Lockdown

COVID-19 and ‘Politician’s Logic’

Freddie Sayers, the host of UnHerd’s ‘Lockdown TV’, has written an interesting piece for The Telegraph. Commenting on the Government’s insistence that we must vaccinate 12–15 year olds – in defiance of its own expert panel – he notes that a “dangerous new wisdom is forming, which views action as always better than inaction”.  

“In this view,” Sayers continues, “long-standing rules and institutions of liberal democracies have been demoted to fussy obstacles that prevent us from replicating the successes of the command-and-control governments of Asia.”

He then makes the important but often overlooked point that “action can be every bit as damaging as inaction”. If only politicians had taken this into account last year, the response to the pandemic might have looked very different.

When I asked Philippe Lemoine why lockdowns were implemented with so little regard for costs, he suggested that politicians didn’t want to “leave themselves open to the accusation of not having done anything to curb the epidemic”. They had to do something, even if that something ended up causing more harm than good.

This fallacy was popularised by the much-loved British sitcom Yes, Prime Minister. In the episode ‘Power to the People’, Sir Humphrey Appleby is talking to his predecessor Sir Arnold Robinson about the Prime Minister’s plans to reform local government.

Sir Arnold says, “He’s suffering from politician’s logic,” to which Sir Humphrey replies, “Something must be done; this is something; therefore we must do it.” In other words: ‘Something must be done; lockdown is something; therefore we must do it.’

The incentives that gave rise to ‘politician’s logic’ in this case are obvious. While the ‘benefits’ of lockdown are immediate and visible, the costs may take months or even years to materialise. (By ‘benefits’, I mean the reduction in social and economic activity that is believed to reduce viral transmission.)

Furthermore, even if lockdown’s impact on mortality turns out to be marginal, politicians can claim that things would have been far worse if not for their tough and far-sighted decisions.

After all, we can’t observe the counterfactual of what would have happened in the absence of lockdown. And the politicians themselves? They may well be out of office by the time the full costs of lockdown become apparent.

Incidentally, the fact that ‘politician’s logic’ is a fallacy obviously doesn’t imply we should never do anything. In the case of the pandemic, there was something else we could have done, namely focused protection.

Let’s hope that when the next pandemic arrives, there are a few people around who remember the lessons of Yes, Prime Minister. Just because this is something, doesn’t mean we have to do it.

At the Tip I Found a Public Sector Still Living in Lockdown and in No Rush to Change

I finally went to the tip on Sunday to clear out the junk and defunct household items that had been accumulating since March 2020. I’d been putting it off because since the first lockdown the local tip had introduced an inconvenient booking system and all manner of the usual ‘Covid safe’ nonsense. Bear in mind that this is a facility that exists entirely outdoors and so where the risk of transmission is minimal.

I was waiting for the restrictions to be lifted so that I could just turn up, in the handy, old-fashioned way, and not be harassed by the tiresome ‘safetyist’ propaganda. This had taken considerably longer than I had anticipated, however, and now ‘Freedom Day’ had come and gone, and still the booking system remained stubbornly in place. The rest of the country may have lifted restrictions, but not the tip.

So when the microwave gave up in quick succession to the coffee machine and I faced the prospect of a garden filling up with broken small electrical appliances, I finally admitted defeat and booked myself in for a slot. It was, as predicted, irritatingly inconvenient, as having made the arrangement for three o’clock on the Sunday I now felt bound by it and had to arrange my day around it. The fact that the weather turned out unexpectedly summery and we ended up at a classic car show only meant that, come the hour, I had to drag my two small children away from the enticing bungee bounce in order to be able to make my time.

On arrival at the recycling centre (as the tip is now styled) it was like stepping back to April 2020. Large illuminated signs warned the approaching visitor of the dangers of Covid and reassured them there were numerous measures in place for their safety and to prevent the spread. Staff would not be able physically to help with disposing of items, the signs declared. That’s a noble sacrifice on their part, was the unkind thought that went thought my head.

