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Artillery Row

The not-so-great lockdown debate

Lockdowns are about communication not coercion

Another day, another round of the great lockdown debate. Whose side are you on? Freedom or tyranny? Prosperity or lives?

If you support looser restrictions then the Guardian’s Rafael Behr thinks you are part of “the small-state, market-obsessed, Thatcherite cultists who seem now to define English liberty as the inalienable right to catch and spread a deadly disease.” He would doubtless put Toby Young, who expressed early lockdown scepticism on these pages, in that camp. If you support stringent lockdowns then, according to sceptics like Toby, you’ve needlessly sacrificed your hard-won liberty because of a mistaken and economically ruinous epidemiological Project Fear.

It is all maddeningly black and white. And the divide is arguably even wider on this side of the Atlantic, where liberals decry a Trump administration with very little actual power over lockdowns for sacrificing the elderly in the name of prosperity and conservatives say the stay-at-home orders “may be the greatest mistake in history”. 

Around 90 per cent of the changes in behaviour in the US happened before states imposed stay-at-home orders

What’s so puzzling — and frustrating — about this row is that the two camps seem more entrenched and further apart even as the terms of the actual policy decisions have narrowed. The trade-offs look complicated; neither the economic nor health arguments cut one way. We have to find a way to get back to something approaching normal without waiting for a vaccine, but exactly how and when we do that is not a question to which there is an obvious answer. Boris Johnson, his European counterparts and governors of states here in the US are all grappling with the same problem and making (usually fairly moderate) tweaks to their lockdown rules. Some are probably going too fast, some might be overly cautious.

But it’s not just that the trade-offs are complicated. Ironically, for all the complexity and uncertainty out there at the moment, one of the few things we can be increasingly sure about is that the bad-tempered lockdown debate just doesn’t matter as much as most people thought a few months ago — and that its ferocious tone is at odds with what is at stake.

Data from the early weeks of the crisis, when America socially distanced and powered down, show that there is much more to people’s response to the coronavirus than following official instructions. According to Cuebiq, a private data company, around 90 per cent of the changes in behaviour in the US happened before states imposed stay-at-home orders. An NBER paper published last month suggested that local authorities primarily encouraged Americans to stay at home by making clear the seriousness of the situation, rather than imposing restrictions on movement. The authors found that the announcement of the first local case and the declaration of an emergency both had bigger effects on the amount of time people spent at home than stay at home orders.

The dynamics may be different on the way out of lockdown than on the way in, but the experience of American states that were criticised for reopening too soon points to a similar pattern. Many predicted nasty spikes in places like Georgia. So far, that has not happened, suggesting that if you give people a mile, they take an inch.

In Britain, public sentiment was a major factor in bringing the government round to the lockdown. The loosening of the rules will surely be just as sensitive to what the public thinks is reasonable, with policymakers concerned about clearly communicating the threat the virus poses while making sure that the gap between what the government regulations permit and what the public think is proportionate doesn’t get too wide.

The limited power of lockdowns also means their economic cost isn’t as high as the lockdown sceptics would claim. The damage is done by the social distancing that is a consequence of the pandemic, not just our policy response. In other words, it’s Covid-19, not the lockdown, that is wrecking economic havoc.

That’s why Sweden, an outlier that has not imposed a lockdown like other European countries, will not escape the economic damage. And it’s why a group of Harvard economists argue that state shutdowns in the US had “little or no impact on economic activity” in a paper published this month.

Both sides of the debate framed things incorrectly early on. Contra the sceptics’ claims, the cure is not “worse than the disease”. In fact, what they called the cure is really just another symptom. Meanwhile, the modelling that formed the basis for the case for stringent lockdowns made no account of people taking social distancing steps themselves, irrespective of government instructions. Instead it presented a scenario in which we did nothing and millions died, and one in which the government acted and millions were saved.

As Hoover Institution fellow John Cochrane pointed out in a detailed post on his blog last week, it is very hard to find real-world evidence of the kind of exponential growth that many predicted. “Growth [in infections and deaths] was never near constant exponential even before shutdowns were announced,” he writes, and almost regardless of the policy regime, case growth follows a remarkably similar trend. As Cochrane argues, it might be a sign that in the real world, the coronavirus’s reproduction rate responds to information, not just policies because, well, as he puts it, people read the news.

Coping mechanisms shouldn’t inform government policy

In other words, a nasty kind of equilibrium emerges with people adjusting their behaviour to the severity of the outbreak and the virus spreading slowly, not growing exponentially, but not disappearing altogether. The more we know about exactly how the virus spreads, the more targeted and effective we can be in that response. Right now, however, there’s still a lot of unknowns.

In the meantime, the problem of social distancing fatigue is real. According to Cochrane’s thinking, it will ebb and flow in line with the rate of growth of the virus. But I think an underappreciated source of that fatigue is a lack of confidence in the government’s ability to stamp out the virus. If people aren’t sold on the idea that their government can deploy tools like contact tracing and quarantines effectively enough to stamp out the virus, they are more likely to resign themselves to that slow spread. 

I cannot help but think the hardening of both sides of the lockdown debate is best understood as a psychological response to that uncertainty. As Rod Dreher wrote this week, “people are being so hard-edged about this, and wanting to believe that there is more certainty than there is, because it’s less frightening than We Just Don’t Know. Believing the worst on the health side makes the excruciating economic sacrifices we’re making worth while. Believing the best scenarios is a way of asserting control by saying that if it weren’t for those foolish politicians making bad decisions, everything would have been bearable — and (therefore) if we elect better politicians, we can put all this behind us.” On the narrower question of lockdowns, it is comforting to assume the government’s omnipotence, even if you disagree with the policy. The humbling truth that we are at the mercy of the virus, and millions of individual assessments of the risks we face, is less reassuring. But coping mechanisms shouldn’t inform government policy.

For the policymakers stuck between these two ends of the spectrum, the lesson from the first few months of grappling with Covid-19 is that lockdowns are, first and foremost, a powerful method of communication rather than coercion. Governments don’t have a big red button that saves millions of lives but costs trillions. What they do have is a way to get a serious message across to the country. It’s an important tool, but not as important as some would have you believe. 

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