No surge as schools open in the UK, no surge as Texas throws off restrictions, free states like Florida and Georgia doing no worse than lockdown states – is anyone in Government watching the real world or are they too busy gawping at the curves of Neil Ferguson’s latest model?
Jeffrey A. Tucker at AIER has gathered together some of the alarmist predictions made about Texas that have, so far, not come to pass:
California Governor Gavin Newsom said that opening Texas was “absolutely reckless.”
Vanity Fair went over the top with this headline: “Republican Governors Celebrate COVID Anniversary With Bold Plan to Kill Another 500,000 Americans.”
There was the inevitable Dr. Fauci: “It just is inexplicable why you would want to pull back now.”
Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke of Texas revealed himself to be a full-blown lockdowner: It’s a “big mistake,” he said. “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that it’s also a cult of death.” He accused the Governor of “sacrificing the lives of our fellow Texans… for political gain.”
James Hamblin, a doctor and writer for the Atlantic, said in a Tweet liked by 20K people: “Ending precautions now is like entering the last miles of a marathon and taking off your shoes and eating several hot dogs.”
Bestselling author Kurt Eichenwald flipped out: “Goddamn. Texas already has FIVE variants that have turned up: Britain, South Africa, Brazil, New York & CA. The NY and CA variants could weaken vaccine effectiveness. And now idiot @GregAbbott_TX throws open the state.” He further called the Government “murderous.”
Epidemiologist Whitney Robinson wrote: “I feel genuinely sad. There are people who are going to get sick and die bc of avoidable infections they get in the next few weeks. It’s demoralising.”
Virus guru Michael Osterholm told CNN: “We’re walking into the mouth of the monster. We simply are.”
Joe Biden famously said that the Texas decision to open reflected “Neanderthal thinking”.
The chairman of the state’s Democratic Party said: “What Abbott is doing is extraordinarily dangerous. This will kill Texans. Our country’s infectious-disease specialists have warned that we should not put our guard down, even as we make progress towards vaccinations. Abbott doesn’t care.”
The CDC’s Rochelle Walensky didn’t mince words: “Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained. I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19.”
Are any of these experts and commentators now reconsidering their fundamental assumptions and examining the data? What do you think?
The coronavirus has certainly surprised many of us in the past year, defying expectations by being more deadly in Europe and North and South America than it was in South East Asia, while in Africa and India it surprised by its mildness.
The lazy mainstream assumption that the differences between countries are explained primarily by their restrictions or interventions has not been borne out by any of the studies that have examined the real world data rather than relying on models that bake-in assumptions of lockdown efficacy.
One of those studies, by eminent Stanford scientists Jay Bhattacharya (co-author of the Great Barrington Declaration), John Ioannidis and colleagues, published in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation, has come under criticism since it was published at the start of January. The authors have now responded to that criticism, defending their paper in the journal.
It includes some great quotations from these two pillars of the sceptic movement.
Last spring, imposing lockdowns was sold as the only way to prevent a deadly virus from spreading unchecked in the population, and taking hundreds of thousands or even millions of lives. Since then, lockdowns have come under increasing scrutiny. Opponents claim they have upended the economy, undermined children’s education, and violated our basic civil liberties – all without having much impact on the COVID-19 death rate.
When lockdowns were first imposed in the UK and other Western countries, no attempt was made to carry out a cost-benefit analysis. It was simply taken for granted that lockdowns were the correct policy choice. This was because, so proponents argued, they would only be imposed for a limited time, in order to “flatten the curve” and prevent healthcare systems from being overwhelmed. A second justification for lockdowns, which proved influential in some jurisdictions, was that they could be used to suppress the virus completely, thereby preventing any further outbreaks until such time as a vaccine or treatment became available.
Since March 22nd 2020, the UK has spent more than five months under some form of lockdown. And in recent weeks, the country’s lockdown measures have been among the most stringent in the world. Yet its death rate – whether measured as the number of COVID-19 deaths per million people or in terms of excess mortality – is above the European average. Has it all been worth it? I will argue that no, it has not; the costs of the UK’s lockdowns have probably outweighed their benefits.
