Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
It often happens in politics that you have to choose between disagreeable alternatives. If you do X, bad things will happen, and if you do Y, bad things will happen. Whichever option you pick, the media will then point to those bad things as evidence that you should have taken the other path. Commentators make little allowance for the concept of the lesser evil.
When an epidemic hits a country, all its options are unappealing. The only real choice its leaders have is where the blow should fall hardest. How much poverty and suffering should the general population suffer to prolong each threatened life?
For a long time, it was not acceptable in polite company to acknowledge that such a trade-off existed. Anyone who tried to point out that we made precisely this calculation every time we assessed a new treatment – that there was even a generic measure for the value of medical intervention, the Quality-Adjusted Life Year (QALY) – was treated as some sort of granny-murderer.
And so, perhaps inevitably, governments around the world declared that they would protect their populations from the coronavirus “at any cost”, not stopping to consider what was implied by those three words. Even back in March, a handful of dissidents argued that, setting aside the cost to liberty and livelihood, a severe lockdown would also cost lives as other medical conditions went untreated.
But few wanted to listen. A bullying, moralising tone dominated the public debate. However gently critics tried to point out that the issue was not “lives versus the economy” but “lives versus lives”, they were portrayed as eugenicists.
The only real surprise was that a handful of places – Sweden, Brazil, Tanzania, some US states – defied the pressure. Almost everywhere else, governments did precisely what the early nineteenth-century economist Frédéric Bastiat would have predicted, prioritising “the seen” (the Covid fatality count) over “the unseen” (the other deaths, as well as the joblessness, the lost educational opportunities and so on).
But the unseen doesn’t remain unseen forever. The impact of the closures, initially muffled by a generous furlough scheme and a general sense of solidarity, is now being felt. Public opinion, hitherto solidly pro-lockdown is (you can feel it) about to shift. In such circumstances, refusing to quantify the costs is bad politics as well as bad policy.
In any case, “you all supported this at the time” never works as an excuse. Opinion polls showed support for ERM membership right up until our departure. They showed initial support for the invasion of Iraq. A fat lot of good that did John Major or Tony Blair after the event.
After an early over-reaction, the Government is now trying to be proportionate. Although Delingpole-level lockdown sceptics will never acknowledge it, most prohibitions were lifted on 4 July. Even in the most restricted parts of England, shops, schools and (with restrictions) pubs remain open. Contrast this to Wales – a snapshot of what the rest of the UK would look like if Labour were in office.
In the circumstances, ministers would be well-advised to take up the idea – pushed by ConservativeHome – of publishing estimates of the cost of the lockdown. Not just the direct costs. We need some sense of the impact on education, mental health and so on. “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers,” said the brilliant Ulster mathematician Lord Kelvin, “you know something about it”.
Necessarily, some of the calculations will be difficult, some speculative. We can put a figure easily enough on the furlough scheme. We can measure the decline in GDP. We can quantify the direct cost to the Exchequer (over £200 billion – a figure that makes the famous £350 million a week on the side of that bus look trivial).
But what about the impact of, say, lost education? What about the chance that other diseases might become more widespread because of fewer childhood vaccinations? What is the difference in impact between Tier 2 and Tier 3 restrictions?
These questions are hard to answer, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a go. One reads that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, wants the Government to assess them and to publish its findings. Let’s hope he gets his way.
Back in March, there was little time for such assessments: decisions were necessarily rushed, and schemes were put in place for what many imagined was a crisis that would be over by the summer. Nor, frankly, did anyone want to discuss the trade-offs. Simply to run the numbers would have been to invite the accusation that heartless Tories somehow cared more about an abstract thing called “the economy” than about people’s well-being.
That is no longer true. Now, it is Labour’s enthusiasm for lockdown – a position abandoned even by the WHO – that looks ideological. Publishing the figures will underline that the government is striving to be balanced. Never mind how it looks, though: better statistics will lead to better decisions. The only thing more callous than putting a value on human life is refusing to do so.