The Oakeshott WhatsApp leaks – beyond black and white

For a few weeks in 2009, when I worked for DFID and it looked as if the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic might be of a similar scale to what we’ve seen with Covid-19, I attended official-level cross-Whitehall coordination meetings.

The meetings were huge, drawing on civil servants from across Whitehall, often multiple people from one department, all with different areas of expertise.

They were huge because of the sheer complexity of the issue, covering public health, economics, international coordination, emergency response, public communications, and many, many other things. As a mid-ranking civil servant, I was a tiny cog in a very big wheel.

Looking back, I've forgotten much of the detail. But what I do remember clearly is that never before had I come across a policy question so challenging in its sheer complexity. And never did I again.

I've very rarely tweeted about Covid-19, because I am absolutely unqualified to say anything that would add to the debate. And because I still remember the complexity of those H1N1 discussions.

That's why, however disgusted you are at the behaviour of some ministers back in 2020, you need to have your eyes open to what Isabel Oakeshott is trying to do.

She is trying to reduce an immensely complex issue into a black and white one, in a way which is as emotive as possible. Her Twitter message is “people suffered, ergo lockdown is bad”. It depends on not setting the context or the trade-offs around horrible policy dilemmas.

There may be some public good, as she argues, in some of the revelations in those WhatsApp messages. But there is no public good in the way in which she is trying to shape debate.

And whatever happens, I pray that, if and when the next pandemic hits, we don't have people who think like her in charge of our collective wellbeing. I for one wouldn't feel safe.

Never trust anyone who pretends that complex issues are simple ones. Especially where our collective health, wellbeing and security are at stake.