Was lockdown a terrible mistake?

The Prime Minister panicked. And it may all have been for nothing.

It is seemingly imperative to start such a potentially controversial post by pointing out some things that I would hope might be obvious and therefore unnecessary to spell out, but these are not the times in which we live and so these first few paragraphs are purely an attempt at self-preservation from the flak I expect to receive. I called by blog ‘Off the Party Line’ for a reason, not because (despite some criticism) I am deliberately contrarian, but because sometimes the popular view is not altogether correct and therefore needs pointing out calmly and concisely. I should also point out that my world, my bubble, my circle is predominantly left wing, Northern, Labour voting, Remainy and middle class – places where the ‘party line’ can be firmly enforced when not appropriately toed. And whilst I am some of those things, I am not all. This can be uncomfortable at times, nevertheless it is important not to follow the herd when it heads for a cliff.

The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is serious. I don’t doubt it for a moment. It spreads, it infects, it sometimes kills. These are facts that are not lost on me, nor are they facts that I take lightly. It got round our highly connected, globalised world quickly, taking advantage of modern miracles such as air transport and fast moving supply chains to insert itself into most countries on the planet.

However, it remains to be seen just how serious, how infectious and how deadly it is. Not only does it remain to be seen, but it was flagged early on by voices subsequently drowned out that we were liable to overreact and take measures that would be disproportionate to the threat we faced. We might become the elephant so scared of being scratched by a cat, that we jump off a cliff to save ourselves.

I will add my last note of mitigation here; that is to say that I do not take death or disease lightly. I believe every death, whether a child, a parent, a 40 year old, a grandparent, a 100 year old or an unborn baby, is tragic and is to be mourned. I hope this is enough to persuade you that what I come on to say is not cavalier or heartless. If you feel that you won’t be able to hear those kinds of arguments, it may be best for you to stop reading at this point, though I sincerely hope that having got this far, you’ll hear me out.

Let’s start with this now ubiquitous (but erroneous) term, ‘The Science’. The capitalisation is mine as it seems to me that it is being held way above its station, and is beginning to sound like something you might read in a dystopian novel. No, that does not make me a ‘Science denier’, it means that the assumptions being made about what constitutes ‘The Science’ are wholly unsatisfactory and in clear contravention of what those who engage in such work would ever profess to be doing – i.e. providing certainty and fool proof answers.

In terms of epidemiology, this is even more important to understand. Early on in this pandemic, government ministers now privately admit that they believed ‘The Science’ was more certain than it actually was. As James Forsyth reported, “they had not realised quickly enough that epidemiology was a lot more like economics than physics: lots of variables, lots of assumptions and no one right answer”.

One minister said, “we talk about following ‘the science’ as if there’s one opinion and not at least seven.”

This is vitally important to understand. Scientists disagree with one another. That’s what peer review is for, that’s why there are papers and counter papers. And in this instance, you’d better believe there is severe disagreement. For every Chris Whitty, there is an Anders Tegnell. For every Neil Ferguson (more on him later), there’s a Sucharit Bhakdi. Dr Bhakdi is an infectious medicine specialist and one of the most highly cited medical research scientists in Germany – i.e. he knows what he’s talking about. He describes the current fear over Covid-19 as ‘nothing but a spook‘. Is he right? Well I’m not an expert – but he is. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do – listen to experts?

This should tell us that there really isn’t any such thing as ‘The Science’, and the quicker we understand that, the better.

Which brings us to our other eminent expert, Dr. Neil Ferguson. Dr. Ferguson is the man who is essentially the architect of much of the lockdown panic that has engulfed the world. His models, suggesting 500,000 deaths in the UK alone, have set the basis for terrified governments to enact some of the most extreme and unprecedented peacetime attacks upon the civil liberties of their citizens. In his recent address to the nation, the Prime Minister Alexander Johnson repeated this half a million deaths claim.

But this is incredibly specious. Reports in the last couple of days have made some pretty damning assessments of the modelling used by Dr. Ferguson, modelling that is 12-13 years old and was designed to model influenza outbreaks. According to leading figures, his code was “totally unreliable” and “something you wouldn’t stake your life on”.

David Richards, a tech entrepreneur said it was “a buggy mess that looks more like a bowl of angel hair pasta than a finely tuned piece of programming…in our commercial reality, we would fire anyone for developing code like this and any business that relied on it to produce software for sale would likely go bust.” And this is the model we’re using to hibernate the world economy?

