Journal of the Plague Years XXI: lockdowns do more harm than good

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Journal of the Plague Years XXI: lockdowns do more harm than good


It seems like an aeon ago. On 23 March 2020 we were instructed to stay at home by our prime minister, at a moment when much of the rest of the world had already been shut in.

My guilty secret is that I enjoyed the first lockdown. April and May of 2020 were months of brilliant sunshine. I had recently bought a house in rural Norfolk, much in need of renovation, with an overgrown garden and orchard. There was much to do in that glorious – and extraordinarily tranquil – spring. I was happy to conduct business meetings on Zoom. We made gooseberry jam; we picked raspberries before breakfast. We were lucky. My guilt arose because I knew there were many people not as fortunate as we were, like those living in tower blocks in the inner cities.

I probably would have said in the spring of 2020 that the government of Boris Johnson was doing a good job, and that it was wise “to follow the science” – in other words, the advice of a clique of scientifically educated bureaucrats who expressed their arguments not in words but in PowerPoint slides.

The main thing about the first lockdown was that we didn’t know how long it would last. Just as the Tommies who marched off to Flanders in August 1914 thought it would all be over by Christmas, we supposed the coronavirus weirdness would all be done and dusted by that summer. Our model then – and this sounds strange now – was the authoritarian ferocity of the Chinese lockdown in Hubei Province, which seemed to have arrested the march of the virus once and for all. And there was a hiatus that summer when the flights to Benidorm were full again, until the second wave crashed in late September.

Now I struggle to remember the dates of the four lockdowns we have been through in the UK. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been through near-identical experiences, though in Mark Drakeford’s Wales, bookshops and nightclubs have been relegated to the ultimate circle of risk-aversion purgatory. I think I stopped paying attention when something called “Plan B” was announced in early December and I realised that we would be mask-bound at the Christmas carol service for a second year.

What “the science” tells us about lockdowns

A meta-study (ie a general analysis of 24 peer-reviewed academic papers), published last week by Johns Hopkins University in association with the University of Lund, concluded that the mortality rate during the first wave of the pandemic was reduced by just 0.2 percent by the lockdown. About 52,000 lives were lost in the first wave. Thus, if this report is correct, the total shutdown of commercial and social life and of children’s education saved about 100 lives in the UK – at extraordinary economic cost.

Meanwhile, the much-applauded NHS became a Covid service and anyone with suspected cancer was told to come back next year (or maybe the year after). Health Secretary Sajid Javid told the House of Commons on Tuesday (8 February) that 10 million people who needed healthcare during the pandemic did not receive it. Families in tower blocks were left to fester in poorly ventilated small spaces where coronavirus transmission was accelerated. That particularly harmed the ethnic minorities who largely live in intergenerational households (children infected grandparents). Domestic violence exploded.

Playgrounds and park benches were taped off. Our police, who seem to have given up on the task of catching burglars, poured dye into lakes and reservoirs in order to discourage ‘Joe Public’ from swimming. Elderly folk in residential care homes were confined to their rooms, and often died alone. Small shops were asphyxiated. Exercise was discouraged in a fat nation as gyms were kept shut – even though obesity emerged as a critical comorbidity.

Very few articulate voices were raised against the lockdown consensus – although some, like that of Lord Sumption (a former Justice of the Supreme Court, though I knew him better as a distinguished medieval historian) resonated. Sensible Sweden was pilloried for eschewing widespread lockdowns – even though its mortality rate now stands at only marginally higher than risk-averse Denmark. Here, people were permitted to cough over one another in supermarkets but not allowed to visit dying relatives. At funerals, Christians who wished to recite the Lord’s Prayer were accused of “chanting” and obliged to desist. Very few commentators – with exceptions such as Toby Young – even attempted a cost-benefit analysis to weigh up the balance of misery. That is only being delivered now − which is much too late.

Even after the vaccines arrived and advanced countries like the UK delivered fast-track vaccination programmes, the ‘PowerPoint people’ continued to urge the confinement of the entire population. Yet border controls in the UK were not imposed until 2021. Thus, during the first two lockdowns, travellers could fly in from Wuhan (or wherever) and climb aboard the Tube to central London untested. It is true that the effectiveness of travel restrictions is still a hot topic of debate.

