for infrastructure projects.