Do we need lockdowns?

The debate about lockdowns tends to get quite polarised. On the one hand some people insist that they are “following the science” and that lockdowns are necessary to get the R number down and “protect the NHS”. On the other hand others argue that they are an excessive restriction of basic freedoms and that they are not cost-free. On this side of the argument people point to the huge economic fall-out from lockdowns as well as other ‘collateral damage’ such as problems with mental health.

The pro-lockdown position in the UK is essentially driven by public health officials. (Having initially gone for ‘herd immunity’ they quickly got cold feet and backtracked when the first deaths started occurring). They study the R number and make predictions (with more or less accuracy) about NHS bed occupancy. The point of lockdowns is to prevent the NHS overflowing. It turns out that the NHS has very little surge capacity.

Surprisingly, the obvious solution – to build short-term temporary facilities dedicated to treating Covid-19 patients seems to have been only partially implemented and then abandoned. Allegedly they can’t find the staff for the Nightingale hospitals. Apart from the fact that if this were really true surely it is something they should have thought about before they spent hundreds of millions building them – it probably isn’t true. They have had more than 6 months to solve this problem. A pyramid staffing system with a few experienced medics leading teams of freshly trained auxiliary nurses could probably have been implemented if there had been a will to do it. One suspects the closed-shop is in operation. The NHS (Public Health England) is on the one hand saying “we are close to bursting and you must stop more patients coming in our doors” and, on the other, blocking steps to expand capacity in a distributed way – probably because they would lose control.

(Another oddity is mass-testing of ‘innocent’ citizens; if the majority of infections are passed on by symptomatic people this appears to be nothing more than a sort of school-type exercise “let’s see who is hiding an apple in their desk / a cough in their sleeve”).

At any event the pro-lockdown position is driven by Public Health officials keen to support the smooth operation of the NHS, in league with insecure politicians desperate to avoid politically disastrous pictures of overflowing hospital wards appearing on TV.

The anti-lockdown position is represented by people who are either concerned about the restriction on liberties or the negative effect on the economy, or both. This position usually argues that only those at high risk from Covid need to be protected. This position has a lot of merit but probably does underestimate the practical difficulties in shielding the most at risk groups completely. And it probably doesn’t have a long-term plan for how the vulnerable groups could be released from their shielding; the only viable plan here is total elimination of the virus.

What seems to be missing from this debate (sometimes) is the idea that individuals can in fact protect themselves. Covid-19 is a respiratory infection. We know how to protect ourselves and each other from respiratory infections; avoid getting to close to people with obvious symptoms; if you are symptomatic then stay at home to protect your workmates. If you are especially vulnerable and there is a lot of it about then stay at home to be sure. While the research on how much transmission is asymptomatic is not yet 100% definitive there is no doubt that most transmission is symptomatic. [2] (After all we are continually told that coughing is a major transmission vector; hence masks). [2] So; if in effect, individuals follow the same strategy that they do for the common cold that will reduce infections.

It is noticeable that governments in the West (say the UK government) have gone into full lockdown mode. It appears that it doesn’t occur to them to ask individuals to take responsibility. They appear to think that they must order individuals to behave in certain ways. Strangely, in ‘authoritarian’ Russia – the opposite is the case. There are very limited quarantine measures – in one town, where I am now, the only measure is that bars should close early. In another town there were public messages urging the over 65s to stay at home. There is a nationwide mask regime. Schools in Moscow are online. But no lockdowns. Case numbers are pretty bad in Russia. But then they are pretty bad in the UK too with its continual series of lockdowns. The UK economy is in freefall; it lost 20% in Q2 of this year. [3] The OECD forecasts that the UK economy will contract by 11.2% in 2020. [4] The Russian economy contracted by 8.4% in Q2 but due, presumably, to the government not having introduced further lockdowns after the initial one is set to contract by only up to 5.5% in 2020 overall. (Bad but not as bad as the UK). [5] These figures provide evidence for those who want to argue that the UK’s lockdowns have been excessive. In Russia people understand that they have to protect themselves. In the UK the government seems to believe that it must be the solution. Strangely, in a “free” society people are being given no freedom at all to take their own measures.

The part missing from the UK’s response is the idea of individual responsibility. The idea that free, rational, responsible individuals can sort out these problems for themselves is completely absent from the government’s narrative and, apparently, from their thinking. What is the point in educating people in science and citizenship if you then deny them, completely, the right to exercise reason and responsibility? So much for ‘freedom’. We are indeed already in a Brave New World of total government control.

To be 100% clear; it is not that ‘lockdowns’ are ‘wrong’ – the basic principle, of avoiding contact so as to avoid passing on the disease, is sound. The question is – can these decisions and these behaviours be a matter for responsible individuals to decide or can they only be organised by being imposed – with a system of surveillance and punishments, by power? The answer of the British government is clear (surveillance and punishment) and in this we see that they are in reality completely at odds with the Enlightenment values which they would claim underpin our society – individual reason and freedom.

Notes

  1. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/coronavirus-understaffed-nightingale-hospital-rejects-dozens-of-patients-pmn6k06qt
  2. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03141-3
  3. https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/grossdomesticproductgdp/articles/coronavirusandtheimpactonoutputintheukeconomy/june2020
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/dec/01/government-covid-oecd-uk-growth-forecast
  5. https://www.reuters.com/article/russia-economy-gdp-idUSR4N2E602E

Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer