False choice between ‘freedom’ and lockdown

The debate on what the policy response to the Sars-Cov-2 epidemic should be continues to split people into two opposing camps. On the one hand the UK government seems now to be focussed on zero Covid. Overall deaths have been below the annual average for weeks now. Covid deaths per day are into single numbers (perhaps about what flu would normally be at this time of year?). As a result of the vaccines hospital admissions remain low and well, well, within capacity. But still there are significant restrictions – especially on International travel. On borders they are still pursuing the impossible goal of ‘keeping variants out’. Impossible, firstly, because variants can emerge internally and secondly because unless you 100% hermetically seal the border then variants will sneak in. So, right now, all that is happening is that hundreds of thousands of people are being inconvenienced for no rational purpose at all. (The select group of people in government, their contractors, the BBC and defence and major infrastructure workers who are exempt from quarantine are of course not inconvenienced).

The debate is sometimes framed as “lockdown” v. “let it rip”. “Let it rip” is usually expressed as “let it rip but protect the vulnerable”. The assumption underlying this way of framing the debate is that the solution, whatever it is, has to be something which is enforced from the top or doesn’t happen at all. Missing from this debate is the idea that individuals can regulate themselves.

Covid-19 is a respiratory infection. People in fact know how to minimise risk from respiratory infections. While Covid-19 can transmit asymptomatically and this is a particular problem especially in certain settings – like Care Homes – it does seem to be the case that most transmission is probably symptomatic. [1] If people were simply to follow basic standard behaviour as they do when they have flu: stay at home and don’t go to work, try to avoid coughing on your loved ones, and if you are especially vulnerable then take extra care and avoid environments where you might be exposed to the virus then my guess is that this would achieve a substantial reduction in transmission. The debate should not be “lockdown v. let it rip”. Rather; we should all simply act responsibly.

There is a real problem that people on low and unstable incomes may be averse to taking 10 days off work and losing money. The government has been willing to waste billions on a Test and Trace system which simply doesn’t work. [2] When infections were at a low point in May 2021 the system failed to prevent a third wave; precisely the function it should have fulfilled. (Not just ‘unrealistic expectations’ as the head of the scam is now claiming; it doesn’t do what it said it would do. It doesn’t work). They are still pouring billions into paying people not to work – many of these people could certainly have managed without these extra payments. But they have steadfastly refused to support self-isolation by supporting those for whom the loss of two weeks income would spell financial disaster. Presumably supporting this class – the poor essentially – is simply an anathema to them. (Of course they are worried that people would get infected just to get the payments -but this risk could be managed [3]).

In short – what has been missing from the debate is the extent to which transmission can be reduced by the voluntary behaviour of sensible, rational, adults. What is the point of educating people to be capable of understanding science (sufficiently at least to understand the concept of virus transmission) and ethical concepts about personal responsibility if, at the drop of a hat, you panic and just start ordering them about and threatening them with huge fines?

It is surprising for some observers just how willing millions (the majority perhaps) of Britons have so readily allowed themselves to be ordered about and treated like slaves/soldiers – ready to do whatever the Leadership says. The Enlightenment gave us the ideal, derived from reason, that we are individuals who are capable of critical thought who can thus self-regulate behaviour in our own interests and in the interests of our neighbours. This ideal, the theoretical foundation of our ‘free’ society, has been completely abandoned, indeed not even referenced. With scarcely a murmur of protest. And in many cases enthusiastically. It is a strange sight. One is reminded of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov – who explained that people don’t want freedom. They in fact want to be treated like little children. It makes things simpler for them. Something which the Grand Inquisitor understands all too well.


  1. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03141-3
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/13/what-has-gone-wrong-with-englands-covid-test-and-trace-system
  3. For example, the payments could be matched to actual income and there could be checks to ensure people weren’t working. Of course – this solution does not deal with those who earn money in the black economy who would not want to declare it. But in the end I am sure that a system could have been devised that would minimize the cases of deliberate self-infection.

Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer