Few questioned whether the risk of Covid could have been managed without the illiberal restrictions of the last year
History may well conclude that the lockdowns were a dreadful mistake
In this space one year ago, I wrote an article that some readers considered unduly pessimistic. It questioned whether the lockdown that had just been announced was justified by the nature of the pandemic since, among its many strictures, was a prohibition on my taking our baby grandson for a walk in his pram. This seemed to me at the time, and still does even after 120,000 deaths, to have been a grotesque overreaction to a contagion that could be managed without recourse to such measures.
Looking back through history it is hard to find a parallel. Only in the depths of war and rampant pestilence was it ever contemplated that the state should deny healthy people the right to leave their homes or associate with their own kith and kin.
As the pandemic appeared to be spreading in large gatherings and households with older family members, limiting wider contact was considered justified and sensible. Yet national lockdowns had never been part of pandemic emergency planning.
It is often stated that we had planned for a flu pandemic only to be hit by Covid instead and forced to adopt a different approach. But in fact the UK preparedness plan for influenza had anticipated the possibility of a novel virus with an unknown incubation time and which in a “reasonable worst-case scenario” would have a fatality rate of 2.5 per cent – much higher than Covid-19 – spreading over one or more waves and causing disruption to the economy.
But while mitigation measures such as better hygiene, protective equipment and the development of vaccines and treatments were part of the plan, lockdowns never were. So how did we end up in not just one but three (so far)?
These were political decisions driven by scientific caution and because this is what China did when the coronavirus was first identified. The Beijing authorities locked down Wuhan because they feared a pestilence on a par with Sars had been released with the potential to kill 10 per cent or more of the population.
By the time the world found out that Covid was nasty but not as virulent as feared, it had embarked on a course of action that those responsible could never accept might have been wrong. Moreover, the death toll means that they will never be persuaded otherwise and the UK Government can say, with some justification, that it avoided the national health service being overwhelmed.
But concerns that the lockdowns would have consequences for younger generations that were not warranted by the scale of the crisis have been borne out by the colossal costs that will have to be paid off over decades, the loss of schooling and, most of all, by the risk aversion inculcated in our children.
Our culture has been changed, perhaps irrevocably. Enough people are now so inured to the sense of security offered by lockdowns that they will accept them in other circumstances, including perhaps a bad flu epidemic next year.
One of the mysteries is why we have accepted them this time round. Behavioural scientists a year ago thought the British would rebel but we haven’t. Largely this is because most people who might have caused a fuss have been insulated from the lockdown’s impact by furlough schemes, online working opportunities that never existed before, and the continued availability of the sustenance without which they would have been intolerable.
Historically, times of grave crisis have manifested themselves in dreadful privation. Yet one of the most remarkable aspects of the past year is that there has been no interruption to the supply of food or anything else as far as I can see.
The shops remain stuffed with fruit and veg from around the world. A month’s supply of provisions can be ordered at the click of a button. A world in which you can get a pineapple delivered to your door within hours of ordering it is not in crisis.
Perhaps the lives of most people in the prosperous West have been so cushioned from adversity that we have forgotten how to deal with it. The reason we have had lockdowns today but didn’t in the past is because we can now and couldn’t then.
And why not you may well ask? If we can save lives, stop people getting ill and have the wherewithal to do so by printing money to fund schemes that help those with no work to survive, what’s wrong with that?
But for how long is this feasible? When this nightmare began we thought that it would last a few weeks; yet not only are we a year on but the Government is seeking to extend emergency powers for another six months even though there is a vaccine and half of the adult population is protected.
On the continent of Europe, curfews are being re-imposed, stay at home orders reissued and economies shutting down once more. Foreign holidays have been ruled out for as far as one can see. Does that look to you like the end? Wasn’t the vaccine supposed to be our escape route?
We have given up a great deal in the past year, and some will rightly point out that many have given up their lives. But above all we have sacrificed that sense of proportion that we once possessed.
It is almost impossible to have this debate without being denounced for callousness, but during the year to March 640,000 people died of all causes. One in five was attributed to Covid. Had there not been a pandemic many would still be alive today though it is impossible to say who because, given the average age of 82, they might have died of something else.
The fact that five times as many people died from non-Covid related conditions (some exacerbated by the lockdown) is a reminder of our mortality. Moreover, the deaths of around 600,000 people every year does not constitute an annual disaster but the normal end-of-life phenomenon.
I do not doubt that the Prime Minister, like the rest of us, wants this to be over soon. But caution in the face of increased risk is now so embedded in the political and popular culture that it will be hard to abandon.
It is telling, indeed, that the date chosen for the commemoration of Covid was not that of the first death, but the start of the lockdown.
Source: the Telegraph