Artillery Row

Lockdown sceptics are society’s gadflies

‘I can’t agree with Alistair Haimes that the arrival of vaccines should change how we feel about lockdowns’

Lockdown sceptics are Socrates’ “gadflies”: the individuals who ask society the uncomfortable questions, like flies biting a horse. Society tends to want to swat the gadflies just when it needs them the most. As Socrates said in his trial for impiety, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Gadflies serve an important purpose, every horse needs one, we assist in examining ideological values, so hear us out.

Alistair Haimes wrote a persuasive article for The Spectator on why Lockdown Sceptics should support this lockdown. I understood its arguments, but I was not persuaded.

People who are opposed to lockdown are not rigid thinkers and they are not granny killers

He positions himself as a “moderate”, not an “extremist”. I know Alistair and I would agree he is a genuine moderate. But oh, for the rest of us, even if we can’t be persuaded, the moderate position is a beguiling temptation. Who wants to be swatted? Journalists have called for censorship of “disinformation” – who determines what that is when the science moves so fast and has been politicised? MP Neil O’Brien has vitriolically singled out lockdown sceptics on Twitter. Scientists and doctors have been smeared in the broadsheets and their video interviews removed from YouTube. The moderate position would offer social conformity and approval; it would probably be safer professionally.

One danger with Haimes’ article is the temptation to draw a distinction between good faith and bad faith lockdown sceptics. According to his argument, the good sceptic will review the evidence and logically support this third lockdown. Conversely, the bad faith lockdown sceptic is rigid in their beliefs.

But there is no bad faith. People who are opposed to lockdown are not rigid thinkers and they are not granny killers. They are also, in their small numbers and their generally small platforms, not responsible for the failures of lockdown, despite the accusations. (Various analyses have shown that lockdowns don’t work.) In fact, the sceptic case is argued by credible scientists, academics, journalists, politicians, and good ordinary people who just want the best for their country.

The problem with all of our lockdowns is that the evidence has been sparse and one-sided

Some are opposed to lockdowns because they feel in their bones that the emergency legislation, the rights it has impeded, and the process that enabled it in parliament have undermined democracy and the rule of law. Some are concerned for the economy, the business closures and the loss of between 450,000 and 2.45 million jobs by the time we are done. Others note the upshift in wealth towards big tech and other benefactors, while the social divide widens. Sceptics pointed out the impacts of lockdown on other health issues. Some don’t think it’s acceptable to make the young suffer or immolate their education. Others simply feel their own pain. They are barely making it through. I’ve had conversations with dear friends, formerly mentally robust, about suicide. A study from Bristol University estimated the equivalent of 560,000 lives would be lost as a result of lockdown, and that is before factoring in the third one.

Alistair referred to the need for government to do “something”, to pull a “lever”. Well, how about the lever in the philosophical trolley problem? In this experiment, the trolley is approaching five people who are tied to the tracks. If you pull the lever you can divert the trolley onto different tracks which have one body tied to them. Do you pull the lever and choose to kill one person, or do you do nothing and kill five?

How should the government know which lever to pull? How should we all know? Evidence, in a word. I fervently endorse Alistair’s approval of evidence. The problem with Lockdown 1.0, Lockdown 2.0 and Lockdown 3.0 – not to mention the Tiers and the “Rule of Six” – is that the evidence has been sparse and one-sided.

Each time we are softened up with “evidence” for why we should lockdown, although the evidence has taken the form of mathematical modelling (some might call it soothsaying or the worst software mistake ever), worst case scenarios with steep red lines, and warnings of crisis around the corner which never turn out to be there.

Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance’s “Shock and Awe” presentation warned that there could be 4,000 Covid deaths per day in the autumn. Nothing like that total was ever reached. Theresa May criticised the Government’s approach, remarking that, “for many people it looks as though the figures are being chosen to support the policy, rather than the policy being based on the figures”. In a highly unusual move, the UK Statistics Authority also issued a gentle rebuke about the use of data.

