by Guy de la Bédoyère
“Let’s work the problem people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.” So says Eugene Kranz, NASA’s Chief Flight Director in Mission Control in the motion picture Apollo 13, when confronted by the discovery that the spacecraft was crippled.
What followed is attested as a remarkable example of co-operative team work that brought the crew safely home to Earth. They were confronted by a problem that had never been anticipated and they had only hours to start solving it.
It has become clearer with every passing day that the response to the COVID-19 crisis was driven by guesswork from the start and, yes, that may well have made things worse. Government policy here and abroad has continued to be driven by guesswork. Some of it is informed guesswork, some less so, but it is guesswork just the same. That was even openly admitted by Professor Graham Medley of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who oversees the mathematical modelling for SAGE. To be fair, there is a great deal of effort now being put into working the problem, but a great deal of that work is going to have to be applied to solving the new problems created by diving in based on guessing.
Even the lockdown was a guess, and not founded on any serious precedent. In the UK it was recommended by Imperial College’s team, despite their own disclaimer about its chances of success.
It’s hardly surprising that two months later the biggest problem now facing us is not so much the virus but how to get out of a lockdown that has the power to cripple our society on a scale never before seen, by causing untold economic ruin, death and trauma.
One of the government’s few unmitigated successes to date has been its lockdown propaganda. This convinced most of the British population that the crisis was so lethal and so unparalleled in the potential threat it presented that literally every other consideration was worth subordinating, even abandoning, in order to get the virus under control.
We’ve reached the point where a large proportion of the population seem to be unable to imagine living any other way until the risk of the virus, whatever it is, has been made the dead parrot of epidemiology: it must cease to be and at any price. The government wants to wind back the lockdown but is now hoist by its own petard.
The other day I wrote an essay for this site called “Britain’s Covid Reich”. Since then, I’ve been able to look at some of the comments which have popped up here either about that essay or related points.
One person made a comment about the way people blithely spread flu about without any concern for those who will die from it, and the implication was a criticism of any suggestion we should not have the lockdown.
Now that’s actually a very logical argument isn’t it? And it cuts right to the heart of why the lockdown is so dangerous a precedent to set – for any nation, or perhaps better for any individual living in that nation. One of the key questions is: how do you get out of a lockdown once it’s been started?
And it’s becoming painfully apparent that literally nobody responsible for ordering a lockdown gave getting out of it any thought whatsoever. The guessing which led to it was bad enough. But this wasn’t even guesswork. It reminded me of Coyote (us) chasing Roadrunner (the virus) off a cliff – only when Coyote realises what he’s done, with a horrified glance to camera first, does he crash-dive to the bottom.
Ordering a lockdown was also like a lobster climbing into a lobster pot. The pot looks inviting. The threats are kept outside and the lobster can settle in and feel safe. But of course the threat remains outside, waiting like a spider to pounce on the lobster who has already discovered that escape is all but impossible anyway. That might have occurred to him if he had both the intelligence to think the consequences through and the wit to work the problem before making things worse than they already were.
When it comes to a disease there is another complication. Lockdowns are designed to suppress the spread of a disease. But that is only half the story. If the disease cannot spread then neither can immunity, and that reinforces the lobster pot trap. The lobster pot lockdown then increasingly becomes a self-perpetuating and self-inflicted incarceration.
It’s worth considering for just a moment how pejorative the word “lockdown” is. The first half is all about being secured behind a prison door. Indeed it’s no surprise that prisons operate lockdowns to keep inmates under control, operating what they call “lockdown periods” or “full lockdowns”.
The second half of the word is all about submission. Lockdown means to hold people down by locking them up. It means control and enforcement. The word was only used once in the Imperial College modelling document of March 16th (which we’ll call Ferguson20 hereafter), the preference then being for calling such precautions “non-pharmaceutical interventions”. In that document the team discussed local lockdowns that were imposed in certain US cities during the influenza epidemic of 1918–19. Infection and mortality rates dropped in those places but “transmission rebounded once controls were lifted”.1Ferguson20, p.3: Neil M Ferguson, Daniel Laydon, Gemma Nedjati-Gilani et al. “Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID-19 mortality and healthcare demand”, Imperial College London (16-03-2020), doi: https://doi.org/10.25561/77482.
