Striking the Right Balance

by Guy de la Bédoyère

Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.

Karl Popper, philosopher

One of the most unedifying developments in the whole debate about lockdowns has been the descent into ever more polarised positions, especially the vilification of anyone deemed to be a dissenter about the efficacy of lockdowns. But it cuts both ways. Some who dispute lockdowns have been as intolerant of the other point of view.

Why is this? I think because as the crisis has deepened and lengthened, it has proved to be beyond any easy resolution. Lockdowns have worked in certain ways, but they certainly haven’t exterminated the virus and they aren’t sustainable. We have had three lockdowns, but they haven’t stopped a chronically high death rate. Non-lockdowns haven’t worked either. We can pick and choose our data, but almost every country has paid a price of sorts.

Now you can see the ever-mounting recriminations. The most ardent proponents of lockdowns, including those who were ambivalent at the start, blame the Government for not being quick enough, sustained enough, or committed enough, and anyone else for somehow being complicit in the deaths of Covid victims. Those most opposed to lockdowns are beside themselves with frustration at the mounting cost in other areas

In short, this was and is a very complex problem that no single solution was ever going to be able to tackle. As time has gone on the complications have become ever more apparent.

Human beings spend their lives trying to solve problems, individually and collectively. We have achieved enormous successes. But a Stoic philosopher would tell you that the sum total of good and bad never changes. Every solution we devise creates new problems or reveals new problems. Heated homes keep us warm and comfortable and help us to live longer and healthier lives. The act of heating homes contributes to global warming which we are constantly told now is a crisis so deep that it threatens our very existence.

Now we are told we must march towards the promised land of zero-carbon – a utopian vision of having our cake and eating it. Given the hundreds of thousands of years of human existence to date you’d have thought we might have realised the choices we face are a little more complex than that. The truth is there are many ways to skin a cat but it’s very easy to refuse to believe, having chosen one method, that there might be another solution.

It would be surprising therefore if lockdowns, whatever they achieved, did not create problems of their own. That is even less surprising when one considers that lockdowns have never been tried before. This was conceded by Imperial College right back at the beginning of the crisis.

We emphasise that it is not at all certain that suppression will succeed long term; no public health intervention with such disruptive effects on society has been previously attempted for such a long duration of time. How populations and societies will respond remains unclear.1

Now, however, all this is apparently beyond legitimate debate. Eventually, we are going to have weigh up the advantages of lockdowns against the fallout they create and make a judgement about when and how, or even if, to bring them to an end rather than see them as a continuous and permanent part of public health policy.

One consistent feature of history is to see how what seemed like the right solution at the time turns out to be damned by posterity. I am not second-guessing our descendants’ judgement on this era, merely drawing attention to the possibility that those in the future, armed with the evidence for what lockdowns achieved and the problems they caused (which we at present lack), may take a different view to us. Or they may not. Time will tell.

One only needs to think of armed bands of vigilantes who so hastily strung up critics of the regime in Germany in 1945 and who were equally quickly prosecuted and imprisoned a few months later. Today’s certainties can reverse so quickly.

It also depends on the circumstances. Every country’s experience has been different. The holding up of Australia and New Zealand as setting the benchmark is absurd. Smaller and more widely dispersed populations and geographically more isolated, and the disease was far less well seeded when they locked down. I left New Zealand on March 7th 2020 after giving a three-week lecture tour. There were no precautions in place when we flew out of Auckland and none when we reached Perth later that day.

Western Australia was only just starting to shut down when we headed home early 13 days afterwards on March 20th. Britain locked down on March 24th, four days later. It is ridiculous and completely unhelpful to slate the British Government for not acting more quickly. At the time no-one knew what was going on and the idea we’d spend the next year as we have done obviously unthinkable.

Both Australia and New Zealand have engaged now increasingly with the idea of zero-Covid which certainly seems to be driving the political agenda on national and regional levels. Is that attainable? In theory yes, though in practice at the very least they will both continue to experience odd cases emerging. In time both nations, along with certain other countries, will have to decide whether even keeping the disease at that level merits more or less permanent isolation from the rest of the world, and immediate lockdowns every time a case emerges. Zero-Covid, if it ever happens, is a utopian vision decades down the line, not months.

A long-term historical perspective would tell anyone that the most probable outcome over a longer period of time will reveal a much wider perspective on the solutions currently adopted in Australia and New Zealand. This will form the basis of future policy even if in their current moods of absolute certainty that seems unthinkable.

