Tory MP Neil O'Brien as the Witchfinder General

Shutting up the unspeakable is still a bad idea

The scientific method remains dissent and criticism, even for Lockdowns

Artillery Row

Are Lockdown sceptics seemingly jumping ship? Two weeks ago Alistair Haimes, an outspoken critic of the restrictions, wrote in The Spectator about his acceptance of the need for the current iteration of the national lockdown, given that the availability of vaccines puts a clear time limit on it, and the new variant seems to be putting more people than ever at risk.

Then, in a widely shared piece published in Quillette on Saturday my IEA colleague Christopher Snowdon took to task “Coronavirus cranks” for their “rebarbative and destructive” version of lockdown scepticism, and explained his own move away from resisting lockdowns after the initial effort to “flatten the curve” in March last year. But while Snowdon puts forward detailed rebuttals for the scientific claims of, in particular, Mike Yeadon and Ivor Cummins, and many people do indeed find their output to be objectionable, he fails in my view to make the case that they have been destructive. Nor am I persuaded by his or Haimes’s case that the government was right to impose this current, or any other, lockdown.

Christopher Snowdon is a valued colleague of mine at the free market thinktank where we both work. This is not an attack on him or any other of my colleagues and friends who hold similar views. I know he and they do not support restrictions on our fundamental rights and freedoms lightly (or indeed, as some have suggested, in return for money or favours), and they have good and well thought out reasons for their positions. But I fear that focusing on the controversial output of particular outspoken sceptics, and linking reasonable scrutiny of the collection and use of test data to gangs of people gathering outside hospitals shouting about hoaxes, risks discrediting scepticism about lockdown theory and policy generally. In the coming months, we will have to battle to have restrictions lifted after vulnerable populations have been vaccinated; discrediting all lockdown sceptics as dangerous cranks will not make that fight any easier and risks encouraging regulators and social media platforms, already on a hair trigger, to censor debate and dissent.

The people whom Snowdon identifies in his piece have, in reality, not had any discernible influence either on government policy or on compliance amongst the public; and the only examples of behaviour that poses real risks to others that he cites are the crowd gathered outside a hospital protesting that Covid is a hoax, alongside a few deranged individuals stalking hospitals to film empty corridors. These are plainly relatively minor, and exaggerated instances – the protest outside the hospital, which the doctor who tweeted about it said comprised hundreds of people, looked like a much smaller gathering and has not, as far as I know, been repeated. As with so many ailments, it is important to accurately assess the evidence so we can respond proportionately.

We could take the approach of Tory MP Neil O’Brien and enthusiastically witch-hunt the failings made only by the people we disagree with

Compliance with lockdown laws has been high, even into the second and third lockdowns, higher than SAGE experts had expected or hoped. It’s hard to see how sceptics have had any influence on government policy, which has generally been in direct opposition to what they have called for – not least because every lockdown announcement has, by a happy series of coincidences, been made while the House of Commons has not been sitting. Even when the prime minister resisted and delayed “circuit breaker” lockdowns in the autumn, it is hard to believe this was as a result of Ivor Cummins’ and his twitter followers’ views about a second wave. In fact Snowdon himself was against these interim restrictions and as he notes in the Quillette piece, considered the tier system to have been unfair and badly designed. So what exactly have these fringe voices, excluded from mainstream media, other than for the purposes of ridicule and disdain, and influencing only their (relatively tiny) social media following, destroyed? I’d hold very dear to the view that amongst all of the noise, dissenters have often asked important questions and raised concerns that the government’s presentation of data leaves unanswered. Christopher Snowdon is surely right when he says that much sceptical commentary is borne out of despair – but not just at the general nature of life under the restrictions, more at the often tendentious use of data by government spokespeople, and journalists treating key advisers as celebrities instead of holding them to account.

I also take issue with the substance of the position that Snowdon, Haimes and other so-called “lockdown centrists”, support: broadly, the current lockdown being maintained until enough people have been vaccinated, “in order to prevent tens of thousands of people dying this winter from [Covid-19]”. While I too went along with the first lockdown, in March last year, carried along by arguments about externalities and the harm principle, as well as general fear and uncertainty, I have since reconsidered my position. In moral terms, I struggle to conceptualise the harm principle as justifying the exercise of state power to confine healthy people in order to prevent a theoretical risk of harm to others. Even applying an economic cost/benefit analysis, if one includes all of the costs to individual welfare and utility, such as the loss of education (which will be most keenly felt by those least able to bear it) as well as GDP losses, it seems inconceivable to me that lockdowns will produce net benefits.

