Working class

Viral Tweet Opposing ‘Herd Immunity’ Gets Pretty Much Everything Wrong

In a recent viral tweet, the anti-Brexit campaigner Jolyon Maugham criticised the Government’s initial Covid strategy (which, as we know, was later ditched in favour of lockdowns).

I’m no defender of the Government’s response to the pandemic, but it’s hard to imagine a more wrong-headed criticism than this. Indeed, it’s impressive how many fallacies Maugham managed to pack into 280 characters.

First: “Herd immunity”. As the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration have tirelessly pointed out, describing any response to the pandemic as a ‘herd immunity strategy’ is like describing a pilot’s plan to land a plane as a ‘gravity strategy’. Given that Covid cannot be eliminated, herd immunity will eventually be reached, regardless of what we do.

The goal of any plan to address Covid, write Kulldorff and Bhattacharya, “should be to minimise disease mortality and the collateral harms from the plan itself, while managing the build-up of immunity in the population.”

Second, the implication of Maugham’s tweet is that the Government’s initial strategy was motivated by Conservative ideology, and that the alternative – lockdown – is what’s backed by science.  

Yet, as I and others have pointed out, it’s actually lockdown that deviates substantially from the pre-Covid consensus. Indeed, the UK’s pandemic preparedness plan does not even mention the term. And in 2019, the WHO classified “quarantine of exposed individuals” as “not recommended under any circumstances”.  

Given that the first lockdown was implemented by a communist one-party state, and that subsequent lockdowns were imposed with almost no prior discussion, it would make more sense to say lockdown was motivated by ideology.

Third, the virus does not “target” working class and poorer people, while leaving Etonians and bankers unscathed. It is not some pathogenic agent of class warfare.

If “target” is taken to mean “infect”, then the virus targets people who aren’t immune to it. And if “target” is taken to mean “kill”, then it would be most accurate to say the virus targets the old and the immunocompromised. After all, these groups account for the overwhelming majority of deaths.

Now, it’s true that death rates have been higher in working class occupations, as I noted in a previous post. But this is far more plausibly due to lockdown than to the Government’s initial strategy, which was in any case abandoned in March of 2020.

As the art critic J. J. Charlesworth quipped, “There was never any lockdown. There was just middle-class people hiding while working-class people brought them things.” Middle-class people like Jolyon Maugham, I might add.

Did Lockdown Shift the Burden of COVID-19 Onto the Working Class?

One of the claims put forward by the authors of The Great Barrington Declaration is that lockdowns unfairly shifted the burden of COVID-19 onto the working class. As Martin Kulldorff and Sunetra Gupta argued in a piece for the Toronto Sun last November:

Low-risk college students and young professionals are protected; such as lawyers, government employees, journalists, and scientists who can work from home; while older high-risk working-class people must work, risking their lives generating the population immunity that will eventually help protect everyone.

The same idea was captured in a viral tweet by the art critic J.J. Charlesworth:

To evaluate this claim, let’s begin by looking at some of the data from Britain. Last July, the ONS attempted to quantify the extent to which different jobs can be done from home. Unsurprisingly, they found that higher-paying jobs in the professional and managerial classes are much easier to do from home, whereas lower-paying jobs in the skilled and unskilled working class are much harder to do from home. (‘Front-line doctor’ is an exception.)

While “key workers” are drawn from all income deciles, a relatively large percentage are drawn from the 2nd, 3rd and 4th deciles – particularly in the food and necessary goods sector. And according to the ONS, 15% of such workers were at an increased risk of COVID-19 because of a pre-existing health condition.

In January of 2021, the ONS computed age-standardised mortality rates for COVID-19 in different occupations. They found that men in professional and managerial occupations were substantially less likely to die of COVID-19 than those in service and elementary occupations:

The pattern among women was similar, although somewhat less pronounced. (The highest age-standardised mortality rate was for women working as plant or machine operators.)