Do lockdowns work?
The case against the UK’s lockdowns begins by noting that, except in a few cases – which I shall get to – lockdowns have not been associated with substantially fewer deaths from COVID-19. This point has been made at length by the researcher Philippe Lemoine in a report for the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology. As he notes, there are many places where case numbers rose in the presence of a lockdown, as well as several places where they fell in the absence of one. Although case numbers often start falling around the time a lockdown is imposed, it is frequently just before that event, rather than just after. Lemoine suggests this is because people start changing their behaviour voluntarily when they see deaths and hospitalisations rising. The Government, meanwhile, feels an increasing need to “do something”, and the subsequent imposition of a lockdown happens to coincide with the peak of the curve.
For example, the statistician Simon Wood has presented evidence that each of the three English lockdowns was only introduced after the corresponding peak of fatal infections. And in fact, the Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty told MPs that the epidemic was probably already in retreat when the first full lockdown was imposed. Wood’s conclusions are supported by the findings of economist David Paton, who notes that seven separate indicators all appear to show infections declining before the start of January’s lockdown.
Perhaps the clearest example illustrating the argument that numbers can fall in the absence of a lockdown is South Dakota. The state’s Republican governor Kristi Noem has been stalwart in her opposition to lockdowns, arguing that “the people themselves are primarily responsible for their safety”. As a consequence, there were practically no restrictions in place when the state’s epidemic burgeoned at the end of August. Over the next three months, cases increased – slowly at first, and then rapidly – up to a peak in mid-November. However, despite no shift in policy, they then fell rapidly, and have remained low for the past three months.
What’s even more remarkable is that, according to Google mobility data, there was no major change in people’s movement around the time of the peak in South Dakota. Retail mobility decreased gradually during October and November, and residential mobility was mostly flat. Crucially, there was no sharp change that could explain the sudden decline in cases. One explanation for this anomaly (aside from the Google mobility index being a poor measure of the behaviours that drive transmission) is that the level of prior immunity has been underestimated. Another possibility is that most infections are caused by a small number of “super-spreaders”, and once these individuals have been infected the epidemic swiftly retreats.
When it comes to health outcomes, South Dakota has not fared particularly well during the pandemic – it currently has the eighth highest death rate among US states. But it has not done catastrophically either. Despite imposing almost zero restrictions on the economy, the state ended up with only a slightly higher death rate than Britain. This and other better-matched comparisons cast seriousdoubt on the epidemiological models that served as the basis for lockdowns. (It should be noted that South Dakota has probably benefited, at least to some extent, from its low population density.)
Although lockdowns have not generally been associated with fewer deaths from COVID-19, there are several Western countries where they appear to have worked: Australia, New Zealand, Finland, Norway and Cyprus. So far, these countries have kept the number of COVID-19 deaths below 300 per million; and in fact, they had negligible excess mortality in 2020. Yet, as I noted in a previous article, all five are geographically peripheral countries that imposed strict border controls at the start of the pandemic.
Since none of the five contains an international hub comparable to London, Paris or New York, each had a head start in responding to the pandemic. As a consequence, case numbers were still low at the time lockdowns were imposed, meaning that sporadic outbreaks never cohered into a full-blown epidemic. Meanwhile, the imposition of strict border controls stopped new cases being brought in from outside. It was therefore the combination of early lockdowns and early border controls, under geographically favourable conditions, that allowed countries like Australia and New Zealand to contain the virus.
While one might argue that Britain should have followed the same strategy, it is unclear whether this was ever a viable option, given the country’s size, density and connectedness. And in any case, even if it might have been possible to contain the epidemic in late January, the opportunity had almost certainly come and gone by late February. Having said this, it is somewhat concerning that the strategy was nevergiven serious consideration by the Government’s scientific advisers. For example, the minutes of a meeting on January 22nd record that “NERVTAG does not advise port of entry screening” and “NERVTAG does not advise use of screening questionnaires”.
