Artillery Row

The risk in a second lockdown is clear

Everyone suffering in pursuit of impossible promises is pointless

“Here I sit so patiently, waiting to find out what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice” – Bob Dylan, Stuck Inside Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again

And so we are back to square one. With hospitalisations for Covid-19 rising again, it feels as if all the sacrifices we made have only pushed the problem into winter, just as the models predicted, and that we have to do it all again. It is as if lockdown is our natural state and the last two months have been a curious aberration. There is a sense that a government desperate to avoid history would rather be seen as trigger-happy than tardy.

But this is not a carbon copy of March. We are in stronger position and, I hope, have learned a few things. To move forward, we must begin by accepting three facts.

Going in and out of lockdown while we wait for a vaccine is not a viable strategy

First, it is very unlikely that a second wave will break NHS capacity. Let us never forget that protecting the NHS was the Prime Minister’s sole justification for introducing the lockdown when he appeared on television on 23 March. In the last six months, we have massively increased testing capacity, hired 25,000 contact tracers, engrained social distancing in our way of life, banned large gatherings, built the Nightingale hospitals, learned better ways of treating patients, made mask-wearing compulsory in shops and on public transport, and normalised working from home. More recently, we have introduced the rule of six and enforced local lockdowns. We also now have several million people who have had the virus and are therefore immune to it. If you think that the second wave will be a straight rerun of the first, you are saying that none of this makes a jot of difference.

Second, going in and out of lockdown while we wait for a vaccine is not a viable strategy. It is barely a strategy at all. Whilst it is likely that a vaccine will be available next year, that is not certain. What is certain is that there will be no vaccine until after winter and that people will need to earn money to feed themselves in the meantime. We remain temporarily insulated from the economic consequences of the first lockdown thanks to furloughs and funny money, but when the tide goes out, we will discover that millions of us have been swimming naked. We will be living with the effects of the first lockdown for the rest of the decade. A second lockdown would turn a grim situation into a social and economic catastrophe beyond our imagination.

Third, it is abundantly clear that the coronavirus carries a minimal risk to healthy people under the age of 65 and a negligible risk to anybody under the age of 45. Children are at more risk of being struck by lightning than dying from the coronavirus. If you like science and numbers, those are numbers and science: if you don’t like them, by all means say so, but don’t tell yourself it’s science talking.

Are you prepared to write off the next year for the sake of avoiding one year’s worth of risk?

Take your risk of dying this year if Covid-19 hadn’t been around and double it. That is your risk of dying from Covid-19 this year if you are infected with it. Catching the virus packs two years of risk into one, according to the statistician David Spiegelhalter. Interestingly, this holds true for every age group (except for children, whose risk is even lower). Old people are much more likely to die from Covid-19 because they are much more likely to die in general. People aged over 90 were at 4,300 times greater risk of catching and dying from Covid-19 between 7 March and 26 June than people aged 15-24. Even so, only two per cent of them did.

Of course, there is a good chance that you won’t catch the virus at all. It’s too early to say for sure, but the outbreak in Sweden seems to be fizzling out despite only a minority of Swedes being infected. Spiegelhalter’s research shows that even at the height of the outbreak in England and Wales, the risk of dying from Covid-19 was equivalent to the risk of living in normal times for an extra few days or weeks (ranging from two days for 5-14 year olds to forty days for 75-84 year olds).

Are you prepared to write off the next year for the sake of avoiding one year’s worth of risk? A growing number of us would rather take our chances with the virus than continue down the road of national self-immolation. In response, lockdown fanatics say that it is not us they are worried about, but the vulnerable people we will infect. Dont kill granny, said Matt Hancock recently as he scolded young people, who have lost a golden summer to lockdown, for going to illegal raves (there are no legal raves).

“Don’t kill granny”. It is a powerful message; a reminder that our actions affect others, a justification for sacrificing freedom for the greater good. But that argument only goes so far. It only works if there is a reasonable expectation of safety in everyday life and if there is no way for the vulnerable to protect themselves. We haven’t lived like that since March. Third party effects can no longer justify locking everybody down. Besides, what if granny is as sick of all this as anyone and no longer wants the state to decide how much risk she can accept?

Lockdown should now become an issue of individual choice

Since there is no end in sight, lockdown should now become an issue of individual choice. If you want a lockdown, you lock down. You stay at home. You get your shopping delivered. You wait it out. If you are a pensioner, you may be doing this already and you have your pension to keep you going. If you are of working age but have a health condition that puts you at high risk, you may already be on Disability Living Allowance. If not, and if you can’t work from home, we will put you on it for as long as you want to self-isolate. Heck, even if there’s nothing wrong with you and you’re just scared of getting the virus, we’ll let you claim Disability Living Allowance and you can lock yourself down. Your employer will be legally obliged to keep your job open for you for when you return. The government will offer interest-free loans to anybody who wants some extra money. You can pay it back when this is all over. For now, stay at home for as long as you like.

If you go for a walk, keep your distance from other people. Keep washing your hands. No one will come near you. If you live with other people, come to a collective decision about what you want to do. If you have children, take them out of school if you want. It’s going to be just like the real lockdown, but optional.

We cannot fully guarantee your safety, but then we cannot fully guarantee your safety at the moment either. Doctors, nurses and those who work with the elderly will use the normal precautions and will be regularly tested for the virus. We will do all we can.

Outside, things will continue as they were before the government introduced the rule of six. Measures designed to prevent an NHS-crunching second wave will stay in place for the time being. Pubs, restaurants, theatres and cinemas will all be open. Caveat emptor will be the golden rule. If you’re prepared to take the risk, come in. If not, do something else.

Back in March, the idea circulated of “cocooning” the old and vulnerable for twelve weeks and letting the rest of society go about its business. The government rejected it because it was perceived to be unfair on those who were locked up. Instead, it decided that it would be fairer to lock everybody up (thereby providing a little lesson in how equality of outcome works in practice).

Free societies allow their citizens to take informed risks

The answer now is to try the same plan, but on a voluntary basis. No one will be compelled to stay indoors. An 85-year-old diabetic who doesn’t want to spend a large chunk of the rest of her life in self-isolation would be as free as a twenty year old to go out and enjoy herself. Free societies allow their citizens to take informed risks. We are allowed to ride motorcycles and smoke cigarettes. We should be allowed to take the risk of getting the coronavirus by mixing with consenting adults who have made the same choice. If granny doesn’t want to take the risk, we are not going to impose it on her, but she will no longer be used as an excuse for mass quarantine. A mass quarantine which has multiple adverse consequences beyond its headline rationale.

When the lockdown volunteers emerge in a few months’ time, they will find a much safer, saner and less damaged country than they would if we kept going in and out of lockdown. We have tried national lockdowns. We have tried local lockdowns. The only way to protect liberty, save what’s left of our economy, and ultimately bring the epidemic to an end is by trying individual lockdowns.

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