To mark the anniversary of the first lockdown, we’re publishing a collection of short pieces by regular contributors to Lockdown Sceptics, as well as the editorial team, reflecting on the year gone by.
The Senior Doctor
Just over a year ago a patient asked me in clinic what I thought about Covid. My honest answer was I didn’t really know. There had been minimal information in the medical press and no official communication from the Department of Health. The lack of preparedness in spring 2020 by PHE and senior NHS management was palpable at the time – in retrospect it appears close to criminal. Being in the eye of the storm last year, it was clear that NHS management were paralysed by ‘battle shock’. As one of my colleagues put it in the Guardian recently ‘top down didn’t work, bottom up did’. Dominic Cummings giving evidence to a Parliamentary committee described the Department of Health as being a ‘smoking ruin’ – that’s certainly how it looked from the worm’s eye viewpoint.
I could write several pages analysing governmental actions in the last year, but the overarching aim has been a deliberate campaign to generate fear of a disease which is only seriously dangerous to a small subset of people. If government succeeds in the – surprisingly easy – task of terrifying the population about some external threat, then it can take the most extraordinary actions, cheered on by the Opposition and mass media. In tandem with state backed misinformation has been concealment of quite egregious errors such as the rate of nosocomial infections, the PPE debacle, the failure of Test and Trace, the lack of adequate preparation and training for a predictable winter surge and many other serious mistakes.
If I had to identify one critical error it would be this – that the executive has allowed a form of ‘state capture’ to occur, whereby a self – selecting group of medical apparatchiks are effectively dictating policy across the entire government. Dissenting informed opinion has been ruthlessly repressed, ridiculed and censored in favour of a one-sided presentation of the data. Despite repeated assertions to be ‘following the science, this is the very antithesis of scientific method. Simply put, we are no longer living in a ‘free country’ in the way we used to define it. As to the question of how we escape from this unacceptable situation, I revert to the response given in the first paragraph – I don’t really know. I suspect the answer lies in revealing to the public the extent to which they have been deceived over the last 12 months. If that ever happens, the consequences could be profound.
David McGroggan, Associate Professor of Law, Northumbria Law School
I think the best way of describing the last 12 months is as a series of profoundly shocking discoveries, one after the other, whose cumulative effect has been to change my worldview irrevocably. I feel a bit like Christopher Columbus, suddenly and unexpectedly forced to confront the fact that he is not in Asia after all, but a completely different continent – one in which everybody wears face masks and speaks a bizarre foreign tongue peppered with vaguely recognisable words which they actually appear to believe mean something: ‘lockdown’, ‘tiers’, ‘social distancing’, ‘the R rate’. It’s discombobulating to say the least to be disabused of so many of the truisms one once held dear, all at once, and so brutally. It turns out people don’t value freedom, as I once thought, but compliance. It turns out it’s not reason that wins through in the end, but fear. It turns out Britain doesn’t have a unique culture of respect for civil liberties and the rule of law, but we just got lucky before 2020. It turns out our much vaunted ‘common sense’ was a complete phantom, and we’re actually a nation of irrational ‘Clap for Carers’ cultists. It turns out our constitutional arrangements, which I had once thought of as being quietly beautiful and unintentionally brilliant, collapse like a pack of cards the moment a crisis hits. I could go on.
Looking back, what I most clearly remember now about the febrile atmosphere of February and March last year was my own naïve optimism. I knew that some people were panicking. But I ascribed this to social media-led melodrama that would soon blow over. And I genuinely thought I was part of a silent majority of sensible people who weren’t getting swept up in the frenzy. I don’t think I appreciated at the time that I am, actually, a bit unusual: my father died of the ‘flu, so the idea that respiratory viruses can really be quite nasty was not a shock to me; I have lived through a bona fide life-threatening natural disaster and know what an actual catastrophe looks like; I don’t have any social media accounts so my antennae have not been borked by echo chambers; I have spent a long time overseas so I don’t imbue the NHS with quasi-religious significance or see it as my duty to ‘protect’ it; I have read my Hayek, my Bastiat, my Friedman, my Smith, and I am predisposed to value freedom and limited government. I hadn’t realised that I was somewhat different from my countrymen in these respects. So I was genuinely flabbergasted on March 23rd when it turned out people were actually going along with the nonsense. And since then I have found myself constantly surprised at just how out of step I am with the people around me.
It starts with the original justification for ‘lockdowns’ itself. In February and March I was looking at the data coming out of places that had been hit before us – Japan (where I lived for eight years and still have friends and family), South Korea, Taiwan, Italy, New York, Spain, Iceland and so on. There is a revisionist narrative that now says “we didn’t know anything about the virus” in those early days, but we did know quite a lot, very quickly: most saliently, that the average age of death was always around 80, and that it was basically impossible to catch the virus outdoors. The Taiwanese CDC, for example, had by late February tracked every single Covid infection in its territory and all of their contacts – and determined that not a single case had been transmitted outside. And it was evident from Italy, New York and Spain that the ‘modal death’, as it were, from Covid was somebody about 80 years old with one serious comorbidity. So I was looking at this freely available information and thinking to myself, well, since eventually this knowledge will filter through to the population and our political leaders, we’ll find a straightforward path through this – protect the elderly, let everybody else get on with their lives. It was just a matter of time. The order to stay at home seemed bizarre given that we already knew that was where you were most likely to get infected. But I thought the ‘3 weeks’ thing was a precaution and that after it was over people would probably have realised that you can’t just hide behind the sofa and hope a virus will go away.