I understand the political imperatives that will have driven government decisions. And the possibility that healthcare services could have been overrun, causing deaths and hardships in addition to those caused by Covid, is a terrifying prospect that certainly justified some precautionary action last Spring (though perhaps the unprecedented nature of the actual measures and their origins in totalitarian China might have given more pause for thought). But despite growing scepticism of sceptics, there is an increasing body of evidence that coercive lockdown measures such as stay at home orders simply do not have the expected significant effects on the transmission of the virus, and nowhere near enough effect to justify the extreme costs that they impose.

Those who attack lockdown sceptics are firing at the wrong target

Of course the calculations of the level of harm (or potential harm) that one might do to others simply by leaving the house, and of the costs and benefits of lockdown policies depend to a great extent on the transmissibility and virulence of the virus. Respectable scientists do not all agree about these matters (such as the prevalence of asymptomatic spread, the infection fatality rate, and yes, even the false positive rates from PCR testing). Yet we need to resist the urge to apply a respectability test. Or rather, have it applied for us by social media giants, let alone the government or the state broadcaster.

Perhaps if a better account of, for example, the cost benefit analyses which should have undergirded any lockdowns, had been more professionally presented by both the Government and dominant media outlets like the BBC, this would have meant fewer people turning to alternative voices. When aspects of the official narrative have been hurried past and not looked back on when they seemed a bit off kilter, public scepticism about respectable voices has not been hard to fathom, surely?

Popular scepticism about a government that mandates face masks now, when, at the start, its experts dismissed the idea of the general population wearing them at all, would surely be better tackled by addressing such things, and not by memory holing them. Obviously we could take the shrill approach of the backbench Tory MP Neil O’Brien and enthusiastically witch-hunt the failings made only by the people we disagree with. Or, we can assess in the round who got what right and who got what wrong without evident and silly partisanship. One way will get us closer towards adequate and better policy responses; the other way will sow discord and could actively stifle the kind of questions that lead to better policy.

At a more granular level, where is the evidence for the additional restrictions between Tiers 3 and 4, and the third full national lockdown (LD3)? Should we not have required evidence that the additional restrictions like closing schools (where costs to those who already have least will be greatest, and will be felt for years to come as exams are cancelled and some children will fall irretrievably behind), preventing takeaway alcohol sales, and closing outdoor gyms in parks, were justified? What evidence was there of transmission in these locations or associated with these activities? If you don’t agree with these measures (and Christopher Snowdon, for instance, does not entirely agree with school closures), then it seems to me you don’t actually agree with LD3 at all.

Simply saying ‘well there’s a vaccine now’ doesn’t justify poorly-evidenced and disproportionate restrictions

Simply saying “well there’s a vaccine now” doesn’t justify poorly-evidenced and disproportionate restrictions for (at least) several months, at vast economic cost, and incalculable cost to mental health and wellbeing, and to democratic norms and civil liberties. I’m sure lockdown centrists would also say they do not support heavy handed (and legally questionable) police actions, like fining women out for a walk, cracking down on peaceful protest or charging into the homes of families suspected to have visitors. But intrusive laws like the Coronavirus Regulations, that prescribe where we are allowed to be, and with whom, can only be enforced by intrusive policing (helped by snooping and censorious neighbours) and what would be the point of laws that cannot be enforced? If you support these laws you have to support their enforcement. Our Health Secretary and Home Secretary do – monitoring and enforcement of the restrictions is a necessary part of their strategy. That we have accepted this with minimal parliamentary scrutiny, an uninterested judiciary and a pliant media should surely be a cause of concern, and not just to libertarians – dangerous precedents have been set.

The manner of those on the sceptical fringe can be shrill and sometimes irritating; the conspiratorial tone is unhelpful to those of us who would like to see a rigorous and reasoned debate. But at a time when mainstream journalists’ idea of scrutiny too often comprises either inane questions about bicycle rides and Scotch eggs, or furious demands for more restrictions, I’m afraid those who attack lockdown sceptics are firing at the wrong target. In the months to come, we are going to have to fight hard to regain the very real freedoms we have lost.

Already there are calls from SAGE members to retain restrictions and mask mandates long after the vulnerable have been vaccinated, and government plans to revert to a tiered system from March. Instead of fighting each other, people who want unevidenced lockdowns to end need to make common cause to fight for this. Or at least stop wasting energy on such soft targets, when the real threats are so much more pressing and come from those who are not just in power, but are using it to astonishing effect and show no signs of giving it up any time soon.

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