Alistair Haimes

Lockdown sceptics should support this lockdown

Lockdown sceptics should support this lockdown
(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
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Scepticism is supposed to be the bedrock of science. But where scepticism shades into cynicism it can be as blind to changing events as the unexamined credence it claims to displace. Scientific belief should be based on informed supposition which is then rigorously tested against the evidence — that is the basis of the scientific method. There should be no shame in changing opinions and assumptions when facts change. We start with assumptions, test them against the evidence (which itself changes) and then use that conclusion to repeat the process, ad infinitum. So if conclusions don’t change when facts change, something might have gone awry.

As an example: your view on the merits of the current winter lockdown versus the Halloween lockdown. First: do you think a lockdown is prima facie defensible? To some people, ‘no!’; to far more people, ‘normally no, but it depends’. Whatever initial view you put into your decision hopper, now try to bend that assumption around the first input of information: the healthcare system either (a) clearly has capacity left, apparently running at below average levels for the time of year, as it was in October; or (b) might credibly need to triage fairly basic healthcare within, say, three weeks as seems to be the case now, or so we are told. Whether we are in (a) or (b) should change your opinion; if it doesn’t, you might be doing this wrong.

Now, add in the game-changer of approved, effective vaccines. Your opinion should be different before and after the approval of the vaccines (2 December for Pfizer, 30 December for Oxford). Put simply, it is perfectly justifiable to be against open-ended restrictions in a world with no vaccine, but to think a brief period of restriction while vaccines are rolled out is sensible, and personally I know many lockdown sceptics whose views pivoted on the day the first vaccine was approved.

Finally, consider the pace of the epidemic. Have cases apparently stabilised, as at end of October, or has there been an out-of-leftfield development like the Kentish variant, which experts believe might be at least 50 per cent more transmissible with no obvious sign of deceleration? Whatever the state of your opinion on lockdown so far, this development should alter it at least somewhat.

You might be stridently, philosophically, against lockdowns whatever the consequences, or you might be a dour socialist zealot who instinctively thinks that the cilice should always be tightened in a crisis; but for everyone in-between, allowing opinion to change with evidence like this is likely an excellent idea. Where opinion becomes rigid it can also become brittle, and often doesn’t age well.

Personally (not that it matters given I’m just a punter rather than in government) I have unashamedly been sceptical of the government’s use of interventions throughout the epidemic, though I’m closer to the moderate than the fundamentalist wing. I thought that the March 2020 lockdown was sensible and inevitable while disease parameters and treatment protocols were clarified and healthcare capacity was built, but believe it dragged on far too long, inflicting incredible social, economic and collateral health damage when the first wave of Covid was obviously waning with the seasons. It appeared the government was allowing opinion-polls to lead it down a path of ever more severe restriction rather than examining realistic targeted alternatives that could tide us over sustainably until a vaccine arrived (which I admit came miles faster than I’d imagined possible), and hadn’t stopped to gauge the damage done along the way.

You can of course understand the bind. There is a crisis, the government needs to do something, lockdown is something it can do, so it does lockdown. It might well be the only lever to pull initially, but that doesn’t mean the lever should stay pulled. Who knows, it may even be the best answer in the medium-term, but it is hard to believe that scrutinising every cost and alternative along the way wasn’t a very worthwhile exercise even so.

For lockdown two, like many others, I thought that the case in November was not well argued, was farcically presented with scary out-of-date death charts and poorly administered (creating the boom Halloween weekend by leaking plans on the Friday night was absolutely unforgiveable).

Every intervention, after all, has a beginning and an end, and the degree of social mixing from the ‘one last shindig’ at the beginning to the ‘thank God that’s over’ effect at the end may conceivably outweigh the temporary reduction in R — such ‘forcing events’ cause discrete social circles to overlap which otherwise wouldn’t intersect.

But in the event, the key moment in autumn (possibly during lockdown) wasn’t underground kids parties or news presenters’ knees-ups, it was the emergence of the Kentish variant. Some have hypothesised that the variant emerged from the way we treat Covid sufferers. Hospitals with chronically ill patients create living petri dishes for mutation (it is worth remembering that a quarter of all infections are still presumed hospital acquired). Add in treatments like convalescent plasma (blood extract containing antibodies­) and there are then all the pressures needed to evolve a mutant strain. We will, like good scientists, have to await more data.

Lockdown three, I’m sorry to say (and I can hear the howls from sceptics as I write this), is justifiable, practically and ethically. Given the rollout of the vaccine, the emergence of the new variant and the plausible risk of the healthcare system falling over, there is probably now no realistic alternative. Whatever one’s objections to the first two lockdowns, on both cost-benefit and libertarian grounds, it is at least a defensible position to acknowledge the merit of a brief lockdown during a maximum-speed vaccination campaign to minimise morbidity and mortality along the way.

The calculation is entirely different now from that of the previous two lockdowns. Given the vaccine, the variant and the healthcare situation, the current restriction can be supported (regretfully) without cognitive dissonance by those who opposed the previous lockdowns vehemently and vocally. It is either bad logic, bad faith or fundamentalism to argue otherwise.

This is a position that will make no friends. The zero-Covid Sanhedrin (whose ship sailed long ago in a connected Europe) and the libertarian sceptics (very few of whom are actually anti-vaxx by the way) will both find reasons why this nuanced view is outrageous.

The big, big difference this time is this: an opening in a rock without an exit is a cave — but if you can see an exit, it’s a tunnel. The previous two lockdowns were caves. It was dark and nasty, possibly involving bats, and we had no idea how we were going to get out except back into the same world we’d entered from. But this time really is different: we’re going not into a cave but into a tunnel, there is a credible exit strategy that we can see and believe in, and we’re scheduled to emerge in about 100 days (give-or-take) into a country where almost all the most vulnerable will have been vaccinated and where lockdown is not just lifted but dismantled, hopefully never to be seen again, and good riddance.