I still clung to my innocent faith in our society’s capacity for rational decision-making for quite a long time even as lockdown went on (and on, and on). As the weeks passed, I began to think that probably the Government knew it had overreacted and made a mistake, but that it didn’t want to admit it, and would slowly wind everything down over summer as a face-saving exercise. And I thought by that point the spell would be broken over the population and people would merrily embrace normality again. I still hadn’t grasped that our society had collectively become completely wedded to all of this. It was only with July, and the compulsory wearing of face masks and the ‘Leicester lockdown’, that it began to dawn on me that, yes, our politicians really believed that ‘controlling’ a respiratory virus was a sensible policy goal, and that the population was actually in large part behind them. I then, finally, started to become deeply pessimistic and afraid about where things are going. And that hasn’t lifted since.
I now look at the future with a deep sense of foreboding. I see a society which has little genuine commitment to freedom or evidence-based decision-making, and which is instead interested largely in compliance and being seen to do the right thing. I see a politico-legal establishment which has no real understanding of what the rule of law entails (the complete lack of outrage expressed by the judiciary and the legal profession over the spectacle of government Ministers creating law by executive fiat throughout this crisis has been a deeply unpleasant surprise). I see a culture which prioritises the needs of the old over the young – the mirror image of what a healthy society looks like. And above all I see a future which increasingly resembles that of China: a purportedly benevolent but ultimately authoritarian and controlling State bestowing blessings on a grateful population who are never allowed to get out of line and who are forever looking to public authority to tell them what they ought or ought not to do. And, I might add, an elite who see absolutely nothing wrong with that. I’m not sure what can be done, if anything, to resurrect the way of life we once had. But there is also part of me that wonders whether that way of life really existed in the first place, given that so many of its predicates were abandoned in a heartbeat the moment things got difficult. If a society gives up its freedoms as soon as a nasty but essentially manageable threat materialises, was it ever really committed to freedom at all? Was our precious liberty always just on borrowed time?
David Livermore, Professor of Medical Microbiology, University of East Anglia
Impending lockdown forced me to abandon a tramp round Anglesey last March. Watching the coast slip away on an empty London train, I didn’t expect it to do much good. In the 21 years (1997 to 2018) I’d worked full- or part- time for PHE and its predecessors I’d never heard lockdown touted as part of respiratory pandemic planning. At best it might push the problem into the future, I thought. Still, the UK has a paucity of intensive care beds and I could see ICU collaborators under heavy pressure. There were issues with oxygen supply, I learnt, and lockdown would give time to secure PPE. So, I wasn’t a vehement early opponent.
What turned me was the way that three weeks kept extending, and the fact that Sweden, with no lockdown, fared no worse than us. Friends caught the virus and recovered. Sometimes, on professional Zoom calls, it was possible to believe that good was being done. But as soon as I went outside it wasn’t. The collateral damage was clear. Forcing a route along the often-pathless coast from Aberdeen to Lossiemouth in the August truce of ‘Eat out to help out’ I found the half-ruined owners of little hotels praying for a normal Christmas, which they weren’t to get. One was kind enough to re-open a shuttered pub to give us a room. Thank you, Grant, if you’re reading this. In Norwich and London the boarded shops multiply. Veiled citizens flit nervously. Some are still sufficiently spooked to ‘mask up’ if they encounter me on a windswept country path. Others, unseen, hide indoors, disinfecting deliveries. They might do better to fear £400bn of extra debt, half funded by a money-printing magic circle whereby ‘Government issues bonds; Bank of England buys bonds’. That cannot end well. COVID-19 can be lethal but, even at its January peak, a million infections per week only put a few thousand into ICUs. The ‘death total’ is inflated by including ‘died with’ as well as ‘died from’ and the excess deaths by those who, owing to COVID pressures, couldn’t or wouldn’t access healthcare for treatable conditions. Many ‘hospital cases’ were infected, more or less seriously, whilst already hospitalised. No statistic is quite as it looks.
Toby asks what I got wrong. Answer: ‘Plenty’. I underestimated how long people would tolerate the restrictions heaped upon them. I overestimated how long vaccine development would take. I underestimated Kate Bingham. Last and most serious. I believed that Boris was a libertarian of a sort – an easy mistake but a bad one. But, on the central issue, I remain convinced: It’s a nasty virus, indubitably causing deaths, but we’ve overreacted. To have made it the sole driver of policy is folly, for it isn’t the plague of 1665 or 1347 and public health is not benefitted by dislocating the economy nor by terrorising the population. These points apply even more strongly now that the great majority of the most vulnerable have had a shot of vaccine. A vaccinated America is reopening swiftly, and we should do so too.
Conor Chaplin, Editorial Staff
It is now something like a year and a month since I first began to feel that the sky was falling down. My day job as a freelance musician can sometimes be a precarious and unpredictable one, but in fact it’s vanishingly rare for engagements to be cancelled. The first inkling, therefore, that something big was coming was when the first of these cancellations came in – an entire week’s work at a famous jazz club in London’s West End. Within weeks all my income for the foreseeable future was gone. Looking back, I was probably part of that group, identified in retrospect by various commentators, who was picking up on the signs earlier than others. Friends and colleagues, yet to be subjected to hysterical media coverage, blithely went about as normal, sometimes even talking of “just another flu”, while I slathered myself in hand gel, opened doors with my elbow, and eyed with suspicion anyone who so much as cleared their throat in public. Eventually, I pre-emptively retreated to the family home a full week before the official ‘Stay At Home’ instruction was given.
In under a month I had switched places almost completely with my initially carefree peers. The divide between us was, I think, our consumption of information, and has been reflected in society at large ever since. Those more inclined to investigate and monitor diverse news sources, perhaps with a better grasp of how to use the internet intelligently, were among the first to see the footage (bizarre and dubious in hindsight) of people falling over in the streets of Wuhan, but by the same token were also the first to come across, for example, the Stanford study from early in the pandemic led by Dr John Ioannidis, the first large-scale serological survey. I was convinced that the earth-shattering findings of this study (that the number of people already exposed to the virus was somewhere between 50-85 times greater than the official case numbers) would be headline news, considering the magnitude of its implications. But it sank with scarcely a mention and from that moment on it was clear to me that the mainstream media’s coverage of the pandemic was not going to admit of any awkward questions. Good news was not permitted.
In the intervening year, though perhaps less so recently, many have quite understandably shut themselves off from everything except a psychologically tolerable daily or weekly dip into a trusted channel such as the BBC. This has meant that they are often not aware there is really any debate or controversy about the lockdowns. This is evidenced for me by the fact that I still encounter people on an almost daily basis who have never even heard of Neil Ferguson, and have no idea what his role in this has been. This alone suggests the population is living in two parallel worlds. All of this has been a challenge for me politically – naturally a cosmopolitan liberal type, voted to remain in the EU, and having always voted for left-of-centre parties, my new allies almost all came from parts of the political spectrum with which I did not associate myself. The Opposition in Parliament did not oppose, and now the only people in that chamber who make any sense to me are a handful of slightly eccentric backbench Tory MPs. Many of the bizarre rules and rituals of the last year have made me resent the state entirely, but perhaps none had quite the bitter Cromwellian joylessness as the law requiring publicans to prevent customers from “singing or dancing” in licensed premises.
Discussion of the matter with friends is fraught with peril. It can seem tasteless to argue statistics with someone who has lost a relative to the disease. While many, including me, still to this day hardly know of anyone who has succumbed during supposedly the worst pandemic in a century, this is not true for everyone and no lockdown sceptic I know has ever suggested that the disease was trivial, that it would have no impact, or that no-one would die of it. But the amount of personal suffering that some people have invested in their compliance can mean that you are met with jabbing fingers and indignantly raised voices if you start suggesting that all their torment was for nothing. Other contributors to these pages are much better at crunching the numbers to prove why all of this has been dubious at best, but to me it has always been a moral or philosophical question. The state should never go this far, unless the threat is catastrophic. Worst of all, the precedent is now set that mass compliance can be achieved among a fearful population, and that this is now an acceptable way of managing relatively unthreatening contagious diseases. I would not bet my house that we have seen the last lockdown yet…
Mike Hearn, ex-Google software engineer and Blogger
The story of lockdown is largely one of corruption and decay inside academia. When I sent Toby an analysis of Ferguson’s COVID-Sim program, I didn’t expect it to get over quarter of a million views and become the second most popular page on the site. But it got attention because it proved with evidence what many people already suspected: that the scientists justifying lockdown weren’t merely making suspicious assumptions but were actually doing their work wrong in an objective sense.
At first I hoped COVID-Sim was a problem restricted to a single team at a single university, one which would be corrected by an embarrassed administration. In the months that followed it became clear that the academic establishment was simply going to sweep it all under the rug and deny anything had ever gone wrong. What followed was a failed attempt to delete audit logs, claims that arbitrary prediction differences of 80k deaths didn’t matter and most shocking of all, “scientists” at prestigious universities making arguments so stupid they would get high school students a fail grade. Maths lessons sure would be easier if you could just do your sums wrong a few times and then take the average! So Ferguson et al are not an isolated case but appear to be a symptom of systematic problems with programming competence across government funded science. In the months that followed I wrote again and again and again and again about research papers that contained basic, obvious problems which should never have been published at all. Lockdown theory was invalidated by observed data but epidemiology simply ignored it. A few months later Alvaro de Menard published “Reflections After Reading 2578 Papers“, which studies the quality problems found outside of epidemiology. And now even the most naive institutions are finally accepting that a lab leak cannot be just waved away as a possible source of SARS-CoV-2.