Many years ago, I wrote a book about the discovery of the polio vaccines in the 1950s. It was a most instructive experience in several ways. Obviously, polio is not a respiratory illness. The polio virus is normally transmitted in fecal material that enters water which is ingested. Although devastating to some of those who caught it, it was also capable of giving many of those infected a mild illness and some were asymptomatic. Those worst affected were killed or paralysed for life. I am old enough to remember children who struggled to walk because they’d had it.

The vaccines were unlike those created for Covid and relied on using killed or live weakened forms of the virus. They were brilliantly successful, despite some issues with early batches. The cheaper live form supplanted the killed form because it was easier to administer. Nowadays the killed (inactivated) form is more often used because it is less likely to cause polio in people with existing illnesses that have weakened immune systems.

To date though polio is not wholly eradicated. For various reasons, a small number of communities in the Third World have declined the vaccine and still experience polio. This means that the theoretical risk of another case arriving somewhere in the rest of the world still exists, just as it will remain so for Australia, New Zealand, and any other nation where the ideology of zero-Covid is taking hold.

The Centers for Disease Control and Protection website says:

The first polio vaccine was available in the United States in 1955. Thanks to widespread use of polio vaccine, the United States has been polio-free since 1979. But poliovirus is still a threat in some countries. It takes only one traveler with polio to bring the disease into the United States. The best way to keep the United States polio-free is to maintain high immunity (protection) in the U.S. population against polio through vaccination.

I might add that polio exists in dozens of different forms, each of different potency and potential to cause serious illness, contained within three immunological varieties. The vaccines have to work against all three to be effective and work by using a combination of the weakest forms in each immunological variety.

You’ll note that we are now over a half a century beyond the introduction of the polio vaccine, but the disease remains a potentially imported threat. Yet this has never been the basis of restricting entry to any country because it would be a hopelessly unrealistic prospect. Vaccination is our best tool, but no-one should expect that that, or any other precaution like closed borders, will generate a risk-free environment.

Polio is only a single example. The control of that disease with vaccines is a powerful and a moving story. But the mere fact that the vaccine story has been a long one, and involved changes of policy, and that the disease remains a potential threat, are important ingredients in understanding epidemiology even at a lay person’s level and that it is not a fixed science.

Never before have we so needed or deserved to be in a position where we are fully informed. This is integral to evaluating our present risk on an individual and community level.

A contributory aspect to the intolerance of debate has the been the willingness of some journalists to abandon any real sense of enquiry. Understanding why is important. It has much to do with the dynamic of the newsroom and the broadcast environment.

There’s been a lot of talk about ‘death porn’ featuring in news broadcasts and it has provoked some controversy. Some people, such as Janet Daley, take the view that all it achieves is to terrorise the already terrified more and that it will be ignored by those who deny there has been a litany of tragic and painful deaths from Covid in hospitals. Others, and Dame Esther Rantzen is one of them, believe that such items are essential in order to convince Covid-deniers of the truth.

Both points are quite possibly true rather than being mutually exclusive. It’s been an increasingly dispiriting aspect of this debate that the assumption is one side is all right and the other side is all wrong. Dialogue is disappearing.

However, it is worth trying to understand the culture of a broadcast newsroom which in its essence has nothing to do with Covid. Unlike most people I actually worked in a BBC radio newsroom in the 1980s and 1990s. I saw at first hand the dynamics at work which will be far from evident either to a viewer or a listener.

I should add that there is a dramatic contrast with programmes like Radio 4’s More or Less. This outstandingly balanced show is quite clinical in its evaluation of how data has been used and misused in the Covid context, often identifying how misleading some information has been. We could do with a great deal more of that. And there are some broadcast journalists who have done a very good job of trying to be balanced and sober in their assessment of the news. I’d single out the BBC’s Nick Triggle out as a sound example.

However, broadcast newsrooms are filled with competitive and ambitious reporters and presenters. They are also filled with ambitious and competitive editors and producers. The reporters are competing with one another to have their story featured at the top of the bulletin. It’s how they prove themselves to themselves and everyone else. More than a few are impatient, impetuous, and impulsive. Usually highly educated and intelligent and usually well-intentioned, they rarely have time or allow themselves time to absorb and consider what they’re doing. I’m not suggesting for one moment that any there is any conscious motivation to mislead, but there are consequences of that sort of environment.

Over the last four decades electronic news gathering has proceeded at pace, ever increasing the quantity of ‘news’ poured into Broadcasting House and every other news outlet. The number of channels has proliferated exponentially. When I started at the BBC in 1981 there were only three TV channels in this country. Three! Every one of the now far more numerous news channels is an insatiable monster, craving news in profligate quantities to be disgorged in endless fusillades at the public. Each channel is desperate to steal a march on the others.

