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Artillery Row

The medical community’s revolt against lockdown

For a government which insists it is “following the science,” there is a striking reluctance to listen to the scientists

The government’s approach to Covid-19 is simple: suppress the virus through social restrictions until a vaccine is developed which can achieve mass immunity. Matt Hancock has repeatedly stated such, and if one were to avoid thinking too hard about the economic and social impact of repeatedly shutting down large sections of the country, or the historic difficulties in developing vaccines for coronaviruses, it might even sound sensible.

The widespread criticism the government is facing for this approach, including from its own backbenches, necessitates that it succeeds. There is nothing wrong with an unpopular approach, provided that it ultimately works. Indeed, the willingness to run against the grain can be a mark of true leadership. Not so here.

The justification thus far for the government’s extraordinarily heavy-handed approach has been that they are simply “following the science.” This, as though “the science” is some fixed and irreproachable prescription for how to live our lives and approach uncertainty. Yet this mantra is being tested, as high-profile figures in the scientific and medical community criticise the current approach to lockdownThe Great Barrington Declaration is a statement advocating for a radically different approach.

The Declaration argues for a concept of “Focused Protection.” The lockdown has widely been presented as a trade-off between the protection of lives versus the wider economy. The government has seemingly taken the approach that the economy should be sacrificed as a precautionary measure.

Life should carry on as per the old normal, steadily building up herd immunity

Of course, we cannot separate the two, and the broader impact on our population health as a result of such a severe and sustained lockdown is already emerging. As the Declaration states, “lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden” are the emerging consequences.

Focused Protection posits that we can have our cake and eat it too. We understand well that the mortality associated with Covid-19 increases dramatically with advanced age and a high burden of comorbid conditions (the so-called “vulnerable populations”). In contrast, the chance of a young, fit person dying as a result of infection is negligible.

By providing practical approaches (the Declaration lays out some examples which could be deployed in nursing homes) to protect these vulnerable populations, we can minimise deaths. For everyone else, for whom the risk of significant harm is minimal, life should carry on as per the old normal, accepting the risk of being infected and steadily building up herd immunity.

‘Following the science’ rings hollow if we refuse to follow the advice of the scientists

With time, if a sufficiently large proportion of the low-risk population becomes immune, the virus’ ability to spread reduces, and thus the high-risk population are protected as a by-product. Thus, we achieve three goals simultaneously: minimising the number of deaths as a result of Covid-19, allowing the economy to largely function as normal, and working towards a viable endgame of herd immunity which does not place all our eggs in the precarious basket of vaccine development.

The Declaration, originally authored and co-signed by leading academics, medical professionals and scientists across the globe, has since been signed by a further 4,794 medical and public health scientists, 9,035 medical practitioners, and 125,575 members of the general public at the time of writing. It has also started to gain traction with politicians, with the Steve Baker amongst the leading MPs advocating for it.

This attention has provoked rebuttal from ministers who are anxious to quickly shut down challenges to the legitimacy of lockdown. Health Minister Nadine Dorries tweeted:

Isolating older at risk (over 60s) looks good on paper, in reality it is not achievable. Infections are brought into care homes by care workers, into private homes by those who do their shopping or others with whom they live. Into hospitals by staff. No one can live in isolation … Over 60s have to eat, have their broken boiler fixed, see a Dr, talk to others. Loneliness and isolation also kills.

The implication seems to be that it’s a bit too much effort to protect vulnerable citizens with straightforward measures such as, for instance, providing functioning respirators instead of the flimsy and ineffective surgical masks which the government insists we all wear, and that it would really be easier if we just locked everyone down and the public dealt with it. This is not an especially convincing argument.

As the Westminster government ploughs ahead with the current approach to lockdown, and devolved administrations compete with each other to see who can come up with the most creative way to erode public morale and knacker the economy, the scientific and medical community is increasingly vocal in challenging the basis for lockdown. This is not to say that these scientists are right or wrong (although I believe them to be absolutely right here), but “following the science” rings hollow if we refuse to follow the advice of the scientists.

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