One of the fascinating aspects of Ferguson20 is how on one hand it recommended a full-scale lockdown but persistently undermined this argument with caveats. Here’s how it implicitly argued that a lockdown would have to stay in place indefinitely:
However, if intensive NPI packages aimed at suppression are not maintained, our analysis suggests that transmission will rapidly rebound, potentially producing an epidemic comparable in scale to what would have been seen had no interventions been adopted.Ferguson20, p.15.
In the very next breath Ferguson20 contradicted itself by saying that “Long-term suppression may not be a feasible policy in many countries”. No effort was made to explain how this could be squared this with the eventual conclusion that epidemic suppression (through a lockdown) was the only viable policy in spite of “profound” social and economic consequences, even going so far as to say the measures would have to stay in place “until a vaccine becomes available”.2Ferguson20, p.20.
These consequences of course were not explored or discussed beyond vaguely suggesting that “it remains to be seen” whether the effects of those consequences could be “reduced”. Nor were any of the other consequences we have all learned about to our cost such as the decimation of wider non-COVID medical treatment.
Now, the obvious response to that would be that it wasn’t Ferguson20’s job to explore the consequences. They were just guessing and as we are all starting to learn, their entire model was based on what seems to have been profoundly flawed code.
But it was the government’s responsibility. Instead they rode into the battle on the back of Ferguson20’s guesswork and its bizarrely contradictory recommendations.
And there you have it – the central flaw in the lockdown concept to suppress a highly contagious disease: once imposed you can’t lift it without reviving the very problem you were trying to solve with a solution that wasn’t a solution but only a diversion.
Yet now, not only is “lockdown” the definition of the way we have been obliged by law to live, but it’s also become something a remarkably large number of people in Britain are scared of relinquishing. This is in spite of the fact that a true prison lockdown is used to keep people guilty of crimes under control. Yet in Britain’s national lockdown the crime is to breach some of its provisions.
The dangers of lockdown go much further in ways that Ferguson20 never thought of.
If we lock down society, and it stays locked down, then all sorts of risks could be mitigated or suppressed. In theory. After all, acknowledging that all people over 70 (as a general group) are more “at risk” from any number of medical threats is hardly a radical observation. They are more likely to suffer badly from flu, heart disease, cancer of any sort, or even from having a fall. Why not protect them from all sorts of infections and accidents by keeping them at home? Just think how much that would “protect the NHS”. To them we can add younger people who are judged to be vulnerable on the basis that they suffer from any one or more of an endless list of underlying conditions.
This is the terrifying logic at the heart of the lockdown. It would make perfect sense to lock down at least parts of society on a more-or-less permanent basis.
But since we have never locked down society on a permanent basis, and nor is there any prospect of doing so because society would be stopped in its tracks from that moment on, why on Earth have we locked down society because of one threat? I’m not for one minute denying that the risk from COVID-19 exists, though it remains a matter of fact that no-one yet knows what that risk is to any given individual. We are just beginning to get a more accurate picture.
I was reminded of all this by an experience when I was a teacher. We staff were once shown a block graph of History A-level results for a group of students who had arrived at the school seven years previously with identical Key Stage 2 levels. Of the five A-level grades, the largest block was B. “So”, the teacher in charge of school data announced, “you can see that students with that Key Stage 2 grade are most likely to get a B in History seven years later”.
He seemed quite pleased with this clear and apparently unequivocal judgement. The problem was that the sum of those who gained an A or C–E was larger than those who obtained a B. In other words it was patently obvious that a student in that group was more likely not to get a B but that it was impossible to say which of the other four grades that would be. I pointed this out. He looked puzzled and replied “I never thought of that”, an answer that astonished me. I suppose some of the same thoughts must now be going through some scientists’ and politicians’ heads too.
Although that example involved exam grades and not risk from disease, this is still precisely how the risk from COVID-19 has been depicted to the public, not only by the government and some of its scientific advisers but also a large portion of the media. We will all die from any one or maybe more than one of the multifarious risks that face all forms of life on this planet but it is rarely possible well in advance to have the slightest idea what that will be.
Instead, in an extraordinary fit of mass delusion the notion has been planted in many people’s minds that if they dare exit their houses or immediate family circles they will be confronted with just one vast, looming and lethal threat that supplants the sum of all other threats and that every aspect of all our behaviour must be modified to meet that threat. In short, people are going about now fixated that COVID-19 outweighs all other risks. Part of this goes back to Ferguson20 where the threat from COVID-19 was presented as the exclusive threat facing everyone in the UK.