Postcard From Manila

We’re republishing an email today about life in Manila that originally appeared in the email newsletter of Tom Woods, host of the Tom Woods Show. The author, Kyle Helke, wrote a “Postcard From Manila” for Lockdown Sceptics earlier this year, so we’re happy to be publishing a follow-up. Things definitely haven’t improved in the Philippines, which now boasts the longest continuous lockdown in the world! Here’s an extract:

Here in the Philippines, it’s as if time stopped in April of last year. Still, you must wear both a face mask and shield when you leave your house. Still, children under 18 and senior citizens are technically not allowed to leave their houses (although this summer that loosened up a bit, but after two weeks the ‘Delta’ variant put an end to that). Still, schools are closed. Still, you must have a negative PCR/antigen test to travel to the next province, book a flight, or stay a night in a hotel. Still, gyms, theaters, cultural institutions, and outdoor sites (such as the American Memorial Cemetery – a cemetery!) are closed. Still, upon entering every shop or workplace one is subjected to a temperature check and a contact tracing form. Still, most restaurants are take-out or are reduced to 50% capacity (only on the lowest-level lockdown). Still, people think that if everyone ‘just gets the vaccine’, Covid will just go away and all of this will be over. Still, what is considered the longest lockdown in the world continues. Indeed, what is happening in places like France and Australia is very alarming, but it is frustrating to see that the Philippines is never acknowledged for its continued brutish restrictions that have been imposed as a result of the de facto martial law that has reigned over this country since all of this began. At least in other places, people are beginning to question the narrative; there isn’t even a shred of that here, people are too scared of the Government (and of catching Covid).

Worth reading in full.

Can Australia Contain Delta?

Until quite recently, Australia was the poster child for lockdown (along with New Zealand). Capitalising on its favourable geography, the country used a combination of strict border controls and early lockdowns to prevent the virus getting a foothold.

As a result, Australia saw fewer than 30,200 total cases up to June of 2021, and enjoyed negative excess mortality last year. Of course, I doubt that most countries (including the U.K.) could have achieved the same outcomes as Australia, which is not only a sparse island with few points of entry, but also had a head start in responding to COVID-19.

Yet with the recent entry of Delta, Australia’s ability to contain the virus could be reaching its limits. Today, the country posted its largest daily total for the number of new infections since the pandemic began. And as the chart below indicates, the curve for daily infections is now pointing almost straight upward:

The recent outbreak is concentrated in New South Wales, which is home to the country’s largest city, Sydney. (Infections have also shot up in the Australian Capital Territory, an enclave within New South Wales; though absolute numbers there are still low.)

Sydney’s most recent lockdown began on June 25th, after two dozen cases of the Delta variant were unearthed. What initially covered just four local government areas has since been expanded to the entire city. And today authorities announced the lockdown would remain in place until the end of September, including a 9pm to 5am curfew in some districts.

It’s now August 20th, which means that parts of Sydney have been under lockdown for almost two full months. Yet the curve of daily infections shows no signs of slowing. Why this time does the virus seem to have broken through?

The obvious explanation is that the Delta variant is more transmissible. And in fact, the more transmissible a virus, the less effective any given lockdown measures tend to be. As noted in a 2019 report by the Johns Hopkins Center for Heath Security, “Quarantine measures will be least effective for pathogens that are highly transmissible.”

Researchers Find “A Considerably Negative Effect of School Closures on Student Achievement”

One area of the lockdown debate where I’ve seen almost no disagreement from lockdown proponents is the negative effects of school closures. After all, it’s hard to blame these on the pandemic itself: absent the deliberate decision to close schools, students would be legally obliged to attend school.

And given that remote learning is almost certainly inferior to in-person learning, especially for younger children, the only question is: “How large are the negative effects on student outcomes?”

