Pressure is mounting to enforce the lockdown-equivalent of super-gluing every citizen in the land to their living room sofa to prevent us all from dying of COVID-19. One has to question the morality of blanket, state-enforced lockdowns.
Holding the Contrary View
One of the drawbacks of being a lockdown sceptic – I’m one of them – is that some people assume we’re heartless, selfish, right-wing nutjobs. It’s further assumed that our preferred strategy for responding to COVID-19 is to let the virus rip through society and then – to mix metaphors – leave every man for himself; let Darwin’s rules prevail; let the Devil take the hindmost; let herd immunity save us all because I’m alright Jack and, above all else, we need to get back to work and earn loadsamoney. Sort of thing. I’ve friends of mine whom I suspect might allocate this stereotype to me.
Interestingly, one of my buddies said recently that my contrary views about the Government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis reflected my ‘political prejudice’. It was an interesting observation because, the last time I looked, politicians of every hue were doing the same thing: locking down societies. The Tories are doing it; the Democratic Unionists (Northern Ireland) are doing it; Labour is screaming for it; the Scottish Nationalists are doing it; Welsh Labour are doing it. Everybody’s doing it; certainly politicians of the western world are doing it. They’re all telling us that locking down society is the one and only way to protect the population from the ravages of COVID-19.
That said, some nations which didn’t pursue a national lockdown strategy are doing alright, thank you: I’m looking, for example, at Sweden and at East Asian democracies like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. No state-enforced lockdowns in those countries and no COVID-19 apocalypses either. Shurely shum mishtake?
Just to be clear, and despite what some people who know me might think, I’m neither on the left nor the right of politics, nor am I a nationalist. I’m not a green, nor a social-democrat, nor am I a liberal-democrat. Rather, I’m content to be a democrat (ie someone who believes in democracy and freedom of speech), a patriot and a libertarian. When I vote, I vote for the political party which I think best matches my own views about what makes for a good life, or I vote for ‘none of the above’.
As far as COVID-19 is concerned, I’m in a distinct minority of society. I’m within a cohort – the Lockdown Sceptics – largely vilified by the world and his wife. In the UK I’m in the same company as former Supreme Court judge and neo-liberal, Lord Jonathan Sumption, social commentator Toby Young (The Free Speech Union), Conservative-loathing Peter Hitchens (journalist and author), Parliament’s Covid Recovery Group, erstwhile Trotskyist Brendan O’Neill and the spikedonline team, The Great Barrington Declarators, Nigel Farage (leader of the Reform Party UK), The Conservative Woman and other such mavericks and reviled individuals and organisations.
If there’s a common theme at all across that motley crew, it’s probably libertarianism – which I suppose you could label ‘political prejudice’, but that’s just a neat way of curtailing freedom of speech. The argument goes like this: ‘Your views, Moraymint, as a lockdown sceptic don’t really count because I’ve made some assumptions about your political leaning, so you’re prejudiced’. Not surprisingly, I don’t subscribe to that attitude to public discourse. We’re all prejudiced one way or another. If you believe in freedom of speech then you have to at least listen to, and take account of the views of those of us opposed to the blanket locking down of society as being, allegedly, the one and only way to counter the threat to life posed by COVID-19.
The Problem With Lockdown
The fundamental problem with locking down society to prevent – at any and all costs, evidently – the COVID-19 deaths of certain members of society, is the moral imbalance created by the policy of draconian lockdown. That’s the essence of lockdown scepticism. It’s not to argue for the opposite of lockdown as such, ie for a hands-off, laissez-faire approach to virus control. Rather, lockdown scepticism poses the question, ‘Is there not a morally and scientifically acceptable alternative to lockdown?’.
The rationale for this question is to look at the moral scales; to look at the balance of morality across society in the fight against COVID-19. There are costs and benefits associated with lockdown. We’re told that the benefits of lockdown are ‘protecting the NHS’ and ‘saving lives’. Furthermore, we’re told that there’s no morally acceptable alternative to lockdown. Either the whole of society pays the preventative price for mitigating the threat to life posed by COVID-19, or you’re a heartless bastard, or indeed you’re a criminal. No ifs, no buts. In the space of less than one year, our society has shifted from being open and free to being closed and policed. Just like that.
Let’s look at the principal supposed benefit of lockdown, namely ‘saving lives’. Whose lives are being saved, and why are their lives more precious than others in society? According to the World Health Organisation, COVID-19 is a disease of the elderly and especially the elderly-unwell: it kills ‘older people, and in particular those with underlying medical problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer …’.
Here are the outcomes of some recent research in the UK into how people perceive the COVID-19 threat, published in the Financial Times on 20 November 2020. The median Brit thinks that the average age of death from COVID-19 is 65 years-old; in fact, it’s 82 years-old. Incidentally, the average age of death from all causes in the UK is 81 years-old. The average Brit thinks that COVID-19 has killed 1% of the population; some think as much as 7% of the population has been killed by COVID-19; my fellow Scots think 10% of the population has died of COVID-19 (nice one First Minister Nicola Sturgeon). The truth is that, on the date of this post, about one-tenth of 1% of the UK population has died of COVID-19.