Trust me, I saw it every day. I recall one particularly odious BBC correspondent, a man so keyed up that he could not sit in the BBC radio car as it waded through the traffic in Regent Street but had to get out and jog alongside. He habitually behaved like a badly brought-up two-year-old.

Notoriously, when he called in to file a dispatch he would scream down the phone that he was to be put to the front of the queue in front of all his colleagues. I cut him off one day because of his behaviour, his piece not being a priority to the bulletin actually being transmitted. He called back, screaming even more loudly at me and demanding an explanation. I told him if he behaved like a spoilt toddler, I’d treat him like one. Many others were like him, but few were quite as bad. They were all perfectly happy to see their colleagues dumped on and pushed to one side to make way for their egos.

It’s no better with the actual news programmes. The editors and producers are desperate that their programme will set the news agenda for the day. It’s a huge matter of quite laughable and even infantile kudos. Some of them – and I saw this for myself on a number of occasions – are so wound up they exploded easily into screeching maniacs if anything goes slightly wrong. I had to broadcast a live news programme with a senior producer, a notorious bully, having completely lost control of himself and screaming into my ear so loud it hurt.

You might remember a satirical programme called The Day Today. It mercilessly pilloried the news broadcasting environment. I remember a senior BBC News editor telling me he couldn’t watch it because it was so painfully close to the truth it made him cringe.

So, be in no doubt next time you watch an item at the top of the news about a Covid ward. The reporter concerned has triumphed. He or she has the top story, a matter of pride. It will have been an exhilarating experience, as exciting for the reporter as being dropped into a war zone. It really is like that.

It is almost impossible to distinguish some of these pieces from items filed during the Yugoslav War or the Gulf Wars. The behaviour is exactly the same. The most eye-catching, headline-generating scenario is sought out in that search for the headlines and the magic ‘top story’ slot.

Some of the scientists drawn into some of these items need to be a little more sophisticated in their understanding of what they’re participating in. It’s easy to understand why they wouldn’t fully appreciate how easy it is to become an unwitting pawn in a game they would never normally be drawn into.

No-one is ever going to run a news story about my neighbours next door. Three of the family caught Covid, were ill for a day and have been fine ever since. The fourth never even caught it. Their individual experience is as unrepresentative as a Covid ward horror film, but it is just as valid a part of the overall story. So is the chap who died three doors up after 18 months of leukaemia but caught Covid in hospital, had had enough and came home to die which he did a few days later.

Most intriguingly of all, it has been easy to see how the coverage of Brexit seamlessly transferred to Covid. It was as if the journalists concerned were so traumatised by the loss of their big story a year ago that they pounced on Covid. It had everything they could ever have dreamed of.

And what is the result? It’s not the intention but the endless pressure to sensationalise, to distort by omission for the sake of a headline, is to lead the wider public ever further away from being able to understand what is going on around them, and to stifle debate. Myths on all sides have become embedded, most frequently with the casual use of statistics in ways only designed to grab attention.

This hideous era is going to pass eventually, not least because sooner or later something much worse or certainly different will come along and divert our attention. We are seeing tensions rise because a year on into this crisis the way out is becoming at the very least weighed down with increasingly dark warnings about mutated varieties and the need to maintain controls. It has built on a culture already hag-ridden with apocalyptic visions of an environmental catastrophe waiting just round the corner.

The solutions to Covid we have adopted have generated new problems, some of which were predicted and some not. With the vaccines as our best chance, the last thing we need now is a descent into name-calling, polarising the debate, and ‘cancelling’ well-intentioned and well-informed people (including scientists) who wish to make a constructive contribution, but who are not deemed to be ‘on message’. The least productive society is a totalitarian type of society where any divergence from the party line is crushed on the spot. It stifles initiative, destroys inspiration, and often leads to its own catastrophes. Chernobyl is a case in point.

The greatest asset human beings have is our ability to cooperate and to communicate, and to use all the skills, knowledge, and tools we have to hand. In 1727, the Zeewijk, a Dutch East Indiaman, was wrecked on the Abrolhos Islands off the west coast of Australia near Geraldton. The crew could have descended into a fight over what they had recovered from the ship, they could have sat and waited, or just given up. Instead, most of their energy was expended on solving their problem. Twelve survivors went off for help in the longboat. They were never seen again. That was a failure, but it concentrated everyone else’s minds. They gathered up their tools and used wood from the wreck to build a new ship. Eighty-eight survivors sailed to Batavia in the new ship, arriving nine months after they had been wrecked, with only six dying en route.

We need to build our own new ship out of this mess. And we are doing. The vaccines are part of that new ship. The rest is up to all of us and we all have a part to play.

1 Report 9: Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID-19 mortality and healthcare demand. Imperial College 16 March 2020.

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December 2022
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