As I noted in a previous post, the Education Endowment Foundation collated studies on the impact of school closures on students’ learning, and observed “a consistent pattern”. Specifically, students have made “less academic progress” than in previous years, and the attainment gap between more and less advantaged students has grown.

A new academic review reaches similar conclusions. Svenja Hammerstein and colleagues searched the literature for studies looking at the impact of school closures on student achievement. They were able to identify 11 relevant studies. Of these, eight showed negative effects, and three – surprisingly – showed positive effects.

The effect for younger children was consistently negative. And children from disadvantaged backgrounds were more negatively affected than children from advantaged backgrounds. This makes sense, given that those from disadvantaged backgrounds rarely have access to private tutors, and may face more distractions at home.

Regarding the studies that showed positive effects, the authors note that these assessed student achievement via some kind of online learning software. Hence, they suggest, the positive effects may be attributable to increased use of software during the time for which schools were closed.

Nonetheless, the authors conclude that “there is clear evidence for a negative effect of COVID-19-related school closures on student achievement”.

Of course, schools haven’t just been closed in advanced countries like the U.K., but also in lower and middle-income countries like Brazil. According to the Oxford Blavatnik School’s Government Response Tracker, the average number of days of mandatory school closures (in at least part of the country) is 315. And 63 countries have had more than 400 days of school closures.

Because children with lower school achievement tend to earn less in adulthood, one can put a rough dollar figure on the learning losses (by calculating the net present value of children’s lost future earnings). In a recent paper, researchers from the World Bank attempted to do this.

They estimate that a global school shutdown of five months “could generate learning losses that have a present value of $10 trillion”. Given the size of this figure, it’s almost impossible to believe that school closures would pass a cost-benefit test.

Belarus: The Country With No Restrictions, and No Disaster

Belarus has finally, after several months of delay, published its overall mortality figures up to March 2021, meaning for the first time we have a plausibly reliable indicator of the true impact of the pandemic in the country famous for refusing to impose even minimal measures.

Few have trusted the official Covid case and death statistics from the authoritarian country, which are implausibly low. However, the overall death statistics are generally thought to be reliable, and indeed by comparing them to neighbouring countries we can see that they are comparable, adding to the sense that they are accurate.

While the country did not impose any Covid restrictions or ‘guidance’ at all, there was some voluntary behaviour change, as mobility data shows, but it was limited compared with other places.

A Question for Chris Whitty

I haven’t watched any of the Government’s COVID-19 press briefings since the early weeks of the pandemic. The scientific parts seemed to be mostly concerned with projections from rather dubious epidemiological models, and the political parts were even less informative.

As I understand it, the Q&A that follows whatever Boris and the boffins have said often involves journalists demanding to know why there aren’t more restrictions in place (more rules, more limits, more penalties).

Ironically, these questions tend to come from people who a few months before the pandemic might have compared Boris Johnson’s Government to certain mid-20th century political movements that we now associate with authoritarianism.

What questions would I ask Boris and the boffins? There are many I’d like to raise, including: “Why hasn’t the government published a cost-benefit analysis of lockdown?” Such analyses are routine in policy-making, and you’d expect that something as far-reaching as a national lockdown would justify one.

Another query I’d like to make is: “What specific evidence led the government to change its advice on masks?” Back on 4th March 2020, Chris Whitty told Sky News that “wearing a mask if you don’t have an infection reduces the risk almost not at all”. And as late as 3rd April, Jonathan Van Tam said “there is no evidence that general wearing of face masks… affects the spread of the disease”.

However, the question I’d most like to ask – of Chris Whitty in particular – is as follows.

Professor Whitty, on 5th March 2020, you told the Health and Social Care Committee that “we will get 50% of all the cases over a three-week period and 95% of the cases over a nine-week period”. You said that we are “very keen” to “minimise economic and social disruption”, and mentioned that “one of the best things we can do” is “isolate older people from the virus”.  

This all sounds rather similar to the Great Barrington Declaration. Why then, in an interview with The BMJ on November 4th, did you describe that document as “wrong scientifically, practically, and probably ethically as well”? You said that the Great Barrington Declaration is “really a pretty minority view”, but it appears to have been your view as recently as eight months earlier.

As I’m sure you’re aware, there is a document titled “UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy 2011”, which was published by the Department of Health. It says that attempting to stop the spread of a new pandemic influenza “would be a waste of public health resources and capacity”.

And as late as 2019, the World Health Organisation published a report titled “Non-pharmaceutical public health measures for mitigating the risk and impact of epidemic and pandemic influenza”. This document classifies “quarantine of exposed individuals” as “not recommended in any circumstances”.

Given that the WHO, the Department of Health and you – as recently as March 2020 – have rejected suppression as a strategy for dealing with respiratory pandemics, why did you describe the alternative focused protection strategy as “wrong scientifically”? Thank you for listening, and I look forward to your answer.

Was Lockdown Illegal?

There has been much debate among lawyers as to whether the various “non-pharmaceutical interventions” (i.e., lockdown measures) that have been imposed over the past year and a half are actually legal.

In April of 2020, the barrister Francis Hoar wrote an article laying out the case for the illegality of Britain’s lockdown. While his piece is very much worth reading in full, I will do my best to summarise the main points here.

Hoar argues that lockdown measures were a “disproportionate interference with the rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights”, and were therefore in breach of the Human Rights Act 1998.

To make his case, he appeals to the so-called Siracusa Principles, which were adopted by the UN Economic and Social Council in 1984. These principles stipulate that government responses to national emergencies that involve the restriction of human rights must fulfil certain criteria.

Specifically, they must be: carried out in accordance with law; directed toward an objective of general interest; strictly necessary to achieve that objective; the least intrusive way of achieving that objective; based on scientific evidence, and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory; of limited duration, respectful of human dignity and subject to review.

Hoar argues convincingly that lockdown measures failed to meet several of these criteria. For example, lockdowns were not strictly necessary, since the same outcomes could plausibly have been achieved with far less intrusive measures (i.e., a focused protection strategy).

And it’s highly doubtful that lockdowns were “respectful of human dignity and subject to review”, given that they initially proscribed all political gatherings and public demonstrations without exception – a measure unprecedented in British history.

Hoar suggests that, “were they challenged by judicial review”, the measures should be “disapplied if necessary”. (Recall that he was writing back in April of last year). Incidentally, a longer and more detailed version of his article is available here.

Another figure from the legal community to argue for the illegality of the UK’s lockdowns is Lord Sumption, the former Supreme Court Justice. In a lecture delivered to the Cambridge Law Faculty in October 2020, he claimed that lockdown measures were without legal basis, and described the U.K.’s response as “a monument of collective hysteria and government folly”.

As readers may be aware, there was in fact a major legal challenge to the U.K.’s lockdowns, brought by the entrepreneur Simon Dolan (and funded to the tune of £427,000). The challenge sought a judicial review of the lockdown measures. Unfortunately, it proved unsuccessful.

I’ve been told by people with legal expertise that mounting another challenge would be difficult, given the adverse judgement in the case brought by Dolan. It’s therefore unlikely the Government will be liable for claims from individuals and businesses who’ve suffered due to lockdown.

Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that legal bodies in each of the following countries have found at least some aspect of the lockdown policy illegal: France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Spain, Finland, Czechia, Scotland, Slovakia, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States.

So while the High Court in London did reject Dolan’s case against the Government, lockdown opponents have won important victories in a number of countries.

And given that the evidence against lockdown has only increased since the judgement in Dolan’s case, lockdown opponents will have plenty of ammunition if any future Government decides to lock down in response to a similar virus.

Brits Will “Of Course” Face New Lockdown If Covid Situation Becomes “Unacceptable”, Government Minister Confirms

We haven’t yet reached lockdown’s “terminus date“, but Government officials are already signalling that restrictions could be reintroduced in weeks if the Covid situation becomes “unacceptable”.