Trusting the people, not shepherding the ‘sheeple’

It didn’t have to be like that. People could have been encouraged to work from home since many people were happy to do so anyway. Most people were naturally inclined to observe social-distancing protocols – the recommended two metres apart accords with a passage in the Holy Quran which commands righteous men not to go closer than a spear’s length from an infected person. That sounds like common sense to me. And mask-wearing – more controversial – could have been encouraged without making it compulsory. Handwashing and covering your mouth when you cough are considerate habits that most people observe anyway.

Most people do not want to get sick; nor do they wish to infect their neighbours if they are sick. Now that (almost) everyone is connected via a smartphone, the state could have informed people in detail of how much risk they were taking by going out in the area in which they lived.

The government of a free nation could have issued guidelines which citizen-adults were expected to adhere to. They could have offered us the chance to assess our own risks, as all previous generations have done. In fact, most social scientists think that in a culturally homogenous nation, people respond to appropriate stimuli and “do the right thing”. Governments can help this process by using judicious heuristics. For instance, “Take your litter home – other people do” is a simple but effective heuristic currently used by Highways England. People are more inclined to heed advice if they think that not to do so would alienate them from the group. It’s basic psychology.

Model mania

The authors of the Johns Hopkins-Lund study criticise the notorious Imperial College, London model of March 2020 (associated with Professor Neil Ferguson) which foresaw 500,000 coronavirus fatalities in the UK without a lockdown. They argue that the model did not consider the way in which people modify their own behaviour during a pandemic. One study cited claimed that voluntary behavioural changes are 10 times as effective as legally binding restrictions. The Swedes concluded early on that since Ferguson’s swine-flu epidemic model of January 2009 was so wrong, they had better take his Covid model with a pinch of salt.

It is often forgotten that there was always a strong phalanx of scientific opinion which opposed lockdowns. The 43 leading academics who first signed the Great Barrington Declaration in October 2020 were portrayed by the mainstream media as eccentric. They have effectively been banned by the BBC, according to Professor Sunetra Gupta – as have those who believe that the virus leaked from a laboratory. The Declaration advocated that the most vulnerable should be shielded while allowing the virus to spread through the general population who would, in time, develop herd immunity. This was before the imminent prospect of mass vaccination programmes.

At least in early January this year, the SAGE modellers admitted that they had got the Omicron wave wrong. The latest variant turned out to be much less virulent than anticipated, even if highly contagious. Yet it was SAGE which advocated the policy of making children wear face masks at schools. And even when that mandate was relaxed, the teaching profession insisted that the children should still be muzzled.

In the UK, Covid deaths linked to the Omnicron variant peaked on 21 January at 273 – more than 1,000 less than the 2021 winter daily peak. That was about one third of the most optimistic scenario advanced by the modellers in early December. Hence the SAGE people were calling for the return to the “rule of six”, limits to the number of people allowed to attend weddings and funerals and no indoor mixing outside familial “bubbles”. It is to Johnson’s credit that he resisted the call from SAGE to impose another full-scale lockdown because it proved to be entirely unnecessary.

As it has turned out, the excess deaths figure for January 2022 across the UK was negative 4,390. That means the total number of deaths in the UK was significantly fewer than the average over the last five years from 2016 to 2021 – even though there were 5,796 Covid deaths during the month. The data show a growing disparity between deaths reported each day on the UK Government Covid Dashboard and the figures reported by the ONS. In the UK, anyone who dies within 28 days of registering a positive Covid test is deemed as a victim of Covid – even if they fell off a ladder. The dashboard is overestimating fatalities.

These so-called models are still not even available for scrutiny – the computer code is never released. There needs to be a central body to audit the scientists’ models. JP Morgan’s model of the spread of the Omicron variant was more accurate because it used South African data.

Economic consequences

The various lockdowns not only reduced economic activity but destroyed productive capacity. How many businesses in the hospitality sector have thrown in the towel? One of the UK’s great competitive advantages was its remarkably flexible labour market, with more than five million people choosing to be self-employed in 2019. That figure is now, apparently, much reduced. The number of over-65s in the workplace has fallen by 11 percent as dispirited seniors take early retirement.