Pre-existing differences in mortality
The second point against the UK’s lockdowns is that the increases in mortality associated with COVID-19 – even in the worst hit Western countries – have been small relative to pre-existing differences within Europe. For example, the UK’s Office for National Statistics recently calculated age-standardised mortality rates from the first week of 2015 to the last week of 2020 for most countries in Europe. The largest rise from 2019 to 2020 was seen in Bulgaria, where the mortality rate went from 28 to 31.6 – an increase of 3.6 deaths per 100,000. Yet in the year before the pandemic hit, the range of mortality rates (the difference between the highest and lowest values) was 13.8. In other words, the range of mortality rates in 2019 was larger than the largest increase seen by any European country during 2020.
One might counter that the increases in mortality associated with COVID-19 would have been much larger in the absence of lockdowns, but this seems doubtful given the availableevidence. To take one example, Sweden – the only major country in Europe that didn’t lock down – saw age-adjusted excess mortality of just 1.7% in 2020. (Incidentally, a model published last April overestimated Swedish deaths by a factor of 17.) This is not to say that lockdowns had no impact on mortality over and above that of basic restrictions (e.g. bans on large gatherings, self-isolation of symptomatic people) but any impact they did have appears to be quite limited.
The observation that COVID-19’s impact on mortality has been small relative to pre-existing differences can also be made of the UK itself. As Simon Wood noted in an article last October, “the gap in life expectancy between the richer and poorer segments of British society amounted to some 200 million life years lost for the current UK population, which is somewhere around 70 times what Covid might have caused”. He added: “Even the firmest believer in laissez-faire would have to concede that some percentage of that loss is preventable.” The fact that the Government never locked down society (or imposed costs of equivalent magnitude) to reduce much larger differences in mortality within Britain calls its coronavirus strategy into serious question.
Lockdown proponents might say this logic doesn’t apply to COVID-19, since lockdowns prevent individuals from harming others, whereas pre-existing differences in mortality are not due to such “externalities”. But I don’t find this argument very convincing. First, it’s not clear that lockdowns do have much impact on mortality over and above that of basic restrictions. Second, some of the pre-existing differences in mortality are caused by other people’s behaviour (e.g. air pollution, road accidents, flu deaths). And third, blanket lockdowns impose costs on people regardless of whether they contribute to the “externalities” of viral transmission (e.g. people who live away from major population centres, those who have already been infected).
The costs of lockdown
The third key point against the UK’s lockdowns is that their costs have been enormous: not only to the economy, but also to health, education and civil liberties. Take the economy. Britain has suffered its largest economic contraction in 300 years, with GDP falling by almost 10% in 2020. (Note that in the “Great Recession” of 2009, it only fell by 4.2%.) Of course, not all the drop in economic output can be blamed on lockdowns; some – perhaps more than half – would have happened anyway, as a result of voluntary social distancing, cancellation of large events, and reductions in international trade. But a contraction of three or four percentage points on top of that is still very significant.
However, some commentators insist that locking down the economy does not involve any trade-offs. For these “trade-off deniers” (who can count both Rishi Sunak and Chris Whitty among their number) lockdowns are a win-win – or at the very least, a win-draw. However, this argument only works if locking down allows you to completely suppress the virus, since only once complete suppression has been achieved can economic activity resume. The idea is that if you completely suppress the virus after a short, sharp lockdown, you can then re-open the economy as normal, and you end up suffering less economic damage overall than if you’d let the virus spread through the population. But as I’ve already argued, it’s unlikely that suppression was ever a realistic option for the UK. (It almost certainly wasn’t by late February 2020.) Locking down for several months as a way to “flatten the curve” might reduce death rates slightly, but it’s certainly not good for the economy.