The root cause of these problems is incorrect/missing incentives. Academics get career growth when they make interesting claims confidently, not correct claims hesitantly. Universities don’t encourage cross-discipline research, so scientists routinely try to do complex statistical or programming work alone despite having inadequate training to do so. Society holds academics unaccountable for the correctness of their work and simply trusts them to be intellectually honest on a massive scale, a bad decision we are now all paying dearly for. Statistical modelling in particular is like a drug to these people because it allows users to generate new “science” on the back of any semi-plausible assumption at all, of which there’s a limitless number (and which can easily be ideological). People can’t tell the difference between genuinely scientific work and papers that just contain equations, so all that’s left is to lose the cultural expectation of comparing predictions against observed data and the flow of research grants can never end.
Can academia be reformed? It seems doubtful. The best people keep leaving for superior pay and the more results-oriented culture of the private sector, leaving those who don’t get it to dominate. In the UK the ruling party is settling on a narrative that lockdowns were correct, that it was mea culpa for not listening to ICL even sooner and the right thing to do to research budgets is increase them. Meanwhile, the opposition relies heavily on academics and students for votes. The flow of bad science will get larger, rational people will more frequently reject claims based on academic modelling, and the establishment will descend even further into delusional explanations for why people don’t trust them anymore – like blaming “conspiracy theories“, YouTube or Russian interference. There is no obvious end to this process because government/donor funding kills any incentive universities have to improve. Things will get worse before they get better.
Sinéad Murphy, Research Associate in Philosophy at Newcastle University
On the first anniversary of Covid UK I thought I might comment on something other than Covid – or something that seems to be other than Covid, at least.
There has been a subplot to the events of this year. Through all of the government’s crimes against its people, through the isolation and the anguish and the suffering they have caused, there has been a most persistent and apparently unrelated campaign: to do justice to racial and sexual identities.
Perhaps we were taken aback at the timing of this campaign, launched and pursued in the context of unprecedented containment of the population: we were banned from laying eyes on our dying father, from touching our only child, even from leaving our house. But there is is a long-established and intimate connection between the contempt for the weakness and corruption of our bodies implied by the Covid measures, and elevation of a somewhat vague, even mystical, identity as the sacred site of personal truth.
During the 1970s and 80s, Michel Foucault outlined this intimate connection, between disdain for bodies and worship of identities. In Discipline and Punish, he described the modern era’s reframing of the body as mere clay, docile fodder for the industrial age, criss-crossed by interests that are not the less oppressive for being sterile and organised rather than bloody and spectacular. And in The History of Sexuality, he described the great compensation for our body’s humiliation and rejection: our modern soul, our identity, in which the real truth about us resides, and which is uncovered and cherished using concepts from the life sciences.
The inapt body: to be, not punished, but disciplined. The precious soul: destined, not for an after-life, but for telling its truth in this life, endlessly and without pause.
Two sides of a single strategy, according to Foucault at least, for the management of the populations of democratic societies.
A pair of recent UK Government campaigns have activated this strategy quite openly, revealing the Covid crisis and its identities-subplot as the quintessentially modern kind of control that Foucault alerted us to. Act Like You’ve Got It intensified the year’s suspicion of our bodies by urging us to treat them as diseased and deadly even if they give no signs of being so – and to swab them and mask them and isolate them and keep our distance from them as the contemptible lumps of flesh that they are. Look Her In The Eyes was the counterbalance campaign, directing us to random sets of eyes as the windows into infinitely precious souls, reminding us that inside every decaying would-be-corpse is a person whose purity and truth is as worthy of boundless respect as their fleshly casing is deserving of limitless censure.
There is, clearly, a religious quality to our implicit appeal to a sacred core as consolation for the weakness of our bodies. But our modern soul is a secular soul; it has no actual religious content, only content given to it by the biological, psychological and social sciences. And if we have learnt one thing during this past year, it is that such sciences are not above being conduits for the agenda of governments and corporations.
While we obediently cultivate a hatred of our bodies beyond any felt before in human history, we obediently look for our real selves in an imagined identity that is conveniently manufactured by scientific concepts advertised and distributed by those with power and influence.
And the effect is intensifying, with the roll-out of these treatments they are calling ‘vaccines’, new mRNA pharmaceuticals that have never been used before and that are still in the experimental phase of their development. We should investigate these treatments, and not allow those in power to simply ‘get them in arms’. For, we are not identities trapped in contemptible bodies. Whatever we are, we are embodied.
A Twitter bio I came across recently included the designators, 21y/o, ‘sapiosexual,’ ‘panAfrican,’ and ‘VACCINATED’. It is the endgame of the management of people with democratic freedoms, when they experience themselves as liberated by cleaving to newly invented, politically infused categories of race and sex, and are so scornful of their body as to replace its native immunity with an artificial version when, at the age of 21, it is highly unlikely to be improved upon.
Will Jones, Editorial Staff
Three weeks to squash the sombrero and here we are, a year later and still locked down, with threats of more to come in winter. What shocked me most? How few people, both among elites and in the public, saw through the nonsense and bluster and stood up to the emerging public health tyranny. How swiftly and comprehensively coercive fanaticism became the norm. How deaf to data and confounding evidence mainstream media and science became, and how intolerant of dissent. Even the Spectator embraced Communist lockdownism in the winter; that was one of the toughest blows. Et tu, Nelson?
