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The UK’s seniormost public official attended a massive horse racing festival in mid-March that experts have linked to an increased spread of the coronavirus, BuzzFeed News has learned.
Sir Mark Sedwill, the powerful cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, was one of 250,000 spectators at the four-day Cheltenham Festival. The festival ran from March 10 to March 13 — the week that many of the world’s largest sports screeched to a halt, with the NBA suspending its season, the NCAA canceling March Madness, and many European soccer leagues canceling matches.
A new analysis released this week suggests that the British government’s decision to allow the Cheltenham Festival to go forward “caused increased suffering and death.”
Sedwill oversees the UK’s 400,000 civil servants — permanent government employees who hold no political position — and is the country’s most influential unelected official. As cabinet secretary and Boris Johnson’s national security adviser, Sedwill would have been intimately involved in discussions over whether and how to introduce lockdown restrictions.
Asked about Sedwill’s attendance at the Cheltenham Festival, a government spokesperson said that its approach to mass gatherings “has been guided by the latest science, taking the right decisions at the right time.” The spokesperson added that the “decision to go ahead with the festival was taken by the racecourse, operating within clear public health guidance at the time.” The Cabinet Office declined to say whether Sedwill paid for his tickets, or whether he received them as a gift.
The revelation comes in the midst of a firestorm over alleged lockdown breaches by another influential figure, Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s top aide, who drove 260 miles from his home in London to stay on his parents’ property when restrictions were at their tightest.
There were no lockdown restrictions in place when Sedwill attended the Cheltenham Festival. But many mass gatherings were being canceled around the world while Cheltenham continued to operate. On March 11 — the same day the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, and President Donald Trump announced sweeping new travel restrictions — an NBA game in Oklahoma City was abandoned right before tipoff after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus.
The BBC reported this week that scientists working on the UK’s largest COVID-19 tracking project found coronavirus “hot spots” that arose shortly after the festival, as well as a Champions League soccer match between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid on March 11, which also was not canceled or played behind closed doors.
Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology at Kings College in London, told the BBC local rates of cases “increased several-fold” after the two events. “People will have probably died prematurely,” Spector said. According to the BBC, the scientists gathered data from millions of volunteers. It shows that in the last week of March, Liverpool and Cheltenham were among the areas with the highest number of suspected coronavirus cases in England.
The analysis chimes with other studies elsewhere, which have similarly found that mass events acted as “superspreaders” of the virus.
Multiple news reports have spotlighted Cheltenham racegoers who suffered from COVID-19 symptoms in the weeks following the event. Health officials have since called for an inquiry into whether the four-day festival should have gone ahead.
As the festival kicked off on March 10, the government said there was “no reason for people not to attend such events or to cancel them at this stage.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a daily press briefing the UK was following “scientific advice” and said that “banning such events will have little effect on the spread.”
By March 14, the day after the races, the government had started briefing UK media outlets that it was planning to halt large gatherings from the following week. Britain eventually went into lockdown on March 23.
By that date, many other countries in Europe — including Austria, Italy, Spain, Greece, Denmark, much of Germany, and France — had already introduced stringent measures. California ordered people to stay at home on March 19; New York did the same on March 22.
On the day the festival ended, the UK had officially recorded 10 coronavirus deaths. The UK’s death toll is now approaching 38,000 and is one of the highest in Europe.
The UK government has repeatedly claimed that its decision to go into lockdown later than other European countries was about following the science.
But the government’s scientific advisory group had already reached a consensus by March 2 that it was “highly likely” that there was already a sustained transmission of COVID-19 in the UK, according to a document later published by the group. The same document also notes that while individual measures such as closing schools or strict social distancing were unlikely to contain an outbreak on their own, deploying these measures in tandem would likely have “a greater impact.”
The Sunday Times reported this weekend that the government was warned in early March by its two main modeling teams that without a tougher approach, about 250,000 people could die. But it took the government three weeks to act on those warnings, according to the newspaper. And even once the projections were accepted in mid-March, the government lost another nine days to deliberations over how and when a lockdown should be introduced.
A scientific adviser to the government confirmed the central claims of the Sunday Times account to BuzzFeed News. The adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, said those projections were made in two separate papers. Those documents have not been made public, but their existence has been listed in this spreadsheet of document titles published by the government’s scientific advisory group. The adviser said the early figures and other similar estimates had also been directly shared with the National Health Service.
“It took 2–3 weeks for the UK government to be persuaded that there was no ‘controlled epidemic’ scenario which would lead to anything other than hundreds of thousands of deaths and the NHS falling over,” the adviser told BuzzFeed News.
The British broadcaster ITV revealed last month that Sedwill had the coronavirus at about the same time as the prime minister, who tested positive in late March. The government later confirmed that Sedwill developed symptoms around April 2–3. It is not known when or where he caught the virus, though the festival was held more than two weeks before those dates.