The media’s reckless love of hyperbole and obsession with stories “moving” or “breaking” has led to their absurd use of words and terms like “soaring” and “ramping up” at every possible opportunity. This has played a colossal role in creating a sense of fear. Their culpability for the hysteria is on an astronomical scale and it will be years before the extent of the damage they have done can be calculated.
Rendered temporarily bored out of their minds with nothing to exaggerate after Johnson’s landslide victory at the end of 2019, some of the television and print media have pounced on COVID-19 like starving rats. The daily news-round matches the distortion of relative risk. There is no other news. It’s COVID-19 from start to finish. No wonder the public believes there’s nothing else to think about.
Let’s take a single example. On BBC Breakfast on Saturday May 16th, a reporter had been sent to a beauty spot. Her purpose? To stand in front of the enticing countryside to tell people not to come there and infect the locals, while presumably enjoying her own day out. It was like planting a large box of chocolates in front of a child and telling the child not to touch them.
The fact remains that almost every person is far more likely to die from something other than COVID-19, but until it happens no-one will know what the cause will be. The virus has been added, at least temporarily, to the suite of risks which we face every day but has been treated as if it was not only the dominant risk but also virtually the only one.
This peculiarly blinkered madness is already revealing the potentially disastrous consequences of the lockdown. Thousands of cancer patients have had their treatments suspended or never even started. Thousands more in whom cancer is now developing have not been diagnosed. There must be untold numbers of other conditions which have not been dealt with either. And we haven’t even yet really confronted the wholesale cessation of dental treatment.
Then there are the care homes into which elderly people were pushed from hospital to free up NHS beds and staff. Why? Because everything was subordinated to the idea that the only risk, the only risk that mattered, was COVID-19. Yet that decision was based on a comprehensive lack of basic knowledge about the disease’s reach or even the extent to which it kills, and a flawed statistical model.
Yet that is what has led the Great British Public right into the trap of believing that unprecedented legal limits on their personal freedom are not only their path to salvation from the virus but which will also afford them perpetual protection. Look at how many now protest that if the lockdown is lifted they will be immediately cut down by the disease that stalks the streets.
The protestations about reopening schools from teachers and teaching unions is bordering on complete hysteria. But we all know schools are, and always have been, among the epicentres of some infections. Why then do we not close them forever? All children to be educated at home in perpetuity, confined to their bedrooms and virtual relationships.
One primary school headteacher in Sheerness is reported as having written to parents saying that because social distancing in schools is impossible he cannot accept the government’s advice and assurances. He’d rather they repeated a year than place them at risk, no matter the risk to their future by setting them back so early in their lives.3https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/coronavirus-head-teacher-tells-parents-22022935 The safe scenario he seems to envisage must be provided by the government cannot and will not ever exist. Indeed, “safety” seems to have turned into a nebulous fantasy world at the end of the rainbow.
The logical consequence is that there would appear to be no context in which he could ever advise the parents of his pupils to send them back to school. In a bizarre paradox, he justified his position by saying that disease spreads easily in schools.
Flu is a modest risk to children with around a dozen dying annually in England, matching very closely the recorded COVID-19 mortality for children to date.4https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0163445313003733 Presumably it’s considerably more of a risk to the grandparents they might give it to. This headteacher is one who is simply boxing himself into a lockdown corner. Using his own argument, it would be impossible for him ever to justify opening his school since it’s quite clear children must be isolated and kept away from everyone else.
Witness also the number of terrorised ordinary members of the public who overnight became willing state informants, eagerly calling the police to denounce their neighbours. Some surviving records from Germany show that far from it being the Gestapo parking a surveillance unit on every street corner it was the German public who took on that role. In the town of Würzburg in Germany during the 1930s, the Gestapo had just 28 officials for a town of around one million. It would have been impossible for the Gestapo to function there without the enthusiastic compliance of the people. In the event somewhere between 80–90% of the crimes reported had come from ordinary citizens. Indeed, most of the Gestapo’s time was taken up in Würzburg processing the denunciations. “Every German was at risk from denunciation”.5The Nazis: A Warning from History, episode 2.
The lockdown depends on the legal denial of ordinary rights on the basis that we will best be protected that way. This has already proceeded dangerously far in Britain because so many people have been successfully convinced that it is the only means by which they will be saved from a single threat. It is an extremely short jump from that state of mind to becoming convinced that it is the only way to protect us from everything.