I wrote my first sceptical piece on March 17th, arguing the cure was worse than the disease, and haven’t looked back. The night before, Boris had just done his first press conference and inaugurated social distancing, which had coincided with the Neil Ferguson Imperial report of doom projecting over 500,000 deaths. Ferguson anticipated 18 months of restrictions while waiting for a vaccine. Seems prescient, till you realise it was self-fulfilling. James Gallagher on the BBC just wrote: “We are in this for the long haul.” How right he was.
Did I get everything right? Certainly not. Like many I was wrongfooted by the size of the winter surge, having mistaken the seasonal decline in the spring for the full emergence of herd immunity. But the basics were all there: don’t overestimate the deadliness of the disease or the effectiveness of lockdowns; don’t underestimate the harms of lockdown or the resilience of the human immune system. These are lessons the Government has failed to learn, having invested far too much in the opposites being true.
Will they let us out now we have the vaccines? It’s hard to tell. I try to remain upbeat, thinking they have to let us go sooner or later – it’s just too expensive otherwise. But in my darker moments I wonder if they have it in them to restore personal liberty and a proper assessment of risk. Has everyone just become too attached to the false safety of their solitude? That, I confess, is my greatest fear.
Guy de la Bédoyère, Historian
I made it back from Australia about 48 hours before the first lockdown here kicked in, fighting my way through airports at Perth, Bangkok and finally Heathrow, all in different stages of shutting down. Looking back a year later, I can understand to some extent why panic set in. The history of plagues and even apocalyptic disaster movies like Contagion meant there was some inevitability about expecting the worst, at least in the short term, bolstered in my view by a wider culture of doom-mongering that has become one of the great paradoxes of living in a world that is for some at least the wealthiest and healthiest in human history.
What I cannot forget is the power and influence given to a very small number of people who seem quite unable or unwilling to consider the wider consequences of their recommendations, and the government’s feeble acquiescence, based on modelling that could only ever be short-term. This was especially unforgiveable once it became clear that COVID-19’s impact was inconsequential (when set against many other diseases) for most of the population, and that protective measures should have been focused on those at serious risk. The claimed mitigating effects of lockdowns could only be temporary, if they even worked at all, yet the mentality of lockdown seems to have become engrained despite the mounting weight of evidence for the terrible damage it is doing. Worse, many of the consequences will not become clear until long after the career of this current bout of politicians and scientists have slunk off into the long grass to live off their pensions.
More recently, we have seen the lockdown lunatic fringe gleefully promoting the insane idea of zero Covid, a goal that has the potential to paralyze our society and economy on a permanent basis. Worse, the maniacs so keen on this absurd and destructive fantasy are sufficiently ignorant or dismissive of history and wider social and political culture that they are encouraging an international lurch towards totalitarianism, nationalism, and tension. The easiest thing in the world is to sleepwalk into one-party states ruled by oppressive dictatorial governments, something I wrote about for this site back in the late spring of 2020. Far from that threat abating it is becoming more palpable by the day, aided and abetted by a public horrified by graphs and data they do not understand, and deliberately terrorized by the Government and elements of the media. The vaccine clot scare just shows the extent to which this time is turning into the Age of Fear even, it seems, avidly embraced by some. Sadly, what I thought might have been a passing crisis shows ominous signs of bedding in for the long-term. Fortunately, the way out still exists but we will have work ever harder to stop it slithering through our fingers. If we let it go, it will not return for many of us in our lifetimes.
James Moreton Wakeley, former Parliamentary researcher
“This is our war.” I remember that this sentiment was not uncommon when coronavirus stopped being something of a joke involving Mexican beer and the government imposed the first lockdown on the country, a year ago today. The specious language of war has since dominated the airways: doctors and nurses are ‘on the frontline’ and house arrest and economic collapse are all part of a ‘national effort’ to ‘defeat the virus’. The state’s public information campaign, by embracing powerful, emotionally charged scare-stories and lies, became tantamount to wartime propaganda. Politicians love such bellicose rhetoric. It flatters the ego and it always seems to cut through to a society for which real wars are small affairs fought in faraway places.
The language, however, is in some respects quite apposite. Conflicts can presage profound cultural change. Rome was shaken to its foundations in a series of wars in the third century AD, and the revolution that was Christianisation followed. Centuries later, France erupted in social and political revolution after helping the rebels drive out the redcoats from the Thirteen Colonies in America. World War One set in motion the destruction of the moral order of Christian Europe – as well as its old empires – with conflicts ranging from the Russian Civil War to Vietnam changing societies in ways that are still being worked-out today.
By amplifying the threat posed by a new respiratory disease, and crashing the economy, the government has synthesised a wartime scenario. It will have lasting implications. Dirigiste solutions look set to be the norm in the new Safety State. The government has assumed responsibility for all of our lives, all of the time, so expect lasting limits on how we can associate with one another – lest someone catch yet another new strain of Covid or the flu. The Government’s use of fear has infected too many with an irrational degree of trepidation, like the mask-wearing couple who hurled themselves into a hedgerow as I jogged past them the other day. Such neurotic behaviour may become a new social norm – simply ‘polite’ – with people reluctant to socialise, travel, or to do anything other than err on the extreme side of caution. A society that has had precious little chance to question the efficacy of lockdowns will be told how it was saved by the policy in fact responsible for its new-found penury and complicated physical and mental health crises. Banishing Covid hysteria and making the case for trusting people, believing in freedom, and welcoming views to the public arena even if they are unfashionable will become ever more important.
