Government policy on Covid-19 includes “protecting those who are at highest risk”. It has downgraded shielding, making it “less restrictive”, updating its advice, and now linking it to the three-tier system. It will apply “in some of the worst affected areas and only for a limited period of time”. Nonetheless, it’s there.
Do you see what we did there? All those quotes are from the guidance save one – the first, which is from the Great Barrington Declaration.
The point we are making is that there’s less difference between the Government’s approach – and indeed that of other governments – and that of the declaration than some would have you believe. There is a consensus that the most vulnerable need special protection.
Some of the attacks on the declaration from its critics treat it as though it and other approaches are opposities – whereas, as we have seen, they are part of a continuum.
Our take is that both the declaration’s supporters and opponents miss a central point – which we have been banging on about here at ConservativeHome since the Government’s response to the Coronavirus began to take shape in March.
Which is as follows: the declaration’s supporters may be right in believing that it is possible to intensify shielding for the vulnerable and relaxing it for others in ways that would deliver results acceptable to electorates.
And it may be that they are wrong, as our columnist Neil O’Brien has argued would be the case. Certainly, no government has attempted it to date – including Sweden’s which, as Raghib Ali has pointed out, isn’t attempting herd immunity, and has has deployed some restrictive measures.
These include closing universities, table-service only in restaurants, and limiting gatherings to 300 people – except in Malmo and its hinterland, where the previous limit of 50 applies, as well as other local curbs.
Nonetheless, a policy shouldn’t automatically be rejected simply because it hasn’t been tried before. Which brings us to the heart of the matter. As we say, it is possible for governments to attempt the Great Barrington solution, but they would, in doing so, have to answer questions which it leaves open.
The declaration speaks of “protecting those who are at highest risk” who, in its next sentence, are also referred to as “the vulnerable”.
These “should have groceries and other essentials delivered to their home. When possible, they should meet family members outside rather than inside”. A comprehensive and detailed list of measures…is well within the scope and capability of public health professionals”.
But who are “the vulnerable”? Those who are “clinically extremely vulnerable”, as the Government now puts it, or also those who, in its original guidance, are “at increased risk of severe illness from Coronavirus”.
Or, say, the over-80s, as some would doubtless urge? What about lumping in the over-65s, for safety’s sake? Is it politically possible to confine all or any of these in their homes until the virus abates or a vaccine arrives? What about those who for whom neighbours, say, are a family substitute?
Stand back from these questions for a moment, and imagine what the Daily Telegraph, or any publication with older readers, would make of Great Barrington’s “focused protection”, in practice.
E-mails would begin to flow in complaining of being “put under house arrest”. Older celebrities would tell anyone willing to listen that they were willing to defy the Government – even if that meant prison. (That one of them might be the Prime Minister’s father is not beyond imagination.)
Features would be commissioned to project agonising stories of isolation, abandonment, and loneliness. On Twitter, “the comprehensive and detailed list of measures” would be ridiculed for flaws, faults and omissions.
Yes, we know perfectly well that all that applies now. But this is precisely the point. All these decisions – the implementation of the Great Barrington policy, or of the Government’s three-tiered approach, or of a total indefinite lockdown for that matter – are fairly and squarely political ones.
It follows that epidemiologists, SAGE, the leading Great Barrington signatories, and scientific advisers alike have no more or less standing to make them than anyone else.
An epidemiologist is an expert in the study of disease. He is not an expert in the political decisions that may arise from his study: indeed, there are no such experts – only lay people who we elect to make those decisions, and who we hire and fire in elections. As advisers, experts are indispensable. But “advisers advise and Ministers decide”.
Who the vulnerable might be, how they are to the protected, whether “focused protection” is practically possible or politically acceptable – all these are decisions for the people we elect, accountable to us at the ballot box.
So as we put it right at the start, “the crucial decisions on the virus are not scientific. They are political.” That applies whether the scientists in question are members of SAGE or signatories of Great Barrington. The point is far from being abstract, as lockdowns intensify abroad – and SAGE here clearly leads the push for more.
For what it’s worth, we believe that Ali is right to “ask the Government to consider an alternative strategy which may cause less overall harm based on the Swedish approach, but with much better protection of the vulnerable, especially in care homes”.
To this end, it should aim to broaden the public conversation about the effect of lockdowns, restrictions and Covid-19 on lives and livelihoods. And give wider advice – from economists, for example – more formal status.
Which means publishing regular assessments of their impacts – a view supported by many others, including the Chairman of the 1922 Committee and the Chair of the Treasury Select Committee. We hope to see more MPs make the same case when Parliament returns next week.