Commuter trains are still only half full; many offices remain near-empty; many civil servants appear to be on a three-day week (the average wait for a driving test is now 15 weeks); universities are still conducting courses online; and some children are still not back at school. In one sense we are psychologically locked down even as the risk of serious illness falls to near nothing. The case fatality rate of the Omicron variant in England has fallen to one tenth of last year’s level at 0.14 percent. This is akin to that for flu.

Political contagion

The worst aspect of the succession of lockdowns across the west has been, in my view, that we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic less free and more sloppily governed. Free speech and open debate are under attack everywhere. Liberal democracy has been undermined – perhaps fatally.

Everywhere, states are drawing up laws to restrict what can be said online – the anti-vaxxers (whom I believe are misguided) are effectively being treated as terrorists. Countries with impeccably liberal credentials such as Canada are moving to make vaccinations compulsory. Canada’s “no jab, no job” policy for public-sector workers has provoked the truckers’ revolt which is currently strangling the fair city of Ottawa. The “Freedom Convoy” has shut down the Ambassador Bridge which connects Windsor, Ontario with Detroit, Michigan. Justin Trudeau’s approval rating is in free fall.

In Australia, prime minister Scott Morrison finally wants to relax the country’s “zero Covid” policy which has made his country a “hermit kingdom”. Australia has been pretty much closed for two years now. But many oppose relaxation, even in a country where 92 percent of adults have been vaccinated, out of fear that even doubly jabbed people require boosters to counter new variants – of which Omicron is just the latest. There have been violent anti-lockdown protests in Melbourne, where the Shrine of Remembrance was defaced, and in Canberra. Even New Zealand’s feted prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, is encountering “zero Covid” fatigue. New Zealanders want to travel again as they used to. Fortunately for Ardern, she was re-elected at an early stage in the pandemic.

Joe Biden was elected US president “to shut down Covid”, yet America will shortly pass the grim milestone of one million Covid deaths. Even the Communist Party of China is now struggling to make its “zero Covid” policy work, with the result that we are now witnessing the strangest and saddest Winter Olympics ever.

Ironically, in Sweden, the country which resisted the rush to lock down, prime minister Stefan Löfven was forced to step down when the coalition he presided over fell apart – largely due to disagreement on rent controls.

And as we know, here in the UK, our prime minister is being roasted daily for having presided over London’s raunchiest nightclub while the common people were confined to their homes. On Wednesday (9 February) he told the Commons that the last Covid restrictions in England (such as mandatory self-isolation) will be lifted on 24 February. But people will not forget that Labour was keen on even more draconian lockdowns than those imposed by the Tories. As a rule, the more left-wing the politician, the more inclined they are towards lockdowns – Marxists believe that the collective always trumps the individual.

The devolved governments of the UK all used the pandemic to showcase how they were more risk-averse (aka “caring”) than irresponsible Westminster (which ultimately picks up the bills).

By endorsing widespread and prolonged lockdowns, the governments of western liberal democracies have broken the social contract that has remained since the advent of universal suffrage about 100 years ago. Lockdowns were presented as a scientifically robust response when they were in fact a large-scale human experiment. No high-profile politician anywhere (except for Donald Trump) has had the courage to state publicly that lockdowns do more harm than good.

It is true that many of the anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown protests underway around the world have been tainted by unrelated conspiracy theories and misfits wielding Confederate flags and even swastikas. That is a function of the polarisation of debate. But the sense of grievance about the loss of civil liberties is real and will persist. There is now evidence that the drive to vaccinate entire populations, including small children, against coronavirus is leading to general vaccination hesitancy. According to the UK Health Security Agency one in 10 children have not had an MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) jab. Even the number of seniors getting jabbed against shingles is dropping. Beware the law of unintended consequences.

I predict that, once Covid-19 becomes an unpleasant memory, every single democratic leader who presided over lockdowns will be driven from office. From the UK to Israel to Australia, the legacy of Covid and the policy responses to it is destroying political careers. The fall of Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, was ultimately caused by the appalling police response to a peaceful vigil for a brutally murdered woman – on the ground of enforcing lockdown rules.