According to the British Medical Journal the only children who have died of COVID-19 had ‘profound’ underlying health conditions. On the other hand, every year in the UK, about a dozen otherwise healthy children die of influenza. Professor David Spiegelhalter, Chair of Cambridge University’s Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication has calculated that, right now, the chance of you or me dying of COVID-19 if we catch it is roughly the same as our risk of dying over the next 12 months anyway.
Neither politicians nor the mainstream media, particularly TV news channels, will highlight these sorts of facts to you in the way that I’ve done here. They don’t fit the message.
The point is that the Government has put the fear of God into the population – which is an extremely useful tool for hammering lockdown into society. The problem is that the growing costs to society of an indefinite, blanket lockdown are potentially cataclysmic. However, those costs are deemed to be acceptable to the Government and to the wider political class, and acceptable to the profession of journalism too as it happens. With a few notable exceptions, journalists don’t question rigorously the merits of lockdown which, for me, has been one of the many extraordinary consequences of the coronavirus hysteria. Apart from anything else, one has to question the scientific literacy of the political and journalistic classes in this strange episode of British history.
NB It’s worth remembering that throughout this pandemic, government ministers, the political class at large, public sector employees generally (all 5 million of them) and journalists far and wide have all been paid 100% of their wages, 100% of the time. Nice work if you can get it.
The Costs of Lockdown
So, what are the costs of assuming national lockdown to be the one and only mechanism for countering the public health threat posed by COVID-19? Well, a huge swathe of non-COVID-19 illnesses in people of all ages are not now being treated by the National Health Service (NHS), squeezed out by the public health prioritisation of COVID-19; people are dying unnecessarily as a result; acceptable cost. Mental health throughout society is declining rapidly; acceptable cost. Home alcohol consumption is growing rapidly; acceptable cost. Incidents of domestic abuse and child abuse are climbing rapidly (possibly related to the previous trend); acceptable cost. The economy has been cratered into its worst condition in 300 years – some economists are now saying the worst condition in the whole of UK peacetime history; acceptable cost. The national debt, rising daily, now exceeds the country’s total economic output; acceptable cost. At least a quarter of a million small businesses face annihilation (according to the Federation of Small Businesses); acceptable cost. Industry and cultural sectors like hospitality, travel and the arts are disintegrating before our very eyes, in many cases never to recover; acceptable cost. Unemployment could rise from fewer than 2 million today to as many as 6 million people; acceptable cost. Scarring and permanent damage to the economy are inevitable; acceptable cost. The education system is in tatters and children’s life chances jeopardised; acceptable cost. The justice system is facing a backlog of tens of thousands of cases and years of delay in justice being served; acceptable cost. The workings of Parliament and, therefore, the functioning of democracy itself are on hold indefinitely; acceptable cost. Civil liberties have been trashed, creating a list as long as your arm which I shan’t record here, but with which you’re familiar; acceptable cost.
You have to accept that if you’re a lockdown lover, rather than a lockdown sceptic, that list above, taken together, represents an acceptable price to be paid for protecting some of our fellow citizens from dying of COVID-19. On the other hand, we lockdown sceptics question the morality of all this.
Alternatives to Lockdown
The question is why does our COVID-19 strategy not focus on protecting the most threatened in society, the elderly and elderly-unwell, whilst allowing the rest of society to be relieved of those truly staggering costs I’ve listed above? Costs which will play out over a generation and more with as yet unforeseeable, but almost certainly grim consequences. What is the moral justification for skewering our whole way of life – because that’s what governments and politicians are doing now, without any sign of an end to it all – to protect the health and wellbeing of a segment of society? Don’t assume that a vaccine will be the COVID-19 panacea.
This isn’t heartless fascism. It’s a genuine challenge to the moral equation being calculated by those who govern us. What is the moral justification for ruining tens, if not hundreds of thousands of lives, potentially several million lives in one section of society to save lives in another, dare I say, smaller section of society? Knowing what we know now about the lethality of COVID-19, why can we not distinguish between those who are most threatened by the virus, and those less so? Why can we not organise society’s response so as to protect those most vulnerable to COVID-19 in a way which also protects the health and wellbeing of those least vulnerable to COVID-19? What is the moral case for total lockdown?
There is No Alternative to Lockdown
The answer, we’re told, is that there is no alternative to wholesale societal lockdown; it’s the right thing to do. It’s not possible to isolate and shield those most vulnerable to COVID-19 and, therefore, we must accept the destruction of the economy, potentially allowing many thousands of our fellow citizens to die unnecessarily of non-COVID diseases, creating dystopia, trashing civil liberties and embedding damage to our way of life which will be with us for decades into the future. That’s what we’re told to believe and accept. It’s lockdown and all its collateral damage, or we all risk dying of COVID-19 – according to our scientifically-illiterate political masters who are, after all, only ‘following the science’.
What’s the Answer?
Look, I don’t have any smart answer to this crisis any more than you do. One has to ask, however, how did countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan avoid the decimation of their societies without blanket, state-enforced lockdowns. The same question applies to Sweden which chose not to go down the state-enforced lockdown route, but whose COVID-19 death rate per million is 23% lower than the UK’s.
The Great Barrington Declaration argues for selective protection of the vulnerable whilst allowing the rest of society to get on with their lives as best they can. It’s not a perfect alternative, there’s no such thing; people would still die of COVID-19 and other causes; the economy would suffer; behaviours would change or have to change; some civil liberties would be curtailed etc. However, I come back to the fundamental point made by lockdown sceptics like me: what is the moral justification for imposing such staggering health, economic, social and cultural damage across the whole of society, inching the nation towards the next best thing to a police state in response to a disease which – even now – is killing primarily the elderly and the elderly-unwell with an average age of 82 years?
No Way José
I accept that some of you reading this will not be in the least persuaded by my argument for challenging the morality of the lockdown strategy. You’ll tell me that one death from COVID-19 is one death too many regardless of the victim’s age or any other personal circumstances. Full-stop. We’re told that lockdown tempers the virus’s transmissibility and, therefore, lockdown is the right and proper response. If lockdown skewers our way of life today and wrecks the life chances of the next generation, that’s just too bad; it’s a price worth paying for the lives of your grandma and mine.
Yes, of course, people in other age groups are dying of COVID-19. However, I keep coming back to the fundamental point: who’s doing the moral maths here and concluding that to protect one-tenth of 1% of the population from death-by-COVID-19, society at large must pay an extraordinary price in health, economic and social terms for decades to come?
The National Health Service
Here perhaps is a surprising admission from a lockdown sceptic: the NHS is failing to cope with the impact of COVID-19. Aha, therefore, you say, it’s wrong for people like me to push back against a national lockdown strategy because without lockdown the NHS would surely collapse. Hence the Government’s COVID-19 mantra to justify lockdown: ‘protect the NHS’ and ‘save lives’. We looked at the ‘save lives’ exhortation above, but what about protecting the NHS?
It’s beyond the scope of this post to analyse how the NHS has performed in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the situation raises a few glaring observations and questions in my mind. How is it that an institution which chews its way through the thick-end of £225 billion per year of taxpayers’ money, employing 1.3 million people can be stretched to the point of collapse in the face of a 10% – 15% increase in demand for its services? I can’t think of many other organisations, if any, which would collapse in the face of such a change in demand for its services. After all, the NHS has had at least 9 months – and some would argue years and decades – to prepare for the prospect of a surge in demand for its services, to prepare for a pandemic. If not, what has the NHS been doing all this time? Perhaps the more acute question is what have our politicians and NHS managers been doing all this time? What have successive British governments and NHS management been doing since, say, the 1957 and 1968 influenza pandemics to prepare the NHS for an inevitability like COVID-19? The answer to this question and many more will have to be addressed in the post-COVID-19 Royal Commission.
Here’s another question. Why, in March 2020, did the NHS not immediately mobilise the thousands if not tens of thousands of recently-retired medical professionals (like my doctor-wife, for example) in response to COVID-19 and put the service on to a war footing, so to speak? My wife, Dr Moraymint (not her real name) did indeed volunteer to be re-registered as a medical practitioner. She was bombarded with bureaucracy and lost the will to live filling in endless forms which bore little or no relation to her apparently desperately-needed medical skills. Despite the NHS being in a state of collapse (is it really?), Dr Moraymint has heard nothing/nada/zilch/diddley-squat from the service about being deployed into action since her form-filling bonanza.
I’ll draw a line under this section of the post because I could write a stand-alone essay on the subject. The point is, I would wager that if the NHS got its act together, swept away the bureaucracy and mobilised its vast number of recently-retired medical professionals across the UK, the institution could make a significant dent in the COVID-19 surge in demand for its services. Meantime, we’re now putting British society under house arrest to protect the health of an institution established to protect the health of British society. You couldn’t make it up.
Following the Science
The irony of listening to our politicians banging on about ‘following the science’ is that the essence of the scientific method is scepticism. However, statistically, you’re more likely to be in favour of a blanket, state-enforced lockdown than you are to be a lockdown sceptic like me. Polls show that some 70% of the British population supports lockdown. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given that there’s no balance to the public debate in politics and in the media about the whys and wherefores, the rights and wrongs of Government COVID-19 policy. Anybody who does question the morality of Government lockdown policy either isn’t heard at all, or is vilified by politicians and others in the press – which itself leaps on to the vilification bandwagon; it’s a self-serving witch hunt. If you’re a lockdown sceptic you’re a voice in the wilderness and/or you’re a heartless, selfish, right-wing nutjob – which was my opening gambit. I can’t get too worked up about other countries’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in the UK, I think that in the fullness of time we’ll discover that all 4 national governments’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic will turn out to have been a moral disaster. I hope I’m wrong.
Finally, Lord Sumption is far more eloquent than me at conveying the libertarian discomfort with wholesale, state-enforced lockdown …
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