Journal of the Plague Years Epilogue: The Lethal Legacy of Lockdowns

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Journal of the Plague Years Epilogue: The Lethal Legacy of Lockdowns

Regrets, I have a few…

Last week, Rishi Sunak, one of the two candidates for prime minister, told The Spectator that it was wrong “to empower scientists” during the pandemic. Sunak will almost certainly be the loser this Monday, since Liz Truss is reportedly ahead amongst the Tory selectorate by a ratio of two to one. But what he has said is of immense importance.

He revealed that he spoke up in cabinet about the costs of lockdowns, but that he was prevented from discussing the trade-offs between, for example, immediate infection rates and NHS backlogs later. (The NHS waiting list is predicted to grow to nine million by 2024). He admitted that he had become “very emotional” about the damage to children’s education and welfare brought about by closing schools. Mr Sunak now believes that it was a major mistake to allow the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) to have so much sway over policy. He even suggests that the minutes of SAGE meetings were edited, with the result that dissenting voices were deleted.

Sunak recalled the moment in March 2020 when Professor Neil Ferguson and his team at Imperial College London presented ‘Report 9’ which conjectured that Covid-19 fatalities in the UK could reach 500,000 if no action were taken − but that this figure could be reduced to just 20,000 if the country were plunged into immediate lockdown. (The number of deaths from Covid in the UK as I write stands at 188,000 despite three general lockdowns). And yet discussion of the cost of such precipitous action was “suppressed”. There was never any cost-benefit analysis.

Dominic Cummings, the prime-ministerial advisor who famously violated the lockdown rules in County Durham, came up for air this week, claiming that Sunak was talking “dangerous rubbish”. But then Cummings has his own reputation, or what is left of it, to protect.

Last December, with the advent of the Omicron variant, SAGE wanted to lock down the country for a fourth time. Its models predicted fatalities of 6,000 a day – a figure that turned out to be 20 times the actual number. JP Morgan’s model, which used South African data and to which Sunak had access, was much more accurate. To his credit, Boris Johnson resisted the pressure to impose a fourth lockdown – a decision that was castigated by the Labour party.

In the post-Covid world order of supply-chain disruption, rampant inflation, strikes, social conflict and geopolitical adversity (and let’s not even mention the droughts currently afflicting four continents), it is tempting to want to forget the lockdowns as a bad experience which we must put behind us.

But in my view, and in the opinion of many like me, the fact that the so-called democratic west was tipped into an ill-thought-out policy by a tiny functional elite without deliberation – which had calamitous medium and long-term consequences which are only just beginning to unfold – speaks volumes about the dysfunctional political structures which govern us. If we don’t get our heads around the enormity of the misgovernance perpetrated by those we supposedly elected, then we are bound to make further catastrophic mistakes in the future.

Let’s be clear about what happened: by undebated prime-ministerial fiat, the most basic liberties that we regarded as the emblems of our national life were suddenly proscribed. People were instructed not to go out (and neighbours informed on one another). Police arrested joggers and people sitting on park benches. Social life was outlawed. Children were banned from embracing their grandparents as were adults from having sexual relations with anyone outside their “bubble”. (In World War II there was no such puritanism – on the contrary, freedom of association in all its forms was regarded as essential for national morale). People were discouraged from going to work unless “absolutely necessary” (again the issue is: who decides what is “necessary”). Instead, they were paid by the state to stay at home.

All this offered a massive victory to the cadre of dogmatic Marxists which dominates the education and healthcare sectors, as well as much of the civil service and the mainstream media. Anyone who opposed lockdowns on the grounds that it was doing lasting damage to the economy was shouted down as a backer of “profits over people”. Lord Sumption believes that anyone who questioned the restrictions was “persecuted like Galileo”. Scientists of the calibre of Professors Richard Dingwall, Carl Heneghan, Karol Sikora and Sunetra Gupta (and the Great Barrington Declaration which they signed) were ‘cancelled’ by the mainstream scientific elite – and their backers in Downing Street. The World Health Organisation said at the time that the declaration “lacked a scientific basis”. Yet more than three years on there has been little systematic analysis of how effective lockdowns were.