This time around, the evidence has consisted of NHS Chief Executive Simon Stevens quoting an absolute total for Covid patients in December compared to Covid patients in April, alongside emotional first-person testimony from frontline medics, and a possibly more transmissible variant of the virus. There are some problems with this level of evidence being used to justify the nuclear lockdown option.

The government must stop hiding behind the big numbers and treat us with some intelligence and respect

During the winter we always have more patients than we do in April. For clearer illumination we would need to compare with previous Decembers, look at occupancy percentages of different types of beds, understand who was admitted with Covid (it’s not the total he gave, only about one quarter of the total admissions were admitted “for” Covid, but that needs a separate article), versus who was tested routinely in hospital, who caught it nosocomially, and staffing levels. My repeated requests to NHS England for data have been ignored. I’m not the only one. When data sets are missing, and media enquiries are ignored, you have to question why.

I don’t doubt the doctors and nurses who say they are overwhelmed, but I also happen to know doctors and nurses who tell a different story: that this winter is bad, but only typically, and that half the patients in their wards caught Covid nosocomially. These frontline medics are forbidden from talking to the media.

In a familiar epidemic lockstep, we were given the big scary number and some scary stories, but not the granular data, nor the metrics for the lockdown finish line. What percentage occupancy of ICU would be acceptable to not be in lockdown? I compared December ICU occupancy for London and the south east for each year from 2016-2020. Some hospitals are indeed overwhelmed, but this happens regularly. How many vaccines must be delivered?

If hospitals are truly about to be overwhelmed, how are we supposed to believe it this time? Has the government cried wolf too many times? And can a lockdown actually avert a hospital crisis?

I can’t comment on the virus variation, I simply don’t have the expertise to assess the emerging (but not settled) science. But all this effort is ultimately about minimising death. The two most recent Public Health England All-Cause Mortality Surveillance reports (31 December and 7 January) show no statistically significant excess all-cause mortality. Looking at excess deaths on a graph over previous years, this winter looks fairly typical.

Cases, deaths and hospitalisations have dominated our news, our brains, for nine months. They are the primary key performance indicators (KPIs) and their enshrinement for civil servants and the public has superseded the metrics for the economy, or other aspects of public health, or indeed anything else. The clearer and more easily measurable the KPI, the more powerful it is in rallying activity and obscuring contexts outside the KPI. Are these KPIs overtly acting to blind the government and all civil society to other factors?

The government analysis of health, social and economic effects on the 30 November did not even attempt to take a quantitative approach, omitting the ubiquitous QALYs (quality of actual life years). We’re crawling through the tunnel of Lockdown 3.0 as blind as when we huddled in caves Lockdown 1.0 and Lockdown 2.0. A government that doesn’t deliver evidence but relies on propaganda and nudges has given up on debate and transparency and opted for covert manipulation.

In the blind global panic of an epidemic, we have forgotten how to analyse risk

Our trust has been tested by ever shifting goalposts. Three weeks to flatten the curve, normality by September, it will be over by Christmas, the Christmas-that-never-was, back to school by mid-February, but we can’t guarantee it won’t be the summer, to restrictions may still be with us next winter. There might be light at the end of the tunnel, but how long is this tunnel going to be? And is it one of those spinning tunnels at the fairground that spits you out disorientated and dizzy? 100 days is a nice round number, it’s a pretty goal, if you aren’t scouring the Samaritans website for ideas about how to stay alive, it might seem manageable, but we have a government that “follows the science”. An awful lot of science can happen in 100 days. We are at the mercy of new variants, vaccine efficacy, the supply and roll out. As Desmond Swayne said in parliament this week, we’re constantly being “bounced by the science”.

