John Lee John Lee

What the Dominic Cummings saga tells us about lockdown

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Remember ‘following the science’ on Covid? It feels like a while. That was supposed to be about how we responded to a new virus posing an existential threat to society. But we now seem to have moved on to a purely political phase, focussed on rules written in the early phase of the epidemic (based on incomplete and mistaken information) before it became clearer that the threat we face is pretty far from existential.

While there’s plenty we don’t know about Covid, the big-picture science has been settled for some time already. As epidemics go it’s not that bad. It kills mainly the very old and infirm; children and fit people under 60ish often get away with mild or asymptomatic infection. Those who become ill do not, in fact, die like flies. About 99 per cent of them get better quite quickly. The raw death numbers that we have been bombarded with over the last months are highly unreliable and exaggerate the death toll. Many of the excess deaths will have been due to lockdown and its knock-on effects, rather than the virus.

Erroneous figures, incomplete models and emotive pictures frightened us. Over-zealous treatment, based on what we thought we knew about the disease, probably made things worse initially. Tearful frontline testimony was also powerful, but selected. However honourable and hard-working frontline staff may be, they are not usually the best sources of big-picture understanding. And we never saw images from units that were (and remain) half-empty.

But the scientific picture is there. That we have now fully embarked on a phase of politics masquerading as science may be harder to spot. Nothing demonstrates it better than the Dominic Cummings story. I’m not really interested here in the rights or wrongs of what he did with respect to the ‘rules’.

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