We can give thanks (for the moment) that Britain has not gone as far as New Zealand, where the COVID-19 Public Health Response Bill was passed by a slim majority on May 13th.6https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12331547 It allows the police a range of arbitrary powers in enforcing alert levels, for example warrantless searches of houses. Once made law, such powers take a great deal to remove them.
The UK government now knows that a vaccine may never come and is openly admitting that fact. If a vaccine is found, it will take a longer time than anyone would care to admit to distribute it widely enough to be effective. As we saw earlier, Ferguson20’s lockdown recommendations were in part predicated on the assumption that a vaccine would become available eventually.
Without a vaccine, all the arguments Ferguson20 and the government propounded for having a lockdown are equally good reasons for keeping it in place indefinitely. So also are many of the arguments put by its supporters who are increasingly resorting to insisting on a state of total risk-free safety being a pre-condition of emerging from their living-rooms.
At every level the lockdown suits the state of mind of a large proportion of the population which has been terrorised into compliance. A largely enthusiastic and compliant media has made the job even easier.
The NHS narrative was a perfect propaganda story designed to terrorise people into acquiescence. Day after day we have been treated to the broadcast media’s voyeuristic virus parade of tears death-porn stories, especially involving NHS workers. When the ONS figures came out about the real rates of deaths by profession the BBC ran the story on its website, but initially managed to avoid mentioning it on the television news.7https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-52616080 Since then, the tales of the NHS Somme seem to have quietly disappeared.
And then there is the question of saving face. Having made decisions to impose a lockdown there is unlikely to be a government on Earth that will ever concede it might have been a bad call. All organizations including governments invariably prioritise saving face over any other consideration, regardless of whether that involves digging themselves in deeper.
In 1774, Alexander Hamilton came out with this observation. Given that he was only in his early twenties it is humbling to see how his perception and understanding outclasses that of all politicians today:
To retract an error even in the beginning is no easy task. Perseverance confirms us in it and rivets the difficulty; but in a public station, to have been in an error, and to have persisted in it, when it is detected, ruins both reputation and fortune. To this we may add that disappointment and opposition inflame the minds of men and attach them still more to their mistakes.Quoted by Chernow, R., Alexander Hamilton (Head of Zeus, London 2016), p. 59.
The other day Johan Giesecke of WHO responded to a journalist on Sky Australia asking what that country and New Zealand are going to do about their lockdowns by asking: “What will you do for the next thirty years?’8https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SdUmsMLW0o
That was a piercing question to which there is, as yet, no answer. We will never undo some of the damage caused by the lockdown. The lockdown was founded on guesswork and ignorance, and fuelled by the propaganda of fear. Now the only possible course of action is to end it – unless we want the living death of staying inside our lobster pots.
Bertrand Russell once said “those who fear life are already three parts dead”.9Marriage and Morals (1929), ch. 19. At least the UK government is starting to understand that.
On May 17th, Andrew Marr challenged Michael Gove with the proposition that it was impossible to guarantee teachers would not catch the virus. In his reply, Gove homed in on the essential problem that cuts right to the heart of the flawed notion of the lockdown, which Ferguson20 alluded to but failed to understand the true logical implications of. Gove said:
None of us can guarantee that anyone will be entirely free [from a threat of catching the virus] unless they are perpetually imprisoned in their own home.Michael Gove, Andrew Marr, May 17th 2020.
In that once sentence Gove hit the mark. It applies to almost every risk we face every day, exposing the lockdown ultimately as a futile and illogical device to deal with a disease in any sustainable way. Yet, incredibly, within in a few weeks a large proportion of the UK population seem to have come to believe that indefinite imprisonment is a better prospect than accepting that life involves any risk at all.
With their lockdowns, the governments of the UK and many other countries have created far bigger problems than the one they were trying to solve. These are psychological, practical, social and economic problems, each with potentially devastating consequences that have the power to make the virus look like a passing inconvenience by comparison. Let’s hope they and their advisers work those problems and don’t make things worse than they already have by doing any more guessing or listening to people guessing on their behalf.
Because if they fail in that endeavour then we’ll really know what a crisis looks like. At least we’ve learned one lesson: we can never, ever do anything like this again because our entire way of life could not withstand the shock.