So rapid is the onset of fresh crises in the Year of Our Lord 2022 that the pandemic, the defining event of Boris Johnson’s premiership, has played a relatively small role in the race to succeed him.
But there has nonetheless been an interesting expression of views. Liz Truss, the frontrunner, has “ruled out ever ordering the UK into lockdown”, in the words of the Daily Mail. Meanwhile Rishi Sunak has given a big interview to the Spectator in which he sets out the many and varied shortcomings in the official response to Covid-19.
Neither candidate is making a full-throated defence of the Government’s strategy over the past few years – and given what we know of Conservative activists’ opinions, that isn’t surprising. But there is a big gap between Sunak, who refuses to say outright that lockdown was a mistake, and Truss, who must believe that in light of her pledge never to lock down again.
The Foreign Secretary does not seem to have said the quiet part out loud yet. Few lockdown-sceptical commentators on the right – with exceptions such as Daniel Hannan – have done so.
Yet it does feel as if many are dancing around it. Again, Truss’s commitment to rule out lockdown in any circumstances, which has had a warm reception, implicitly assumes that it can never be the best course of action – including, presumably, in early 2020.
But is this wise? There is no doubt that the Government made a lot of mistakes in its handling of the pandemic. Sunak sets many of them out in his interview. Elements such as a more holistic approach to the costs of different interventions, and clearer lines of political accountability for key decisions, should definitely be built into the State’s pandemic planning.
Likewise many of the more absurd interventions plucked from the air by flailing ministers – most notoriously the need to enjoy a full meal with every drink, or mask up walking to or from a table before eating and drinking unmasked – should be studied as object lessons in what to avoid.
But it is a long way from there to concluding that the first lockdown was wrong, let alone that it should be entirely abandoned as a tool in our policy arsenal in the event of a future pandemic.
First, let’s assume that Covid-19 posed a serious and sustained danger to public health. If you’re not inclined to this view, I recommend Christopher Snowdon’s magisterial treatment of the question for Quilette.
The case for the first lockdown was simple. As I set out in a previous article in 2020, it was about trying to stem the number of infections so that the healthcare system’s capacity to treat them was not overwhelmed. Fresh research may adjust the placements of the case projection lines on the graph at the head of that piece, but to get them below the red line which was the NHS’s capacity at the start of the pandemic, they’d need to be out by something like a factor of 20.
Remember that if the Health Service had been overwhelmed then many of the medical appointments and procedures delayed by lockdown, with all the tragic consequences thereof, would have been postponed anyway. This complicates taking the raw total of delayed procedures as a straightforward ‘cost of lockdown’.
What about the research tweeted by Hannan, attributing to lockdown just a 0.2 per cent decrease in deaths? Well, here we get into the definitional weeds. According to the Daily Telegraph, the paper disaggregates ‘lockdown’ from business closures, school closures, and stay-at-home orders, each of which is credited for a significant reduction in mortality rates – 10.6 per cent, 4.4 per cent, and 2.9 per cent respectively.
One suspects that in the public imagination, all of these things get lumped together into ‘lockdown’ – and that there would be more than a few people feeling misled if Truss were ever to shutter non-essential businesses, close schools, and confine people to their homes whilst arguing that she had technically kept her promise never to impose another lockdown thanks to some arcane definition.
We should also note that this general understanding also fits the way the word was used by British authorities. This document from SAGE defines a ‘stay at home order (“lockdown”)’ as:
“Closure of leisure and hospitality sectors as well as non-essential retail. Only essential workers permitted to attend workplace. Schools (except for key workers and vulnerable children), colleges and universities shut. Places of worship shut. Contact within other households banned.”
This includes most, albeit not all, of the measures excluded from the definition in order to get that 0.2 per cent contribution from ‘lockdown’ cited in the Telegraph. (It is also the only one of the 27 options considered in the paper deemed to have an impact on transmission higher than ‘moderate’.)
Likewise, it is difficult to see how many of the economic consequences of ‘lockdown’ could have been avoided if it is defined so narrowly as to exclude the closure of non-essential businesses. This is true even of the Swedish alternative of achieving broadly the same thing through voluntary behaviour. As with delayed medical treatment, this makes calculating the ‘cost of lockdown’ more complex than it might first appear.
Again, there is no doubt that any and all of these measures could be reassessed or fine-tuned if ever the country faces another outbreak. And given the ambivalence about many of them even at the height of the pandemic, there is no excusing those who seem to have made policy without regard for the fact that there is more to life than beating the virus.
Moreover, there will always be scope for irreconcilable views on lockdown, based not only on different understandings of the scientific evidence (however inexpert, for most of us) but also on political values such as the relative weights that should be given to individual freedom versus collective security.
But we should not lose sight of the fact that our assessments today are informed by a much better understanding of Covid-19 than we had at the time – and be careful not to rule out forever policy responses, sometimes ridiculous as countermeasures against coronavirus, which could be efficacious against a future plague which spreads by different means.