The noises starting to emanate from government is that the lockdown will have avoided this catastrophic loss of life. But the evidence for this is extremely slim. It falls rather bluntly into post hoc ergo procter hoc territory and, in the first place, assumed a scenario where the government would do absolutely nothing; hardly a likely scenario, and certainly not one that should be used for spreading panicked headlines.

We need to understand the politics of these numbers as well. Consider the scenario where 500,000 deaths are predicted and there end up being 30,000. Bad, but not anywhere near what we feared, so that’s good. Well what if they’d predicted 25,000 deaths and there were 30,000? How awful – why did you get it so wrong? The incentive is to wildly overestimate and look like you did something, rather than try to be accurate and get it wrong. This is no way to make good policy.

There probably isn’t much need to go into Dr Ferguson breaching the lockdown he helped to create, as that’s been covered extensively anyway. Suffice to say, he can’t believe in it that much if he then flouts the rules as soon as he feels the rush of adulterous desire.

The new shift in the goalposts is now around the so called ‘R’ number. Yet another nail in the coffin of ‘The Science’ is that experts disagree on the effectiveness of this tool as well, despite it now being the tool that Al Johnson wants to use to monitor lockdown conditions.

We have never actually been told what the ‘R’ number is, and this may be something to do with the fact that nobody really knows. In her press conference, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries sounded almost embarrassed at the use of this tool. Maybe because experts can’t agree – she said “the rate is derived from a different number of modelers. And each modeler will put in, each modeling group will put in slightly different data, it will process it in a different way; and they’re all compared to see, to come out with a broad consensus.”

She also explained that it would differ based on the setting: “(There) are predominately three different R values: we have community, which will be most people in their homes, and that’s where the ONS data is coming from, that’s households; we have care homes which have had high rates, they’re starting to come down; and we’ve had hospitals as well. So it’s quite difficult.”

As Kate Andrews points out, Dr Harries looked like she was mocking the use of this number. “We’ve got a number of different R rates. It’s a bit like saying everybody in one area has the same sort of house cause the average one looks like this.”

With such disagreement amongst even our own experts, never mind internationally, how are we supposed to know what to think? And is this really justified to lockdown entire nations when we really have no idea how effective that will be? Sweden seems to be doing no different to nations that have enforced strict conditions – why is that?

What will the effect be on our children? Studies being undertaken are finding little to no evidence of children spreading the disease, yet they’re locked up in the same way as everyone else and can’t go to school. My 2 year old son is desperate to see his friends, will have a lonely birthday when he thinks he’s having a party, and my youngest probably won’t even recognise anyone when we eventually get out. How can we know the full effects of this panic on our youngest members of society? I believe we will look back in shame at what we did to them.

The insane, nasty argument of accusing those of us who are questioning the government approach of putting ‘lives vs money’ when discussing the effects on the world economy  needs to stop. We are all arguing in good faith here, and these sorts of comebacks are unnecessary and unfair. And I don’t even do social media anymore, I only see it in the papers and on TV, I can’t imagine the howls of rage on the cesspits of the internet.

But this must be taken seriously. You think 10 years of Cameron/Osborne austerity was bad? You think daily headlines in the Guardian about the effects of austerity on the poor, the disabled, the BAME, the women were hard enough to stomach? Well wait for what’s coming. We’ve already spent the money ‘saved’ by austerity over those 10 years many times over. Johnson has promised that there will be no return to austerity, but do you trust him?

Haughty proclamations along the lines of ‘lives are more important than money, if we can save even one life it will be worth it, how can we even be thinking about the economy when people are dying?’ are, I’m afraid to say, dangerous and reckless. They’re incredibly easy to say (probably worth at least 50 likes on facebook, I’d say), but do not see the tsunami that follows. As this study from the IFS shows, ‘economic downturns have an impact on health as well as wealth’. It points to research showing a 1% drop in employment leads to a 2% increase in chronic conditions – what do you think might happen when we hit 5%? 10%? 15%? Are those lives worth saving, or are they too far in the future to care about right now?

If you’re of the mind that you wouldn’t be able to live with yourself if people close to you died because of lockdowns being lifted, then I would simply ask – can you live with the unintended consequences, the indirect loss of life, that could be far, far greater? How about some of these statistics:

  • A&E attendance has halved – so half the number of people who thought themselves sick enough to be checked out by an emergency medical professional are staying at home. Do you really think all of those people will have survived?
  • A leaked email from 31st March showed that children who would have survived, ended up dead.
    • “In one case, a mother reported that she was waiting to be spoken to on NHS 111 for more than 60 minutes while her child “arrested” – medical terminology for the heart or breathing stopping. The child subsequently died.In another case referred to in the email, a mother says she was told the ambulance service was too busy whilst her child was “semi conscious and vomiting”.And another set of parents were reported not to have taken their unwell child to hospital for five days as they believed there was “risk in hospitals of Covid-19″. The child also died.”
  • 2,700 fewer people every week are being diagnosed with cancer – do you think that there are just 2,700 fewer people a week getting cancer, or are these people just going to have it and then die because they couldn’t get medical care?
  • Given that mental health is something that people now talk about a lot, how about this one – only three weeks in (so over a month ago), “The research, conducted by King’s College London and pollsters Ipsos Mori, finds 15% of the population already say they are finding the restrictions very challenging and another 14% expect they will be unable to cope within the next month.” What do you think some of these people might do?
  • How many more people are killing themselves? How many more women are being beaten? These are horrible stats, but have to be considered as part of the ‘all lives matter’ conversation.

It’s also helpful to realign ourselves with what we normally consider a perfectly fine risk/reward ratio and what are normal deaths. As I said to my wife early on in this lockdown, imagine if (like we have now), every day, we had the BBC and the newspapers flashing the number of people who died the previous day at us. It would obviously be alarming. But we don’t have that, so we put it out of our minds. This is not to say that more people are now dying, but the numbers don’t seem to me to add up to anything like a proportionate increase that would require a complete lockdown.

Every year, around 1,800 people die in road casualties. Old people. Middle aged people. Children. Babies. Pregnant women. Dead. From being crushed and smashed by road vehicles.

Why is our response to these shocking figures not to ban cars, vans and trucks? Why do we accept these deaths? Because our risk/reward ratio tells us it is worth it for the freedom and the economy it gives us. So where is the cry of ‘every life should be protected at all costs’ when it comes to this? If you believe cars should not be banned, then are you saying you don’t care about leaving children orphaned and people permanently disabled? And how on earth, if you couldn’t live with yourself for passing on Covid-19 to a vulnerable person, could you possibly ever again get behind the wheel of over a tonne of steel, glass and rubber, fire it up with fume-producing explosive fuel and drive it around where you might kill a stranger, not to mention the child in your back seat or the elderly parent in your passenger seat?

Perspective and proportion are vital, and in normal times, we have no problems justifying our convenient (but sometimes deadly) societal norms. It is imperative that we rediscover this.

I do not say that we shouldn’t follow the guidelines. I do not say we should just go back to normal straight away. Those who are vulnerable should absolutely have the choice and freedom to keep themselves safe and out of harm’s way – this virus is dangerous for them. But as for the rest of us – why are the young and the healthy being quarantined in this way? Why are our freedoms still being trampled on? Why are we not trusted, as in Sweden, to analyse for ourselves the risks and take the appropriate action as we see fit?

The care home situation is a scandal, no doubt about it. Not even Sweden got that right. The inquiry into this should be swift and severe. But this didn’t have to happen. And we can’t go on with lockdown for much longer.

Simon Jenkins puts it perfectly in the Guardian, speaking of the PM: “In his U-turn he opted for the politics of fear. He now has workers terrified of working, and parents terrified of school. He has frightened his economy into inertia. I share the view of scientists such as Cambridge’s David Spiegelhalter and Oxford’s Carl Heneghan that this virus is unprecedented in its infectiousness, but that it will pass. The chief variant will prove to be how governments reacted, and the toll they took on the rest of their healthcare and the wider economy. Sweden gambled in its response, but so did the rest of the world. South Africa’s lockdown threatens it with economic and political catastrophe. The UN warns that the world could lose four years of growth at a cost of $8.5 trillion. Famine and further disease will be rife. That was surely the greater gamble.”

Unfortunately, it seems that for that to happen, we will need a miracle. Something that is as rare as Haley’s Comet. The PM will have to admit he made a mistake.

To finish, here’s a quick one – without looking, how many new cases of Covid-19 were there in London yesterday do you think? The city that has had over 25,000 cases. 5,000 more? 1,000 more?

24. 24 new cases. It’s time to get back to our lives.