A year on, I feel that the fight to return to our lives as we knew them is only just beginning.
Martin Paul Evison, PhD
My first surprise was how readily the public have accepted lockdowns and authoritarian government. My second was how Public Health morphed from encouraging the unhealthy to adopt healthier lifestyles, to picking corporate winners irrespective of health overall. My third surprise was to see the extent ‘advocacy research’ has permeated the sciences.
SARS-CoV-2 is seasonal and will be back. Taking into account nosocomial infections, lockdown deaths and mis-classifications this winter, the rate of excess deaths due to COVID-19 may not be as great as it appears and any resurgence is likely to involve a further diminution.
I can’t see an end to lockdowns unless there is popular opposition – perhaps driven by the electoral threat of anti-lockdown parties – or until the harm begins to bite on the public as a whole.
I will no longer trust predictive models, meta-analyses or similar studies lacking a robust scientific basis being used to seed public policy.
The Top Financial Journalist
A year ago, I joined the ranks of lockdown sceptics. I didn’t profess any particular understanding of epidemics but had spent decades studying financial markets. In our response to the appearance of COVID-19 I saw the type of irrational behaviour normally displayed during stock market bubbles. The difference being that the Covid “bubble” was driven by fear rather than greed.
Since last March, we have witnessed the following irrational behaviours: extreme risk aversion, saliency (placing excessive weight on particularly vivid risks), availability bias (described by the Israeli-born psychologist Daniel Kahneman as “a self-sustaining chain of events which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action”), confirmation bias, intolerance of dissenting views, poor probability calculations, forecasting by linear extrapolation, etc.
It should be clear 12 months later that lockdowns are a blunt tool which have failed to deliver and carry huge costs to society. Yet governments and their advisers cannot admit to their errors. They are locked in a state of “cognitive dissonance,” which causes them to screen out non-confirming evidence and even double-down on their mistaken actions. Epidemiologists remind me of modern economists, likewise addicted to mathematical models whose dubious inputs guarantee unreliable forecasts. Both these academic disciplines appear to have banished common sense.
In the world of finance, we have become used to monetary policymakers implementing untested, extreme and ultimately ineffective measures to combat phantom risks. We are painfully aware that outbreaks of irrationality can last for what seems like an eternity. A consoling thought is that when great bubbles burst, an angry and impoverished public look for someone to blame. One day, I believe, those responsible for the great lockdown crime will face a similar reckoning.
Jonathan Barr, Editorial Staff
It all made so much sense when it first kicked off. We were faced with a novel, highly transmissible virus. We couldn’t stop it, but we might, just, be able to slow it down. By staying apart, we could ‘slow the spread’ and thereby ensure that there would be a hospital bed for everyone when they needed it. Moreover, I was not unhappy to sit at home for three weeks, doing the odd errand for the local vulnerable, and catching up on some TV.
What folly! Three weeks to ‘flatten the curve’ led inexorably into six weeks and then into a bewildering array of rules and tier systems. It was the first step, in fact, towards the absurdly hubristic notion that we were somehow going to ‘control’ the virus and thereby save lives. That hubris was, for my money, the Government’s most egregious sin. We can no more ‘control the virus’ than we can control any other part of nature. We can try to protect ourselves from it – e.g. as set out in the Great Barrington Declaration – and we can try to repair the damage that it can do, but we cannot ‘control’ it. In trying to, it seems pretty clear that the virus was handed control of us. Indefinitely and with terrible consequences.
What should the Government have done instead? It should have been mindful of its actual responsibilities. I thought Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church, Edmonton spoke rather well on this in his last sermon before his arrest and imprisonment for Public Health Act offences. It is not Government’s responsibility, he pointed out, to protect citizens from a virus. They didn’t create it. It’s not their fault. It is Government’s responsibility, however, to protect our rights to live fully and properly and to work, to assemble and to be with our families when they are dying. They should have found ways of responding to the virus that are compatible with protecting those rights and calling on citizens to get involved if necessary, for there were plenty who were willing. Lockdown, of course, is no such solution and the Government bears the responsibility, shared with everyone who has supported it, for the suffering it has caused.
I hope that people’s sense of personal threat is now sufficiently diminished to avoid another lockdown, though I wouldn’t bet on it. What about the next novel virus that comes along, or threat of any other kind for that matter? It is tempting to believe that a law protecting rights might help, or a public inquiry that helps us better prepare for the next pandemic. Alas, though, I think we’ve seen that when the pressure is on, and the experts are making their confident projections based, as ever, on inadequate data, and the media is ramping up fear, it doesn’t really matter what laws and plans are in place. So I suspect lockdowns are set to become a perennial fixture of life in Britain.
Sean Walsh, Philosopher
Some truths cannot accurately be represented by a slide on a government graph. There are harms which are invisible to science. These harms take spiritual, religious, and emotional form. Since the Whitty types grabbed the Power Point, they have been not merely overlooked but concealed.