Any call to let people go about their business and assess their own risks was branded as an assault on the vulnerable – even though the vulnerable were not protected by the NHS and the care-home sector. We now know that 30 percent of people in hospital in England and 45 per cent in Wales caught the virus on NHS wards. If you want to get very sick – go to hospital. But an autocratic “We know best” mentality had taken hold – and it was impossible to gainsay it.

In most western democracies, including our own, the hankering for security – risk aversion – outgunned our innate love of liberty. This had very little impact on the final fatality figures, but had cataclysmic consequences for the economy. In late 2020, the mean age of those dying from Covid-19 in the UK was 82.4 years. The risk of dying from the virus for those under 60 was less than 0.5 percent. And yet the economy was effectively shut down.

Coming clean…

Fraser Nelson, the editor of The Spectator, revealed in the Telegraph last week that he had been trying to get Sunak “to go on the record about what really happened in lockdown” for some time.

The prime minister and his coterie described the lockdown policy as “following the science” – when it was nothing of the kind. In fact, much of the scientific community was in favour of a policy of “herd immunity” until about mid-March 2020. Let’s remember that the Cheltenham race meet was allowed to go ahead, which turned out to be a super-spreader event. Then, several highly dubious computer models “flipped” scientific opinion.

Once lockdown became official orthodoxy it was backed up by the state apparatus: posters of old folk on ventilators; compulsive hand-washing; ubiquitous face ‘muzzles’ (which, now discarded, are polluting the water table); one-way systems in supermarkets (which nobody followed); washing the shopping; and the effective shutdown of the NHS for anything but Covid-related treatment. It was an unbelievable, protracted nightmare from which we could not escape.

Over the last two weeks, we have learnt that excess deaths in the UK are running at record levels. Conditions left undiagnosed and untreated during the lockdowns are now killing people in larger numbers than Covid-19, which generally only killed the elderly and the very frail. So, the effect of the sequential lockdowns has been to create an ongoing health crisis which shows no signs of alleviating soon.

The argument was always that “this time is different”. But the coronavirus pandemic took a well-known path. The first phase of any pandemic leads to high mortality amongst the old and frail – in other words, people with limited life expectancy. When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, there was an abnormally large number of people in this category. Such people would have been prey to a flu pandemic which would not have entailed a policy of lockdown.

Countries – such as Sweden – which have invested in research into the demography of pandemics, pursued more orthodox responses and suffered lower mortality. Sweden eschewed a general lockdown. Looking at the latest John Hopkins University dashboard, Sweden has to date suffered a level of 1,942 fatalities per million from Covid-19; whereas the UK has suffered 2,742 per million. The main variables in so far as Covid mortality is concerned appear to be quality of life – food, housing and general health.

Sweden’s Nordic neighbours, Norway and Denmark, have already indicated that they will not impose further lockdowns even if there is an upsurge of Covid in the coming winter. Truss has now suggested something similar.

American exceptionalism

One paradox of the post-Covid cluster catastrophe in which much of the west is now embroiled is that the US has now pulled ahead of the pack, re-establishing its credentials as the true leader of the “free world” – despite President Biden’s tepid leadership.

The US economy is cruising through the inflationary surge with restored corporate profits; the Federal Reserve is raising rates back to historically ‘normal’ levels, which is sending the mighty dollar through the roof; and the US healthcare system is bearing up in total contrast to its pitiful analogue in the UK. For all that, life expectancy across the US is falling and a report out this week suggests that the pandemic, or rather the lockdowns, erased two decades of progress in maths and reading for American schoolchildren.

