“Four More Weeks to, Er…” – The Weakest Excuse for a Lockdown Yet

What justifies a lockdown? That’s the question which, 16 months after the policy was introduced into Western democracies as a draconian tool of disease management, we still don’t have a clear answer to. First sold to the public as a way of mitigating peak health service demand during the initial pandemic wave (and thus supposedly saving lives by ensuring more people could get treated – ignore the irony that the overuse of ventilators during those first few weeks likely increased the mortality rate), the justification has evolved over time. In November it was a “circuit breaker” to save Christmas, though Christmas was not saved. In January it was to buy time to allow the most vulnerable to receive at least their first vaccine dose, though it turned out that was not enough to restore our freedoms.

Yesterday the Prime Minister and his scientific flunkies Chris Witless and Patrick Unbalanced unveiled the Government’s latest excuse to keep the restrictions going. “The objective of this short delay,” said the Prime Minister, “is to use these crucial weeks to save thousands of lives, of lives that would otherwise be lost… by vaccinating millions more people as fast as we can.”

Sir Patrick elaborated on three benefits to the delay:

  1. Some protection for over-18s as they will have been offered one vaccine by July 19th.
  2. More protection for over-40s as more of them will have had both their vaccine doses.
  3. Reopening will be near to the school holidays when no mixing in schools will take place.

What none of the three explained was why these benefits justified four more weeks of restrictions, which hospitality leaders have said will mean a £3 billion loss to the industry during what should be one of its busiest trading periods.

The vaccines are “not 100% effective”, Vallance said, as though anyone had ever suggested they were, “and therefore avoiding a very large peak is very important. Realistically, if we ever got a very large wave, there would be a very large number of people in hospital”.

But would there? If the vaccines are as good as they are reported to be at reducing serious illness – Vallance described them yesterday as “spectacularly more effective than we ever could have hoped for” – then even if there are lots of cases in the young, why should hospitals get overrun?

Vallance explained that it was only because of the vaccines that they weren’t already looking at new lockdown measures: “If we didn’t have the vaccinations we’ve got, we would be looking at what lockdowns would be needed.” This is despite him also acknowledging that: “This is a virus that’s going to be with us forever.” Together these statements imply that lockdowns, too, are going to be with us forever, hanging over us, threatened whenever over-zealous public health advisers can persuade a risk-averse Prime Minister that the latest variant or virus is going to, well, what? As I say, that’s the question that still hasn’t been answered.

The latest restrictions are intended to “reduce the peak by 30-50%”, Vallance said. But will it be a big peak or a small peak? “Thousands of lives” will be saved, said the Prime Minister. But how many thousands? After all, thousands of lives are lost in the U.K. to contagious diseases every year – mostly though not exclusively among the very frail and otherwise unwell. If restrictions on social interaction are justified merely to save “thousands of lives”, why not impose them every winter? Or keep them in place permanently to prevent people getting too close and spreading their germs? That’s the logic of this mad, totalitarian approach to disease control (even if we allow, for the sake of argument, that lockdowns are effective at controlling COVID-19, a theory for which there is no real-world evidence).

The Prime Minister made much of a recent “doubling” in Covid hospital admissions, though on the Government dashboard hospital admissions are still short of doubling.

In addition, those being admitted are, as Chief Executive of NHS Providers Chris Hopson tweeted recently, “younger with less requirement for critical care”.

This probably explains why the number of patients in hospital is not increasing with the admissions, as they are quickly being discharged.

So again, how big is this “third wave” expected to be, that supposedly justifies keeping restrictions in place?

The Government modellers can’t tell us. SAGE’s latest advice is that they have no real idea. In a summary document from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), reported in the Telegraph, the authors state that the scale of a resurgence is “highly uncertain” and it may be “considerably smaller or larger than previous waves”. They add: 

SPI-M cannot determine with confidence whether taking Step 4 of the Roadmap on June 21st would result in a peak that might put unsustainable pressure on the NHS. The epidemic is at a particularly uncertain point in time and models have struggled to reconcile the rapid growth in Delta cases with what appear to be currently flat hospitalisations. While there is a significant resurgence in admissions in all scenarios, the scale of that resurgence is highly uncertain and ranges from considerably smaller than January 2021 to considerably higher.

The teams at Warwick, Imperial and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine all project a big summer wave as their central scenario. However, they expect it to be big whether or not freedom day is delayed, and suggest the delay would save only around 5,000 lives. Is this now Government policy – to impose swingeing restrictions every time a model suggests they can save 5,000 lives (mostly among the frail elderly) from contagious disease?

On the plus side, with all the modelling teams projecting a big summer wave under the current restrictions, it won’t be long before we know if they’re right. And if their projections of doom are yet again proved wrong, will they then be finally discredited? You wouldn’t bet on it. Like kings of old turning to their astrologers for guidance, no amount of failure seems capable of discrediting these merchants of mathematical bluster.

Boris ended on a signal of hope. “On the basis of what we can currently see I am confident that July 19th will be a terminal date, not a ‘not before’ date,” adding that “as things stand I can’t see a reason” to go back into further lockdowns, even though there will be further surges of the disease. He concluded:

I am acutely conscious that it’s not just that nightclubs can’t go ahead and the theatre industry. There are many businesses that need to move beyond social distancing, many jobs where we need to be able to do things in the way that we always used to do them. People are yearning to get back to that… I am confident that we will be, barring unforeseeable new variants, I am confident that we will get there. We want a roadmap that is irreversible and to achieve an irreversible roadmap you have to be cautious.

It sounds vaguely reassuring, I suppose, but we’ve heard it all before. Many now are worried that by bottling his freedom day Boris is now opening the door to permanent curbs on normal life. That is the spectre now haunting this country, and it’s not clear that Boris has the strength of character to banish it.

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