It's hard to be rational when thinking about a malignant disease like Covid-19, but we must face some hard truths about the policy of lockdown.
Firstly, the economy still matters. Of course, public health should be the most important consideration in policy formulation against Covid-19, but this kind of enforced inactivity (if prolonged) will destroy livelihoods beyond the point of easy repair. Observe any indicator, be it unemployment figures or oil prices, and you realise we are on the brink of a 1930s style depression. Economists don't assume a rapid rebound in GDP even if the lockdown were lifted today—this expected recovery speed will only slow as time passes. Poorly capitalised small businesses which are the lifeblood of the British economy aren’t receiving enough support quickly enough, a few more months of this and most will go under. Soon, what started as a temporary break becomes a structural problem, consumer confidence will collapse and with mass unemployment comes all variations of criminality, social discord and political extremism. The furlough scheme is great, but how long can it be maintained as public finances crumble? Hospitals that can’t be well-funded can’t save lives. Continued lockdown is a one-way ticket to third world status. We must be innovative and find a way to contain Covid-19 whilst allowing people to get back to work.
Secondly, it is time to scrutinise the epidemiological model which triggered lockdown in the first place. The Imperial College study by Neil Ferguson, who ironically failed in his personal life to observe his own recommendations, has come under attack for failure to reveal the original source code of his prediction that 500,000 people could perish. Ferguson also appears to have an appalling track-record of exaggeration. In 2005, he predicted 150 million people could die from bird flu, only 282 people died. During Swine Flu, he estimated 65,000 UK deaths as a “reasonable worst-case scenario”, 457 was the actual outcome. The code used to model Covid-19 fatality in the UK is 13 years old and designed for pandemic influenza, a different virus altogether. If adapted to Sweden, Ferguson’s model yields a median mortality of 96,000, with Swedish hospital capacity being overwhelmed over 40-fold. So far, the real number is about 3300 and the reproduction rate of the virus is falling, without a lockdown or the overwhelming of hospitals. Are we really going to continue such a drastic amendment to our way of life based on the flawed predictions of this discredited adulterer?
As shown by South Korea, where new cases are in the single digits and deaths at a global low for comparable population sizes, social distancing is possible without stay at home orders. A key flaw to Ferguson’s model which was admitted as a caveat in the study is the assumption that populations won’t change their behaviour once aware of a pandemic. This is of course nonsense. Measures such as banning mass-gatherings, promoting aggressive hand sanitisation and isolating the vulnerable are all effective options which don’t require lockdowns. The government should be roundly condemned for its lack of early action; I was mortified at the swathes of Chinese tourists continuing to roam Cambridge in January/February without prior screening. And however Matt Hancock wants to spin the statistics, testing levels have been and are still woefully insufficient.
Many on the left have made issues such as the lack of PPE partisan, blaming Tory “austerity” (even though the NHS budget was never cut). The truth is that after 75 years of relative comfort, the entire machinery of government is unaccustomed to crises. Given the rapidity of developments at the time and the potential risk, locking down was justifiable, but we now know better. We cannot allow bogus modelling to endorse a cure infinitely worse than the disease itself. Saving the economy and saving lives are not mutually exclusive; the government must do both and lift this lockdown.