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said on Thursday that a “scary” growth in hospitalisations could leave the NHS “in trouble again surprisingly fast“, meaning that in “five, six, seven eight weeks’ time”, the Prime Minister may need to “look again” at reintroducing restrictions.

A Government minister has this morning echoed Whitty’s warning, telling Sky News that: “Of course, if we get into a situation where it’s unacceptable and we do need to put back further restrictions, then that, of course, is something the Government will look at.” The MailOnline has more.

Solicitor General Lucy Frazer suggested it was the right time to open up because of the vaccination drive – which has reached 90% of Britons.

But with cases continuing to soar, hospital admissions tracking above some of SAGE’s worst-case projections, and deaths having hit a four-month high, she warned that Number 10 may be left with no choice but to consider reimposing tough restrictions. …

England’s Chief Medical Officer last night cautioned the U.K. could still “get into trouble again surprisingly fast” and hospitals may face “scary numbers” within a matter of weeks. 

Making it clear the country was not on an irreversible path to freedom despite Number 10 pushing ahead with step four of the ‘roadmap’ to normality on Monday, Professor Chris Whitty said: “We are not by any means out of the woods yet.” …

The Prime Minister [has] sounded a cautious note… and called on people not to “go wild” and immediately rush to take advantage of the final easing – which includes lifting work-at-home orders and reopening nightclubs. …

Saying restrictions should be eased on July 19th, Ms Frazer told Sky News: “I think the Health Secretary has been very clear, as has the Prime Minister, that we will see infections rise. …

“It is really important that we get the balance right between ensuring that we keep this virus under control and we take the necessary clinical measures to do that, but that we also recognise that there are consequences of not opening up and not allowing people to go about their daily lives.”

Worth reading in full.

Is the Rioting in South Africa Caused by Lockdown?

South Africa has now witnessed multiple days of deadly riots. More than 70 people have been killed, and whole city districts have been ransacked. Shocking videos posted on Twitter show looters pouring out of shops with stolen merchandise, vigilantes armed with rifles firing into crowds, and fleeing police vans being pelted with rocks.

The riots were triggered by last week’s 15-month jail sentence of Jacob Zuma, the country’s former president, on corruption charges. But many have suggested that poverty and unemployment helped fuel the lawlessness. Without wishing to excuse the wanton criminality on display, it’s worth considering whether lockdown is a factor here.

South Africa’s unemployment rate stands at 32.6% – the highest since the labour force survey began in 2008. Youth unemployment is almost 75%. Last year, the country’s GDP fell by 7% – the largest single drop since 1980 (when the IMF’s data series begins).

While unemployment has been rising for more than a decade in South Africa, the country’s dismal economic situation was exacerbated by months of lockdown.

How stringent has the lockdown been? We can check, using the Oxford Blavatnik School’s COVID-19 Government Response Tracker. Since the start of the pandemic, South Africa has had 228 days of mandatory workplace closures, and 421 days of mandatory stay-at-home orders in at least part of the country.

Lockdowns were damaging enough in countries like Britain that could afford to pay for lavish furlough schemes. But they must have been even more destructive in South Africa, where almost one in five people lives in extreme poverty. How these individuals were supposed to cope when the economy was put on standby is anyone’s guess.  

I’m not trying to absolve the looters of responsibility here. There’s no excuse for what they’ve been doing. But we should ask: how responsible was it for the Government to impose months of sweeping restrictions in a country where many people are quite literally living hand to mouth?

And likewise: how responsible was it for Western governments to impose sweeping restrictions over their own economies, knowing what effect this would have in the developing world.

Martin Kulldorff – one of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration – posted a Twitter thread last November titled “Twelve Forgotten Principles of Public Health”. His 4th principle was: “Pubic health is global. Public health scientists need to consider the global impact of their recommendations.” Perhaps we should have paid more attention to his advice.