The claim that there’s no trade-off between health and the economy appears to be based on one specific observation: virtually all Western countries and US states – regardless of their policies – saw a sharp drop in economic activity during the early weeks of the pandemic. Yet as the historian Phil Magness points out, over the following weeks and months, large differences emerged between the most and least-open US states. And recent data from OECD countries shows a clear inverse relationship between the stringency of government measures and the level of economic growth (with the UK having the most stringent measures and the lowest level of growth). Unsurprisingly, the majority of economists in a survey last November said the UK’s March lockdown did at least some damage to the economy.
I began this essay by noting that no real attempt was made to quantify the costs of lockdowns when the pandemic began. (Instead, projections from computer models weretaken as proof that, without lockdowns, healthcare systems would be inexorably overwhelmed.) Since then, several cost-benefit analyses have been attempted, andeachonehas concluded that the costs almost certainly outweighed the benefits. Of course, accurately gauging all the relevant quantities is no easy task, and these analyses are not without their limitations. But the onus is now on lockdown proponents to show that their preferred measures did pass a cost-benefit test.
Two of the cost-benefit analyses mentioned above estimated the benefits of lockdowns by multiplying the total quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) they might have saved by £30,000 – which is the amount the NHS attaches to a QALY when deciding whether to pay for new treatments that extend patients’ lives by a certain number of years. Although by no means perfect, this seems to me like a reasonable approach. I therefore attempted my own cost-benefit analysis, making what I consider generous assumptions about the public health benefits of lockdowns. I still found that the costs (which I gave as one third of last year’s decline in output) outweighed the benefits by a large margin.
Overall, the UK’s lockdowns were probably a mistake. Looking at the Western world, lockdowns have not been associated with substantially fewer deaths from COVID-19, except in geographically peripheral countries that imposed strict border controls at the start. What’s more, the increases in mortality associated with COVID-19 – even in the worst-hit Western countries – have been small relative to pre-existing differences. Finally, the societal costs of lockdowns have been substantial, and preliminary analyses suggest they almost certainly outweighed the benefits.
Of course, none of this implies that the optimal approach to COVID-19 was “do nothing”. COVID-19 is a deadly disease, and the pandemic clearly warranted government action. In a follow-up essay, I will outline what I believe (with the benefit of hindsight) could have been a more effective approach.
Noah Carl writes about COVID-19 and other topics in his Substack newsletter (where this article was originally published). You can follow him on Twitter @NoahCarl90.
Fraser Nelson has been a somewhat fickle friend of sceptics. Broadly sceptical until the autumn, the Spectator editor and Telegraph columnist backed the third lockdown and the Spectator‘s output has been noticeably more pro-lockdown since, though with some welcome exceptions (such as Rod Liddle, who travelled the other way, and Lionel Shriver. And of course, Toby).
His column in today’s Telegraph, though, is a cracker, and more reminiscent of the Nelson of old.
Boris Johnson, he writes, is a man with regrets. He has “started to tell friends that he was let down by his own liberal instincts. That he hoped for too long that Britain could, like Sweden, fight the virus through consent rather than diktat – getting through this without abolishing basic freedoms. His fear at the time was irreversibility. If sacred principles were jettisoned in an emergency, would they ever be restored? Might he end up unleashing something he’d struggle to control?”
Fraser notes that Covid levels are now so low in Britain that the Prime Minister could have declared the emergency over already. Instead, we have the renewal of the Government’s emergency powers in the Coronavirus Act for another six months.
It’s no good looking to Labour for opposition. Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is more keen on the new restrictions than the Tories (though it was good to see a few Labour MPs defying the party whip and voting against the extension yesterday, alongside the Lib Dems).
The Government won the vote easily. But in biosecurity Britain, who’s really in charge? Increasingly it seems the scientists, and then only those willing to parrot the Official Narrative. Even ones we thought were discredited, like Neil Ferguson, seem to retain their place at the table. Fraser writes:
Big announcements continue to come via people like Prof Neil Ferguson, who still seems to have a Rasputin-like hold over the Government. Earlier this week, he said he thought it may be unwise to book any foreign holidays this summer. This is big news, because what he thinks today tends to become Matt Hancock’s policy tomorrow. “We’re run by scientist groupthink,” says one minister. “But that won’t change until the polls change.”
