Artillery Row

The lockdown’s founding myth

We’ve forgotten that the Imperial model didn’t even call for a full lockdown

Now in its tenth week, Britain’s lockdown has been around long enough for it to develop its own founding myth. The folklore goes something like this: 

Once upon a time there was a wicked and reckless government. When a deadly new disease reached its shores, the government decided to let nature take its course. The politicians believed that there was no point trying to stop the virus. They thought it should be allowed to run rampant until the population had achieved herd immunity.

Scientists were very concerned by the government’s approach. They thought the politicians were being cavalier and urged them to reconsider, but the politicians would not listen. It was not until a brave scientist called Neil Ferguson showed how many people would die if the government did not introduce a lockdown that the politicians started to realise that they had been wrong. Even after this warning, they dithered and delayed for a whole week before they did what was needed. If only they had listened to the scientists earlier, many lives would have been saved. 

This narrative has become the conventional wisdom and it was reinforced in a lengthy article in the Sunday Times at the weekend. It has obvious appeal to the government’s natural opponents and it even has something for lockdown sceptics in that it puts their villain, ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson, in a starring role. But it is fundamentally wrong. The idea that the government was pursuing a strategy of herd immunity for ideological reasons until scientists forced them to follow the science is an inversion of the truth. 

It is not entirely clear what the government’s current policy is, but there is little doubt that it has changed since early March. The original policy was never explicitly defined either, beyond ‘flattening the curve’. The government always denied pursuing herd immunity per se, but once containment failed, the aim seems to have been to control the spread of the virus while accepting that it would infect much of the population sooner or later, with a second wave likely to occur in the winter. This meant that a degree of herd immunity would emerge in time, but the name of the game was to squash the sombrero, protect the vulnerable and prevent the NHS being overwhelmed. 

Call this a policy of herd immunity if you like. Whatever name you give it, it is not something that was dreamt up by Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings over a bottle of claret. It was a strategy devised and supported by eminent scientists in the field, such as Professor Graham Medley, the chairman of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, who explained the approach on Newsnight on 12 March. Or Professor John Edmunds from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who explained it on Channel 4 News on 3 March and again ten days later. Or Dr Jenny Harries, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, who said on 11 March that she was ‘absolutely delighted that we are following the science and evidence.’ 

It was obvious to anyone watching the early press conferences that government ministers were deferring to the scientists. It was often the Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, and the Chief Scientific Advisor, Patrick Vallance, who would do most of the talking in those daily briefings. Both of them endorsed a strategy that was at least adjacent to herd immunity. 

For proponents of the lockdown’s founding myth, Whitty and Vallance are a problem. They are credible and prominent scientists who openly espoused an approach to COVID-19 that the government’s more highly strung critics now portray as akin to eugenics. The Sunday Times article gets around this by putting them in a passive role, baldly asserting that they were ‘used as the government’s human proof that it was “following the science”’, but it would be truer and less insulting to see them as the face of ‘the science’. You can, I suppose, choose to believe that they were taking their orders from the government, but there is a wealth of documentation from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) showing that it was the scientists who were leading the government, not vice versa.

Take mass gatherings, for example. The government’s failure to ban this year’s Cheltenham Festival is now widely seen as proof of its devil-may-care attitude, and yet SAGE told the government in February that the ‘risk to an individual from attending large events is generally no higher than in smaller events’ and that in ‘most larger events, such as sports matches, attendees will come into close contact with at most a handful of people, so the risk to attendees is low.’ It therefore concluded that the ‘direct impact of stopping large public gatherings on the population-level spread of the epidemic is low’.

The contents of the SAGE documents are illuminating, but it is what is absent that is most revealing. There is no mention of a lockdown in any document until 18 March when there was an inconclusive discussion about locking down London. By that stage, Italy had been in lockdown for nine days. The impact of school closures, voluntary self-isolation and various forms of social distancing were analysed by SAGE throughout February and March. There is no record of a full lockdown being similarly discussed. The idea of banning the entire population from leaving the house without a reasonable excuse does not seem to have been seriously entertained. When Professor John Edmunds, a member of SAGE, mentioned the lockdown in Wuhan on Channel 4 News on 3 March, he said – as if it were obvious – that ‘we’re not going to do anything anywhere near as stringent as that’. 

Italy’s national lockdown moved the Overton Window and opened up a previously unthinkable policy option

According to the founding myth, the study published by Professor Neil Ferguson and colleagues at Imperial College on 16 March changed everything. Contrary to popular belief, the infamous study did not call for a full lockdown, nor did it model the effects of a full lockdown. It looked at school closures, social distancing and household quarantine for suspected cases and those living with them. It concluded that the greatest benefit would come from a combination of social distancing and household quarantine, with further benefits likely to come from closing schools, although it conceded that school closures would prevent many people from working.