So, let’s have the evidence. All of it. The government must stop hiding behind the big numbers and treat us with some intelligence and respect. It needs to hand over the missing data sets, such as the nosocomial infection figures, and the individual PCR testing site reports. It needs to produce an honest and detailed impact assessment of lockdowns. We need evidence that a third lockdown can even work – after the first two didn’t stop the virus.

How has the dial moved to a setting where lockdown sceptics can accept a third lockdown? I believe repetition and frustration are good teachers. This is the third lockdown, after all. But although we’re tired of asking for it, the evidence is even more important now we are set to cause more unemployment, put children further back at school, and continue to endure forced human separation. We must weigh that in the balance with lives saved by lockdown whilst waiting for a vaccine. I can’t agree with Alistair that the arrival of vaccines should change how we feel about lockdowns – even a “brief period of restrictions while vaccines are rolled out” must be demonstrated to be a sensible intervention.

We seem to have forgotten that no-one is safe. You have never been safe and you never will be. Nor will I. Calls for Zero Covid beyond a certain point were as bizarre as calls for Zero Death. What has lockdown kept us safe from? Not unemployment, not other ill health, not death and certainly not fear. In the blind global panic of an epidemic, we have forgotten how to analyse risk. If you don’t accept that you will die one day, that you can never be safe, then you are a sitting duck for authoritarian policies which purport to be for your safety.

A friend told me this week that there were little police cars driving around her town with “police CCTV enforcement” written on them. I saw a video on YouTube of police barging into a Scottish family’s home because they thought they had guests. They didn’t.

But sure, once lots of vaccines (no number specified) have been injected by the spring or summer (no date confirmed) there will be light at the end of the tunnel and the restrictions will be lifted (again no date confirmed, and they will probably be imposed by the winter) and then the little police cars will drive off into the sunset.

Lockdown doesn’t come without regulations. Supporting lockdown necessitates the implicit support of the regulations and enforcement of them. They aren’t just the nuclear option; they are the totalitarian option. They have also never been used or recommended before. Pre-emptive disaster and recovery planner, Lucy Easthope, told me that lockdowns have never been recommended for influenza or SARS epidemics. They were never recommended by WHO until a little update of their website this year post-introduction of lockdowns, or by the UK government. And doctor and epidemiologist Donald Henderson – credited with eliminating smallpox – said:

Experience has shown that communities faced with epidemics or other adverse events respond best and with the least anxiety when the normal social functioning of the community is least disrupted… Disease mitigation measures, however well intentioned, have potential social, economic, and political consequences that need to be fully considered by political leaders as well as health officials.

The vaccine seems like a good end to the story. But what if it isn’t the end of the story, but a prequel? We do not have the evidence to prove lockdown works, but if you concede that lockdown is a useful tool, you must concede that the tool may be needed again. The government, wielding the tool, develops muscle memory. So do we. Covid-19 is not the last novel virus. It’s not the last crisis. Would you accept another lockdown for a future epidemic? Can we do another lockdown without laying waste to our economy and society? Would you do another lockdown for a run on the banks, an act of terror, or a food shortage? How about regular lockdowns to bring down CO2 emissions?

This is why we need the evidence. All of it. It is too late for us this time, but the inevitable enquiry must wring all the data out of each government department, so that we conceptually and evidentially understand what lockdown meant for us. Otherwise rather than the goodbye and good riddance Alistair optimistically assumes we will bid lockdown, I fear it is merely au revoir.

Update: Full Fact have requested a “factual correction” to this article. They state that Public Health England data should be interpreted with caution due to delays in death reporting. Full Fact say “more people are dying than usual at the moment”. This article noted that, “The two most recent Public Health England All-Cause Mortality Surveillance reports (31 December and 7 January) show no statistically significant excess all-cause mortality.” This was factually correct at the time of publication and it is still factually correct on 16 January, therefore no factual correction is required. The article provides links to the reports which readers can read in full, including Public Health England’s provisos about possible future data changes due to delays in death reporting. It is not necessary in an article of this nature to caveat that data is subject to possible future adjustment.

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