The main reason why the US is faring better than the UK and the EU is that it has achieved self-sufficiency in energy – including hydrocarbons – and is not beholden to Vladimir Putin’s machinations. No thanks to Joe Biden, though, but instead to the Trumpian Republicans whose mantra was “Frack, baby, frack”. The net-zero carbon agenda never quite took root in the US as it did in Europe. The US is also virtually self-sufficient in most major agricultural commodities. While the terms of trade for the UK, the EU and others have been traumatised by the spike in the price of gas, the US has taken it on the chin. The UK and Europe now face recession but living standards in the US will most likely accelerate away from those in Europe this year.

That said, US tech stocks – as Jim Mellon correctly predicted at the Master Investor Show this year – are a disaster. The very stocks that soared during the lockdowns – Facebook, Netflix, Zoom et al – are now in freefall.

How lockdowns changed us

The populace at large – including many Tory voters – emerged from the lockdown trauma changed for ever. People now want politicians “to do all they can” to combat the cost-of-living crisis, including higher taxes on “the rich”. Most people now want to renationalise the utilities – especially the sewage-stained water companies – and much of our transport network.

Johnson and his coterie of scientists have turned the British into a nation of socialists. Little wonder that now people want the government to pay their gas bills. But when did setting artificial prices for commodities, the price of which are set in the international markets, become Tory party policy? I thought the great Mrs T said: “You cannot buck the markets”.

Taxes, as Johnson says farewell, are at their highest level since the 1940s as a proportion of GDP and yet public services are universally deemed inadequate. How come? The very Tories who told the electorate in 2019 that Jeremy Corbyn didn’t have a ‘magic money tree’ conjured billions out of thin air to finance the furlough scheme (which at least prevented mass unemployment) and the Covid loan scheme (which was, inevitably, exploited by fraudsters).

“Protect the NHS” the people mouthed: and then they found there was no NHS to protect them.

Inside the dictator’s mind

Putin deliberately launched his assault on Ukraine – and his campaign to resurrect the empire of the Tsars – at the very moment that Covid was in retreat, yet when western economies were most enfeebled by the medium-term consequences of lockdowns.

It is tempting to want to disentangle the effects of lockdown with the geopolitical crisis that now besets us. But Putin would not have embarked on this aggressive course if he thought that the west was still sane – and the disorderly lockdowns (during which BLM protesters were permitted to take to the streets even if the prime minister was not permitted to eat birthday cake in his own flat) demonstrated that the west had lost its bearings. Why would a comity that banned jogging go to war against an expansionist Russia?

The ultimate conspiracy

I recently enjoyed a conversation with an intelligent 15 year old during a country walk. He told me that he suspects that the government is not really in control but is manipulated by a higher-level power which is unelected and anonymous (and he didn’t mean God). I shot back: “What evidence do you have for that”? He ruminated on my question, but I knew he hadn’t changed his mind.

But when one reflects on Sunak’s revelations (and there are more to come), one really must wonder who is in control of our democracy. At the very beginning of the pandemic, Parliament granted the government enabling powers, effectively to do what it wished to tackle the pandemic. We assumed that ministerial and cabinet government would continue, and that policy would be deliberated by government ministers. Now we know that that was not what happened.

Instead, policy was driven by a few scientifically qualified bureaucrats legitimised by the prime minister, who presided at their tedious PowerPoint presentations. In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon spent most of her time on live TV recycling the pandemic models which were used to justify the effective closure of the border with England.

The priority was to minimise infections over the short term without regard for any adverse economic or healthcare outcomes over the medium to long term. So short-term excess mortality was prioritised over medium and long-term excess mortality; and the degree of damage to future economic capacity was simply ignored.

We pride ourselves in this country – or at least we used to – on the stability of our democracy and the degree of transparency which ensures its inherent checks and balances continue to function. In view of what we now know happened during the pandemic, it seems we were deluded.

That, I am very sorry to say, will be the ultimate legacy of the Johnson government.