There is no doubt that Ferguson’s model was impactful. It suggested that hundreds of thousands of people would die from COVID-19 if the government continued to pursue a policy of mitigation. This put containment back on the table and gave legitimacy to more coercive action from government, but the measures it recommended did not amount to a full lockdown. Its social distancing recommendations were far from trivial and yet they seem modest after nine weeks of genuine lockdown (the authors anticipated most people still going to work, for example). The only time Ferguson and colleagues use the word ‘lockdown’ in the text is when they are making a distinction between their proposals and an actual lockdown. They implicitly dismiss a lockdown as being too extreme for the UK, saying that their favoured policies are ‘predicted to have the largest impact, short of a complete lockdown which additionally prevents people going to work’.

According to the Sunday Times, Ferguson’s study was a last-ditch attempt from the scientific community to bring the government to its senses. Similarly, the article claims that Professor John Edmunds and Professor Nicholas Davies ‘took matters into their own hands’ by producing a study which called for ‘lockdown-type measures’ to avert disaster. It is not clear whether this paper is publicly available (a study matching the description was put online on 3 April), but it is hard to imagine a less likely rebel than Edmunds, a member of SAGE who had defended the strategy of mitigation on television and happily used the term ‘herd immunity’ while doing so. According to the Sunday Times, his alarming model was handed to the government on 11 March and yet two days later he was on Channel 4 News calling for calm and promoting herd immunity to an exasperated Silicon Valley entrepreneur. 

On 16 March, the day Ferguson published his model, SAGE endorsed all its recommendations and Boris Johnson appeared on television to tell the public to stop all non-essential contact with others, to stop all non-essential travel, to work from home where possible, and to avoid pubs, clubs and theatres. He told those who had coronavirus symptoms, or lived with someone who did, to self-isolate for fourteen days. 

It was not a full lockdown but it was very far from being nothing. It addressed two of Ferguson’s recommendations: home quarantine and social distancing. Two days later, the government announced the closure of all schools and universities. On 20 March, it closed all pubs, clubs, restaurants and cafés indefinitely. On 23 March, Boris Johnson announced a full lockdown. 

The accusation of dithering therefore rests on the government ratcheting up the restrictions over seven days, rather than immediately announcing a draconian lockdown that neither Ferguson nor SAGE had ever actually called for. Given the planning, preparation and notice needed to go from a standing start into complete lockdown, it is difficult to see how the government could have proceeded much faster. The SAGE documents show that behavioural scientists had serious doubts about the British public’s willingness to abide by even relatively modest restrictions on their liberty. Perhaps those doubts were ill founded, but it is what the experts were saying. 

Whether this was mass hysteria or simple common sense is not the point. It was the public mood

Should the government have ignored the experts? That is the question running through all of this. It is not tenable to portray the original approach of mitigation/herd immunity as the act of a bumbling or heartless government. The idea that politicians devised a reckless and fatal strategy at odds with scientific opinion and then strong-armed the nation’s top public health officials into supporting it is preposterous. The theory lacks not only evidence but motive.  

Perhaps it was a mistake for the experts to treat COVID-19 as if it were a variation on influenza, but that was ‘the science’ said in February. Herd immunity is still ‘the science’ in Sweden where, tellingly, public health agencies are wholly independent of government. Perhaps the Swedes have got it wrong, but no one can seriously argue that their approach is rooted in politics rather than science.

At some point in the middle of March, the UK abandoned the Swedish approach and adopted the Chinese approach. Why? What changed? Ferguson’s model certainly played a part, not least because it predicted that the NHS would not be able to cope with the coming onslaught. But two other things changed as well. Firstly, on 9 March, Italy became the first democratic country to introduce a national lockdown after making a hash of its lockdown in northern Italy. This moved the Overton Window and opened up a policy option that had previously been unthinkable. 

Secondly, public opinion changed. Regardless of what SAGE thought of mass gatherings, there was widespread concern about events like the Cheltenham festival and the Champions League game in Liverpool going ahead. The British public saw the Irish government closing the pubs the day before St Patrick’s Day and wondered why its own government wasn’t doing the same. It saw the Premiership put the football season on hold and wondered why the government hadn’t already banned live sport. Whether this was mass hysteria or simple common sense is not the point. It was the public mood and the government responded to it. 

After more than nine weeks, the lockdown remains popular. The prevailing wisdom says that it was the right thing to do and that it should have been done earlier. Time will tell. The public enquiry that will inevitably come when the pandemic subsides will shine a light on the decisions made in the weeks leading up to the lockdown. Unpublished documents will emerge to tell us about the doubts and reservations of politicians and scientists in a time of crisis. There will be plenty of blame to go around, but the documents available to us today suggest that the government was following ‘the science’ from the outset and that the policy only changed when ‘the science’ – and public opinion – changed. 

The founding myth of the lockdown is almost the opposite of the truth. Science did not triumph over politics on 23 March. It would be more accurate to say that the strategy which preceded the lockdown, unpopular though it now is, was based on science whereas the decision to go into lockdown was political.

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