Ah, the polls. Scourge of the sceptics’ cause, the rock on which all our carefully crafted arguments founder. Boris Johnson this week was heard speaking in disturbingly demagogical terms about public sentiment on lockdowns, as though people are doing anything other than reflecting back the fear instilled into them by a year of unremitting pro-lockdown propaganda orchestrated by the Government. He told MPs:
My impression is that there is a huge wisdom in the public’s feeling about this. Human beings instinctively recognise when something is dangerous and nasty to them. They can see, collectively, that Covid is a threat. They want us, as their Government – and me as the Prime Minister – to take all the actions I can to protect them.
These are words that should haunt all who love liberty and who cling desperately to the belief that we still live in a liberal state whose laws safeguard our basic freedoms from Government overreach.
A new study has appeared that shows once more that lockdowns have no discernible effect on COVID-19 infections or deaths, despite their colossal costs and harms.
Maria Krylova, writing in the Canadian publication C2C Journal, looks in detail at two pairs of similar US states that implemented contrasting measures in response to the pandemic to see if there were significant differences when it came to Covid infections and deaths.
She explains that her research is motivated by a wish to see rational cost-benefit assessments of policies responding to pandemics.
While aimed at fighting the virus’s spread, the interventions imposed a massive toll in areas including global hunger, domestic abuse, mental and physical health problems, suicides and bankruptcies. Despite these grim consequences and, more recently, the accelerating pace of vaccinations and the gratifying reduction in deaths from COVID-19, many North American governments remain reluctant to ease the restrictions. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mused lately that the Canada-US land border would reopen “eventually”, while some public health figures are now calling for a third lockdown.
Before we – again – do anything that drastic, we need to pose an important question: Did the lockdowns actually work? Not merely in the sense of keeping people at home and convinced that their governments were doing something; but in actually altering the course of the virus through the population. This should be a crucial matter of interest to every citizen and politician. It is key to rationally assessing the costs and benefits of imposing similar social and economic policies during the next serious epidemic.
She has gathered a wealth of information on the four states in question.
COVID-19-related state-level regulations and measures were gathered and examined in their temporal relationship to the pandemic’s development, reflected in the case and death statistics (daily and total) in two pairs of U.S. states. Each pair of states is broadly comparable in climate, population, urbanization and economic characteristics, but is contrasted in the degree of severity of its statewide rules.
Two are mid-sized, adjoining Midwest states: Minnesota and Wisconsin. Minnesota had a hard and extended lockdown (many schools are still not open, for example), while Wisconsin had a short lockdown followed by moderate restrictions. The other two are southerly coastal states – California and Florida. California has had a hard and ongoing lockdown, while Florida has sought every opportunity to ease restrictions and reopen. Two other seemingly suitable cases were omitted: New York, a hard-lockdown state, because of its unique circumstances (including heavy mass-transit use in its largest city, and its deadly nursing home scandal), and South Dakota, North America’s only jurisdiction to remain fully open throughout the pandemic, because of its small and non-urbanized population.
There is an array of uncontrollable or unmeasurable variables related to the pandemic’s course, the public health response, the political response and the nature of the studied states that further complicates state-by-state comparison, increases uncertainty and, hence, lowers the confidence of conclusions. The process requires making a number of important assumptions. Among these are the accuracy of COVID-19 testing, the accuracy of case and fatality counts, and the state-to-state and temporal consistency of lockdown enforcement. The key assumptions are discussed in the Appendix.
Because the pandemic is ongoing, the observed trends are accurate to mid-March 2021. There is no intention to forecast the pandemic’s future course.