A warning to investors

Similarly, corporations which profited from lockdowns will soon face a backlash. Amazon was one of the standout ‘darlings’ of the lockdown years. However, Stephen Yiu, who runs the Blue Whale Growth Fund, which has risen by 23 percent over the past year, has called time on the online retail behemoth. As inflationary pressures mount, warehouse and logistics costs will rise, impacting gross margins. Additionally, many originally bricks-and-mortar retailers are offering keen competition in cyberspace. Amazon’s cloud-computing business, Amazon Web Services, is another matter – but it is currently bundled up with the retail business. If investors want exposure to cloud computing, Yiu thinks they are better off investing in Google or Microsoft.

It’s interesting that Amazon recently went head-to-head with Visa – and it looks like Amazon blinked first, since the company is still accepting payments on its platform. As we emerge from the pandemic into a world of rampant inflation; the cost-of-living crunch; rising interest rates (and therefore mortgage payments); spiralling public debt; and increased taxation, discretionary spending will fall. That will impact on Amazon. The world has changed.

Comments (6)

  • Ian Basford says:

    so many selective figures quoted again to support a pre-formed argument. A few alternative facts – lockdown saved over 1 million lives. Sweden has had 4 times the deaths of any other Scandinavian country. Anyone who goes in a gents toilet will know that 75% of most men do still not wash their hands! Some more supported illusive facts – Early days – Covid is a disease of poor nations, yet the country with the highest number of deaths is the medically most advanced nation.

  • Bob Mackintosh says:

    I too remember that glorious Spring of 2020. There was hardly any rainfall at all in May in southern England, leading to an approximate 50% reduction in hay and wheat crops later in the year. I interpreted the lockdown rules as freely as possible. I went for a walk most evenings, in the countryside near where I then lived in Lechlade on Thames, Glos.*, and one evening I heard a strange banging noise. I looked at my watch and saw that it was 8pm, and it was a Thursday. It was the occupants of some unseen farmhouse, standing outside their door and banging pans in support of the NHS. There was open-air gym equipment for adults in the local park, but it had signs to say we musn’t use it. However I continued to do my 10 min. circuit occasionally, whilst keeping a weather eye open for the local bobby. Transmission of the virus in the open air is virtually impossible, because it will disperse in the air so quickly. But the other main concern in 2020 was contamination of surfaces – I wiped down surfaces before and after using any piece of equipment – but subsequent opinion has put the surface risk as far less than previously thought. Boris Johnson had Covid himself in April 2020, and was close to expiring at one stage I believe – which makes his cavalier atttitude to the No. 10 garden party the following month even more unbelievable. (* I now live in Norfolk (Attleborough) myself.)

  • Mark Mitchell says:

    “The main thing about the first lockdown was that we didn’t know how long it would last. ”

    Wasn’t the length of the first lockdown supposed to be three weeks to flatten a Mexican hat (sombrero)

  • S Huggins says:

    The one silver lining of the whole pandemic is that COVID has acted as a warning shot across the bows of the world’s health services and governments. All the lessons learnt and mistakes made over the last two years will help when the world suffers from an actual plague. Covid is and was a non-event, a ‘panic-demic’ if you will. But the systems required to help us all in an actual brutal, kills one-in-five style plague, have now been shown to need much work on them. I just hope the required development is being carried out as we speak. As for the lockdowns – I won’t be told what to do next time; I will make my own mind up. If they ever want to lock me down again, I’m afraid they will have to lock me up.

  • Simon Abbey says:

    Concur about Ms Dick, but to fully qualify that point, isn’t the London Mayor in turn trying to take the Covid heat off himself?

    Dominoes will fall..

  • ian kestin says:

    In general, I agree with your arguments, but there are a number of problems with the Johns Hopkins paper you cite. It is a meta-analysis and like all meta-analyses, can be gamed. They identified 18,590 papers on the topic of lockdowns. Out of these, you could select some to support any viewpoint at all. The authors included 24 papers in their analysis.
    Their definition of lock down was any compulsory legally enforced mea sure, so a mask mandate is counted. Most people would think of lock down as some kind of restriction on movement. The effect of a lock down is to reduce transmission, but this was not the end point of their analysis. Deaths were the outcome measure, and these would have a delayed and uncertain relationship with a lock down.

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