There is no specific piece of moral repugnancy that I would wish to point to as an example of the tyranny of the last year. Although there’s much to choose from. I could, I guess, point to the enforced dehumanization agenda known as “the wearing of masks” – an insistence that people are not allowed to smile at each other in a shop. But I’ll go with the general SAGE strategy: the bastardisation of language in service of its own ends. The Humpty Dumpty approach in which a positive PCR test is a “Covid case” and the distinction between “dying with” and “dying from” is dissolved in service of political expediency.
That’s my language – your language – and they had no right to steal it.
But if I’m honest most of my anger is directed at the public. Governments are child-like in that they like to test boundaries. It is our job to push back. We didn’t.
A positive note? That human nature always surprises and that the impulse to freedom is intact. People I never cared for have shown themselves to be cool. This fight is a righteous one and the right side will win it.
Jonny Peppiatt, Poet and Novelist
Tasked with identifying the Government’s most egregious sin of the past year, of isolating a single transcendent sin from the cacophony of catastrophic callousness, the easy option would be to pick the abandonment of the findings and recommendations arising from Exercise Cygnus – without which, none of this would have happened.
But there have been two elements that have particularly disturbed me: the first being the general treatment of the elderly, including the denial of visits for loved ones in their old age that has either dragged forward dementia-related declines or, unforgivably, left so many of the elderly to die alone, having wasted the final year of their lives miserable, confused, lonely; and the second being the vilification of our vibrant youth as the drivers of the pandemic, while simultaneously denying them their right to education, and to life – all without any supporting evidence.
While we reflect on the past year though, it is also worth looking forward and considering future lockdowns, whether we would be forced to endure them, and how to avoid them, because there have now been three floated ideas for future lockdowns: new variants; lack of immunity to influenza; and climate change.
Considering these in turn: each new “variant of concern” has been followed by an announcement a week or so later that the vaccines work against them. So while some individuals will be keen for “booster jabs” come winter, the overwhelming majority will not buy into a lockdown next winter given the success of the vaccination programme.
But if we are to be sure, if we are to guarantee that the lockdowns never happen again, then we need to buck the system. We need to revive democracy and get out and vote for whichever anti-lockdown candidate we can in whichever election we have the opportunity to vote in, from Kenneth Morton for Reform UK in Mid-Scotland and Fife to Laurence Fox for Reclaim in London; and we need to spread the word, perhaps even help out with campaigning where possible, because Sadiq Khan won the 2016 London Mayoral Election in the final round with only 1,310,143 out of a possible 5,087,764.
So, rally the troops, talk to friends, get people engaged, back Lozza, and let’s send a very, very loud message on May 5th, because it is through the power of the people – through true democracy – that we can ensure insanity never again prevails.
Michael Curzon, Editorial Staff
2020: what a year to graduate… The lockdown has pushed my route into a career in journalism down a unique path – that of food retail. (Perhaps there is a decent Co-op on Fleet Street that I can aspire to.) At the very least, this has allowed me to witness the “panic-buying” of bog rolls first hand (and, later, of fags, booze and scratch cards).
I soon realised, from my behind-the-till view, that those who grumble the loudest about Covid rule-breakers on the front pages, and about fellow customers not following the arrow floor markings, are also the most likely to step within the forbidden 2 metre distancing zone, and embrace friends when they pass by. What does this tell us about the restriction-favouring polls, I wonder?
It has been rather less humorous to see the change in peoples’ behaviours caused by a lack of social contact (especially in older regulars). Those who were the most spritely a year ago (I started the day lockdown began) have become quiet and cold; their heads have dipped. “How’s your week been,” I ask, to which I usually hear “the same as the last”. These people know they don’t have long to live anyway, and that this time is being wasted.
One older customer I have become close to recently lost his wife. He saw her once (for about five minutes) in her last weeks, for he wasn’t allowed to visit her at hospital. At any time, this would have been painful, but the circumstances have visibly broken him. I’m just grateful to have been able to spend the past six months living with my better half in a rented flat (I thank the shop for that much!). Without this, I’m sure I’d be a little more withered too.
John Fanning, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Liverpool
I was in the Zambezi Region of Namibia when the UK went into lockdown on March 23rd 2020. My girlfriend and I were among the many thousands of Britons stranded overseas by the COVID-19 crisis. By the time we were repatriated on 5th April, the UK had changed almost beyond recognition. I will never forget how eerie it was landing at a deserted Heathrow Airport and driving back to Liverpool along empty motorways. It has become a cliché to refer to all this as ‘dystopian’, but that is what it was.