Europe shared in the worldwide fall-off in coronavirus infections in January and February but, unlike in the UK, that trend has reversed in the past few weeks and the continent, especially in the east, is beginning to see sharp rises again.
The World Health Organisation’s Emergencies Lead in Europe, Dr Catherine Smallwood, has said she is “particularly worried” about the situation in the Balkans, the Baltic States and Central Europe, where hospitalisation and death rates are now among the highest in the world. The Telegraph has more.
The numbers of new cases per million people are also rising so fast that in some countries – notably Estonia, Bosnia, Hungary and Poland – the graphs tracking the virus point almost vertically upwards.
Experts said that the combination of the spread of the more transmissible UK variant coupled with slow Government reactions, as well as a lack of vaccinations in some countries, could all be contributing to the spiking numbers and Europe’s looming third wave.
The jury is still out on how much more transmissible the UK variant really is. As Dr Clare Craig notes in relation to the UK: “The ONS Survey had it falling before Lockdown 3 was announced. At peak cases ONS reckoned 61% of COVID cases in England were new variant, 33% in Northern Ireland, 22% in Scotland and only 5% in Wales – yet all had a winter wave.” The assumption that “slow Government reactions” make a difference is also not in line with the findings of most studies, which find no association between restrictions and spread.
The WHO said that the situation was “most acute” in areas that had been successful “in controlling the disease [sic] in the first six months of 2020”, suggesting for many of the countries this is more an extended first wave than a second or third.
Nonetheless, it looks like the region may be in for a rough ride over the next few weeks.
It estimates that the disruption in healthcare services caused by Government responses to COVID-19 in Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka (home to some 1.8 billion people) may have led to 239,000 maternal and child deaths.
This compares to around 186,000 deaths “with COVID-19”, meaning the lockdowns are estimated to have killed considerably more than the virus. Furthermore, 228,000 is the estimated lockdown death toll just of children under five, almost none of whom would have been at any risk from the virus. With the majority of Covid deaths worldwide being among the over 80s, the difference in terms of quality adjusted life years (QALYs) must be staggering.
The BBC summarises some key figures included in the report.
It says the number of children being treated for severe malnutrition fell by more than 80% in Bangladesh and Nepal, and immunisation among children dropped by 35% and 65% in India and Pakistan respectively.
The report also says that child mortality rose the highest in India in 2020 – up by 15.4% – followed by Bangladesh at 13%. Sri Lanka saw the sharpest increase in maternal deaths – 21.5% followed by Pakistan’s 21.3%.
Experts in India fear that malnutrition rates will be significantly worse across the country as the data comes in over the next few months.
A separate UN report in December estimated that an additional 207 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty over the next decade due to the long term impact of lockdowns.
David Livermore, Professor of Medical Microbiology at the University of East Anglia and a member of HART, told Lockdown Sceptics:
There is far too little appreciation yet (particularly in the liberal left circles ordinarily deeply concerned about child deaths in the developing world) of the damage wrought by lockdowns in these countries. Given that they have young-dominated demographies they were never at great risk from COVID-19. It is a tragedy that they were gulled into lockdowns, even more than it is for us.
Lockdowns over the past year have often been justified using the precautionary principle as the myth was created that they are cost free, at least in terms of lives, and that any financial cost must be worth it as the measures would save “hundreds of thousands” of lives. UN reports like this show how wrongheaded this idea of locking down “just in case” is, how deadly the idea of banning ordinary human interaction and activity for months on end.
Daniel Finkelstein argues in the Times today that “in the absence of preventive measures, it is clear that hundreds of thousands more people would have died”. Yet every study of real-world data shows no relationship between restrictions and Covid mortality. Neither is there evidence of these “hundreds of thousands” of additional deaths in places which eschewed strong restrictions, such as Sweden, South Dakota and Florida. Yet this foundational lockdown myth persists, not because of any actual evidence to back it up, but to preserve the consciences of those who supported measures which did so much harm to their countries and to vulnerable people around the world.
