A Pause for Skepticism

Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign affairs Dominic Raab speaks at 10 Downing Street in London during a daily news conference on the coronavirus outbreak, May 7, 2020. (Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/Handout via Reuters)
As Brits enter the ‘next phase’ of lockdowns, it’s high time for more scrutiny.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O n Thursday, Dominic Raab, Britain’s foreign secretary, announced that Britain is ready for its “next phase” of the lockdowns. Raab said the prime minister will lay out the plans to “ease up” restrictions this weekend. This comes after Britain reached the highest death toll in Europe. At this point, many Brits will be wondering whether the lockdowns were worth it. Personally, I don’t know. I suspect that neither do you. And — I’m beginning to think — that neither do they. They, the politicians, the decision-makers, the officials, the scientists; the people we pay taxes to get us out of tight spots. If the models of the recently disgraced Neil Ferguson are anything to go by, then the U.K. lockdown has saved tens of thousands of lives. But if we’re to listen to Sweden’s leading epidemiologist, Johan Giesecke, instead, then these efforts have been “futile.” That’s a rather large margin of error.

When it was first announced, genuine critics of the lockdown, those who accepted that COVID-19 was a real and serious threat but disagreed that mandatory lockdowns were the correct response, were disregarded as nuts and right-wingers. Peter Hitchens was accused of killing people with this rhetoric. But then some heavyweights came into the fight. People such as the Oxford epidemiologists and Giesecke (the Swedish scientist) and, in the non-science camp, Jonathan Sumption, a widely respected former U.K. Supreme Court justice and historian, nicknamed “the brain of Britain,” who did the rounds in the Times, the BBC, and the Mail on Sunday, making the authoritative anti-lockdown case. Sumption said it “all boils down” to one question: “Is it worth it?” In other words, is the threat of coronavirus worth forcibly confining healthy people to their homes? He said that every citizen is entitled to ask himself this question; indeed, that he ought to ask it. And that he had done so and reached the answer, no.

Sumption considers the response to crisis as being disproportionate to the threat posed.  He argued that the threat of COVID-19 was clearly real but “exaggerated.” He argued that we ought to maintain a sense of perspective, do away with our “irrational horror of death,” and remember that this is “not the greatest crisis in our history” or even “the greatest public health crisis in our history.” Why, then, he asked, did it warrant the “greatest interference with personal liberty in our history”?

Whether he is right or not, it is true that the British government’s response was rushed and political. Sumption argued that it had responded in a “blind panic following the delivery of Imperial College London’s Professor Neil Ferguson’s statistical projections” after which it had “legislated the lockdown on the hoof in a late-night press conference.” Ferguson, who has since “stepped back” from his advisory role (after breaking his own lockdown rules in order to conduct an affair with a married woman), was not the only person warning the government, of course. Nevertheless, Sumption argued that those politicians in charge had become “trapped by their own decisions” and were, thereafter, merely trying to “avoid criticism by sheltering behind the scientists.”

When the nightly ritual of clapping for the National Health Service began, it did seem that something fundamental had shifted in the public’s thinking, almost overnight. Sumption put his finger on it: “Suddenly, it is our duty to save the NHS, not the other way around.” And in locking in everyone, not just the infected, we began to mimic the approach of the authoritarian Chinese. Indeed, one of the reasons that Sweden, a socially democratic country, refused to pursue this approach was that it believed it philosophically incompatible with the country’s liberal values. “A society in which the Government can confine most of the population without controversy is not one in which civilized people would want to live,” writes Sumption. “Guidance is fine. Voluntary self-isolation is fine, and strongly advisable for the more vulnerable. Most of them will do it by choice. But coercion is not fine. There is no moral or principled justification for it.”

The argument most commonly waged against Sumption’s position is that, writ large, it would cause mass death. That might be true, but the evidence is far from certain. The U.K.’s COVID-19 death rate, for instance, is almost double that of Sweden, despite its more-aggressive measures. Besides, Sumption’s point that “life is about more than avoiding death” still holds. “To say that life is priceless and nothing else counts is just empty rhetoric,” he wrote, citing the example of going to war in 1939 because lives were worth losing for liberty, and driving cars because lives are worth losing for convenience. Of course, neither war nor road-traffic accidents are contagious. But the fact remains that, for most people who contract the virus, the threat is not existential. What is more existential is poverty. Already the chancellor of Britain has proposed £330 billion ($389 billion) of state guarantees for bank loans to firms, equivalent to 15 percent of GDP, in addition to £20 billion ($25 billion) of grants and tax reliefs for the leisure industry and small businesses.

It is impossible to know for sure what “would have” or “could have” been if the government had responded differently. Nevertheless, as Brits enter the next stage of lockdown, they should continue to scrutinize their government’s actions.

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