I was in favour of a national lockdown in the spring. I am not now, for six main reasons.
Covid is not a very dangerous disease for most people. The death rate is probably around 0.2 per cent of those infected, and most who die are elderly and suffering from other medical conditions. The mortality of those in hospital with Covid has almost halved for the over 80s since the start of the epidemic as treatment has improved.
Lockdowns are lethal. They cause more deaths from cancer, heart disease and suicide as well as job losses, bankruptcies, social disintegration and mental illness especially among the young, who are at least risk from the virus. In April sunshine, many people and firms could cope for a short period – once. Today, in November rain, the pain will be far worse. I will be all right, living in a rural area and able to work online, but what of those who started restaurants or live alone in small flats?
There is overwhelming support in the scientific community for national lockdown, say scientists, but the scientific community and the civil service are on secure public-sector salaries and think in top-down ways.
The first lockdown may not have achieved as much as claimed. The death rate peaked on April 8, just 16 days after lockdown began, implying that voluntary social distancing had already worked: deaths lag infection by four weeks on average. Infectivity is highly uneven so depleting the superspreaders, who tend to get infected earlier, slows the spread. Sweden and Norway are seeing much smaller second waves because they did not lock down so harshly, and no, it’s not because they live in huts in the forest or never hug each other: Sweden is a slightly more urbanised society than Britain.
There is an alternative strategy: protect the vulnerable. In the first wave, because of insufficient protective equipment and testing, health workers carried the virus between care homes and between hospital beds. As the entrepreneur Hugh Osmond points out: “Protecting all hospital and care home patients means protecting around 550,000 people in 12,500 known locations. This could prevent 75 per cent of all Covid fatalities. As opposed to trying to stop infections in 67 million people by shutting down society, with untold consequences.”
As Lord Sumption has argued, democracy itself is at risk. The Government has given itself powers to rule by decree, under a Health Protection Act intended for restricting the movements of infected people, not healthy people. Police forces have the power to issue on-the-spot fines of up to an unprecedented £10,000.
Finally, the second wave shows signs of slowing. In Nottingham, Liverpool and Newcastle the surge of infections that came with students has already peaked. “While cases are still rising across the UK, we want to reassure people that cases have not spiralled out of control, as has been recently reported from other surveys,” says Professor Tim Spector of King’s College London, curator of the widely respected ZOE survey.
A four-week lockdown now will hurt Britain more than the virus and achieve little so it would not be the last.