Isn’t it time governments took a proper look at what the data shows – the huge harms, the hundreds of thousands of child deaths, the lack of evidence of effectiveness – and renounced lockdowns forever?
“The EU, and often its member states, doggedly follows the ‘precautionary principle’,” writes Matthew Lesh in CapX, blaming this principle for the suspension of the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine in various EU countries. But hang on a minute. Is this the same Matthew Lesh who has been an enthusiastic cheer leader for the British lockdowns? He goes on to say about this rationale for erring on the side of caution: “To pass the precautionary principle challenge requires doing the impossible: proving something is completely safe. Based on this logic, if stairs or pools were invented today they would be forbidden because of the risks of falling and drowning.”
Well quite. In case it’s escaped your attention, Matthew, this is precisely the argument that lockdown sceptics have been making for the past year. It was the rigid application of the precautionary principle that led governments across the world to lock their citizens in their homes last year because the dangers posed by SARS-CoV-2 were still largely unknown. Or, more precisely, it was the combination of the precautionary principle and short-termism that led to the embrace of the lockdown policy, with the priority of political leaders being to prevent immediate harm befalling their populations even if the excessive precautions they took ended up causing far greater harm in the long-term. And this, surely, is exactly the combination that’s behind the AstraZeneca ban in continental Europe. Better to avoid the immediate political fallout caused by a handful of adverse events apparently caused by the vaccine than provide their populations with lasting protection from infection.
If people like Matthew Lesh can see how disastrous the application of this principle is to the vaccine rollout, how can they not see how disastrous it was when applied to managing the pandemic last year? And, of course, it isn’t just Matthew, but vast numbers of pro-vaxxers who were gripped by the same panic European leaders are now gripped by this time last year.
The senior financial journalist who’s been a longtime contributor to Lockdown Sceptics had this to say about the double-standards of the lockdown zealots.
It’s half amusing to see commentators decrying the Europeans for the the misuse of the ‘precautionary principle’ when suspending the Astra-Zeneca vaccination (e.g. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writing in the Telegraph that the “French Precautionary Principle is literally killing Europe”. Also the Economist’s Health Correspondent said on BBC radio today that it is folly to apply the precautionary principle during a pandemic. But it is the same precautionary principle that was invoked 12 months ago to justify lockdowns in the first place – on the grounds that we didn’t know the covid infection fatality rate, its reproduction number and because hospitals might possibly be overwhelmed. The same precautionary principle was later invoked to justify two-metre social distancing, face masks, school closures, further lockdowns, etc. It seems that almost every day for 12 months we have had to endure some member of SAGE, notably Chris Whitty, appealing to the precautionary principle to justify some repressive measure unsupported by reliable data. Not only does the extreme risk aversion of the precautionary principle ignore costs (as LS has noted many times over the last year), but it returns to bite its advocates. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
The House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee has released a damning report highlighting the lack of transparency from the Government on key policy decisions relating to lockdowns. Jade Eloise Norris, a Clinical Trial Senior Research Associate at Bristol University, has written a handy thread on the key points from the report.
The report expresses particular dismay at the unwillingness of Ministers to come before the Committee and justify key decisions made over the last year.
There is a basic expectation that Ministers should be able to justify key decisions through explaining the various data considered. The Committee expected that Ministers would be able to talk us through:
– the types of data that were considered;
– how public health and other considerations were balanced;
– the governance and accountability arrangements underpinning decisions.
So it is deeply worrying that Ministers were unable to answer basic questions about the decision to lift the first lockdown.
Lifting any of the lockdowns must have considered a range of factors, including health, economic and educational outcomes.
It is, therefore, our judgement that such decisions can only be made by the Centre of Government, in the Cabinet Office or Number 10. When we have asked about these decisions – both in writing and in person – the Cabinet Office has passed the buck to the Department of Health and Social Care.
This is both confusing and unacceptable because the Department of Health and Social Care is clearly not well placed to make decisions that include wider considerations beyond health.