In the year since, I have often wondered whether my lockdown scepticism owes much to the fact that I was not in the UK when COVID panic first took hold. I missed the panic-buying, the pasta and toilet roll shortages, the desperate scramble to clear out offices, the price gouging on hand-sanitising products, the start of the weekly ‘Clap for our Carers’ ritual, the advent of Zoom quizzes, ‘PE with Joe Wicks’, banana bread bake-offs, neighbours shopping each other to the police, and so on. An entirely new vocabulary had emerged during my six weeks in the Southern Hemisphere: ‘social distancing’, ‘self-isolation’, ‘WFH’, ‘furlough’, ‘Covidiot’. Even the word ‘lockdown’, with all its swaggering pomposity, seemed to me to be the language of an American penitentiary, not a free society. It should be as jarring to our British-English ears as ‘sidewalk’, ‘gasoline’ and ‘eggplant’ – and yet it, and all it stood for, seemed to be accepted without question. In Namibia, I had been at far greater risk of malaria than coronavirus disease, so I felt bemused by this astonishing overreaction. I had a tough time adjusting to what certain sections of the media began gleefully calling ‘the new normal’ (a habit that Weetabix put beyond parody when it started referring to ‘new-normal-a-bix’ in its adverts). I came to it late, so I struggled with newly-embedded codes of social etiquette which governed practices like queuing outside shops and crossing the road so as not to come within two metres of another human being. I also resented it deeply for cutting short my tour of southern Africa, for which my girlfriend and I had planned for over a year.
But the main source of my scepticism is ideological. As I have written elsewhere, ‘I believe that liberty should always be presumed and that deprivations of it should be exceptional and legally justified.’ To put it another way, I am a classical liberal. Although it is unusual within the soft-left consensus of academia, I have never considered this outlook to be controversial. To my mind, the primacy of the individual, economic freedom, civil liberties, parliamentary democracy, and the rule of law are precious things. For that reason, there should be a high threshold before the state abrogates them. I am unconvinced that the threat from COVID-19 ever met that threshold and doubt that the lockdown is in any way commensurate with the public health risk posed by the SARS-Cov-2 virus. It is incredible that this has become such a highly contentious thing to say.
I began my legal education in the post-9/11 era, when lawyers actively resisted the indefinite detention of the ‘Belmarsh 9’, control orders, the expansion of police powers, ID cards, and attempts to introduce 90- and 42-day pre-charge detention. It was an exciting time in which, in the battle between security and liberty, the ‘legal establishment’ seemed unapologetically on the side of the latter. Yet when the UK Government, at a stroke and with minimal Parliamentary scrutiny, abandoned the precious presumptions of our free society on 23 March 2020, whither the lawyers, I wondered?
For the most part, lawyers both in practice and academia have uttered little public criticism of the rules. Instead, there has been an earnest compliance. I have lost count of the number of times I have been greeted by awkward silences or mealy-mouthed ‘Yeah, but…’ justifications – even from lawyers – when expressing my scepticism of the rules over the last year. At times, voicing my opinion has felt like career suicide. That lockdown scepticism has been so skilfully conflated with nutty 5G conspiracies, or assailed by appeals to misty-eyed emotion about ‘our NHS’, has made thoughtful criticism of the restrictions all but impossible.
One exception to this has been Jonathan Sumption, who has at various points over the last year seemed like the only lawyer in the country willing to raise a dissenting voice. The former Supreme Court justice, famously in possession of ‘a brain the size of a planet’, has described the lockdown as a ‘remarkable departure from our liberal traditions’. He is surely right about that. Lord Sumption has made his case in newspaper columns, lectures, and interviews and has done so in the face of what at times is a hostile media. I suspect that, much to his surprise, he has found himself painted as a dangerous radical, despite advancing his argument from what was, until fairly recently, a fairly humdrum set of first principles. It is no exaggeration to describe Lord Sumption as a hero of English liberty. Whether he will get the recognition he deserves for that in his lifetime remains to be seen. At the very least, His Lordship should never have to pay for a drink again.
As we reflect on a year of lockdowns and restrictions, it is hard to know what to make of it all. I am still seized by an occasional sense of unreality, as though all this is a nightmare from which I will soon wake. Yet the startling fact is that, despite losing a year of their lives, a majority of Britons support the lockdown and believe that the government should have made the rules even tougher or locked down sooner – as though bans on leaving the house, the criminalisation of social activities, and ruinous £10,000 fines were somehow feeble interventions. Perhaps much of this has to do with the fact that the full extent of the lockdown’s collateral damage remains unknown. Or maybe it is because many people fear that criticism of the lockdown will come across as selfish or callous. Or perhaps lots of people have quietly enjoyed the latitude afforded them this year.
I believe Lord Sumption is right that history will judge the government’s legislative response to the pandemic as ‘a monument of collective hysteria and government folly’. Eventually the worm will turn. I was reminded recently that prior to the Iraq War in 2003, 54% of respondents to a YouGov opinion poll were in favour of military action against Saddam Hussain. And in 1997, millions of people were gripped by an outpouring of collective public grief following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. I imagine you would struggle to find anyone now who admits to supporting the invasion of Iraq, or who would willingly confess to mourning Diana’s death – but lots of people did. My hunch is that, ten years from now, you will struggle to find anyone who believes that any of this was a good idea.
It would be remiss of me to end this contribution without paying tribute to Toby Young and his team at Lockdown Sceptics for all their hard work over the past year. I read the site every day and have enjoyed contributing as their ‘legal eagle’ – a sobriquet that flatters me no end. I hope Toby and his team will not mind it when I say that I hope this time next year they are busy doing other things, enjoying the restored freedoms we have all been denied for so long.
I’ve bunged Toby and co a tenner to help them celebrate this milestone and would encourage everyone else to do the same. Thanks chaps.