Her Majesty the Queen will accept Johnson’s resignation as her prime minister on Tuesday at Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire. She will then appoint his successor as her fifteenth prime minister (78th in all) in a ceremony usually referred to as “kissing hands”. I understand that no actual kissing takes place – especially post-Covid – though the details of this arcane ceremony are never discussed.

The question then is: will Johnson share the same RAF aircraft on the flight from London to Aberdeen airport with his successor, or will they be flown separately at state expense? And will they share the same Range Rover for the journey across beautiful Aberdeenshire?

If yes, can one imagine the personal chemistry among the principal passengers? If no, then we are surely in for the first mainstream, media-manufactured scandal of the new premiership, about unnecessary CO2 emissions etc. It could be worse. Henry H Asquith had to travel to Biarritz to kiss the hands of King Edward VII in April 1908.

This will be only the second time time a prime minister has been appointed in Scotland since the advent of that office in April 1721 when Robert Walpole was called upon by George I to steer the national helm as primus inter pares and First Lord of the Treasury. Queen Victoria appointed Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, Marquess of Salisbury at Balmoral in June 1885.

Walpole, later the Earl of Orford, became extraordinarily rich as prime minister, amassing a collection of renaissance paintings which was later acquired by Catherine II (the Great) of Russia, and which still holds pride of place at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. After his fall from grace in 1742, Walpole continued to meddle in politics and was known at the time of his death in 1745 as “the minister behind the curtain”.

These days, prime ministers subsist on higher-grade civil-service incomes (even NHS Trust managers earn more than they); but they can make serious money, as Blair and Cameron have, at the after-party. Johnson needs money: therefore, I doubt he will seek a return to office. But he will not be able to resist the temptation to rattle the cages of his successors. The nation might learn to love him yet. But if I were Truss, I would be far more concerned about what Sunak might do next than Johnson.

As Mark Twain said: “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

Comments (3)

  • Gail Crabb says:

    I agree with most of your article except with the comment about the vulnerable elderly have come to the end of their live anyway, we know that and except that our demise is inevitable but it is the manner in which we die that is in important preferably not on a ventilator and separated from our loved ones.
    My husband and I are truly grateful for the lockdowns which made the general public more aware of “vulnerable ” people
    Gail Crabb aged 82 yrs

  • Bob Mackintosh says:

    Thank you once again, Victor, for a most helpful review. I always look forward to your Friday columns as being one of the highlights of my week. (I hope that doesn’t sound too sad!) In fact, I myself am a victim of the very scenario that you describe. I provide private tutoring in science and maths for secondary age schoolchildren – or did, before the pandemic took hold. My income took a dive from which it has yet to recover (and, yes, we now have a cost-of-living crisis). (I didn’t think Zoom lessons would work for me.) As an example, I paid a preliminary visit (free of charge) to the home of one of the few pupils which the agency did supply, but when I arrived the pupil refused to come out of her room and come down to see me. She spent most of her time online, communicating to friends. When she did go to school, she frequently came home early because she couldn’t cope with it. The parents have since enlisted some psychiatric help. Another potential pupil was equally disturbed. I do wonder whether the unquestioning acceptance of “the science” is also holding us to ransom over a much bigger issue still – climate change and its causes. “Carbon” is held to blame for everything. This is a topic for another day, but I might even try to work out the figures myself. The total concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is very low indeed, and the addition to that concentration in a ten year period released from fossil fuels, which contributes to increased atmospheric temperatures, will be far less still. The only factor that seems more worrying is increased acidity in the oceans, if this is solely attributable to extra dissolved CO2.

  • Theodore says:

    So Liz will add the energy bill help to a long term low interest debt for the consumer to pay back? Makes sense as the utility companies have those direct account relationships to manage this. Lovin’ it.

    Compare that to Rishi’s efforts to throw billions from helicopters. Now looks rash to say the least. In fact, it was profoundly wasteful.

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