The anniversary of the start of the pandemic has occasioned a rash of review pieces, replete with all the standard lockdowner myths that have become part of the Official Narrative in the past year. Not least of which is that lockdown came too late, as Boris has apparently now admitted according to Telegraph sources, which bodes ill for the future.
One of these review pieces, by Telegraph Associate Editor Gordon Rayner, takes a look back at the road to lockdown last March, and includes new insights from insiders, including several ministers.
It rehashes several myths, half-truths and clangers, which we will do our best to debunk.
By mid-March last year new Covid cases were running at an average of 271 per week, though the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) was estimating there were 5,000 to 10,000 cases nationally.
Suddenly, on Friday, March 13th, everything changed. It was Gold Cup day at the now notorious 2020 Cheltenham Festival, which had been allowed to go ahead despite well-founded concerns that it would become a super-spreader event and SAGE realised it had underestimated the numbers.
Meeting in a conference room at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in Victoria Street, London, the scientists decided a 5-7-day lag in data provision meant the country was “further ahead on the epidemic curve” than they had thought, though SAGE did not at that stage recommend an immediate lockdown and warned that “measures seeking to completely suppress spread of COVID-19 will cause a second peak”.
Five hundred yards away in Downing St, Ben Warner, a young data specialist who had been No 10’s eyes and ears in SAGE meetings, conducted his own analysis of the numbers and concluded that the NHS would “fall over” in a matter of weeks because the virus was spreading exponentially.
Mr Warner took his findings to Mr Cummings, and at an emergency meeting in the Prime Minister’s Downing Street office the next morning, March 14th, Mr Cummings wrote Mr Warner’s projections on a whiteboard and said the course the Government was following would result in potentially tens of thousands of additional deaths.
“The PM was stunned,” said one source. “That was the key meeting in deciding we had to go into lockdown.”
“Our priority had always been to make sure the NHS could cope,” said another, “but the new analysis showed Covid wasn’t going to just pass that line on the graph, it was going to really smash through it.”
Reassuring to know the Government was being advised by a broad range of the best scientists in these crucial decisions, with Professor Cummings and Professor Warner drawing wobbly red lines on white boards…
Boris Johnson believes that he handled the response to Covid poorly in the early days… in that the first lockdown did not come soon – or hard – enough. Supporters of the Prime Minister claim that he was let down by his scientific advisers. The Telegraph has the story.
Mr Johnson would act “harder, earlier and faster” if he had his time again, supporters say, raising the possibility of a mea culpa moment in a future inquiry into the handling of the pandemic.
As the first anniversary of lockdown approaches, Mr Johnson has rightly won plaudits for the runaway success of Britain’s vaccine rollout, but knows he will eventually have to confront the question of why the UK has suffered the highest death toll in Europe and the fifth-highest in the world.
The Telegraph has learnt that the pivotal moment in imposing lockdown came on March 14th last year – nine days before lockdown started – when Mr Johnson was shown evidence that ministers and scientific advisers had badly miscalculated how quickly the NHS would be overwhelmed.
The Prime Minister was “stunned” to be told by a Number 10 data analyst at a hurriedly-convened Saturday meeting that his “squash the sombrero” policy was not working and that hospitals were as little as three weeks away from being past capacity.
Mr Johnson had, until then, been making decisions based on out-of-date projections provided by Government departments.
Ministers and officials involved in the Covid response have said it should not be viewed through the prism of “20-20 hindsight”, but admitted the Prime Minister’s instinct for delaying decisions as long as possible was the “worst” approach in the midst of a pandemic.
In December, Professor Neil Ferguson admitted that the implementation of lockdowns in the West was viewed as being unviable until Italy acted (hard, early and fast).
[China is] a communist one party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought… And then Italy did it. And we realised we could.
The Prime Minister’s confession lays the groundwork for future pandemic responses – that of imposing an even harder lockdown even sooner. Has he learnt nothing?