Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
Would anyone, coming fresh to our current situation, propose a lockdown? The vulnerable have been shielded: around 95 per cent of people over 50, along with healthcare and care home workers, have had what turns out to be a highly effective vaccine. The inoculation programme is now reaching healthy people in their early forties – people for whom, in most cases, the virus would manifest as a cold. As I write, the latest daily death count is six. Not six per million. Six.
It is true that no vaccine is a 100 per cent effective. A return to sports matches, music festivals and crowded 747s will lead to an uptick in fatalities – just as it will lead to an uptick in colds and traffic accidents. But the epidemic, in Britain, is over. Deaths are lower than usual for the time of year, and 96.5 per cent of deaths are caused by something other than Covid-19.
The trouble is that lifting restrictions is an altogether tougher proposition than not imposing them in the first place. People tend to anchor to the status quo. Governments are reluctant to relinquish the powers they assumed on a supposedly contingent basis. Just as with post-war rationing, bureaucrats fear chaos if controls are lifted, and struggle to understand the (admittedly counter-intuitive) notion of spontaneous order. Freedoms, as always, need to be prised from the cold grip of the administrative state.
You might think it eccentric of me to raise this issue just as restrictions are being loosened. Schools and shops are open, and most of the remaining prohibitions seem almost certain to be lifted two weeks on Monday. Why bang on about the lockdown now, when it is being eased?
Well, for one thing, each of the next 19 days will cost us several hundred million pounds. Sums that would have horrified us a year ago have now become unremarkable; but they haven’t become any smaller. To say “just another couple of weeks” is much easier if you are a government official at home on full pay than if you are, say, a restaurateur or hotelier. Every day in lockdown is adding weeks to our recovery.
For another, there is a question of good faith. We were assured that the closures would not last a day longer than necessary, that they would be driven by “data not dates”. Yet on every metric, things have turned out better than expected. Infection rates, hospitalisation rates and death rates are all lower than had been projected; the take-up of vaccines has been higher, as has their efficacy, both in preventing serious illness and in reducing transmission. Sadly, though, the current political discourse makes it much harder to ease the restraints: the accusations against the PM make it almost impossible for him to accelerate the reopening.
Still, the vaccines are working. A mass inoculation programme was sold as the way to restore normality. It was reasonable enough to hold back until we knew that it was having the promised effect; but now we do know. Once vulnerable people have been offered protection, the case for remaining restrictions of any kind – masks, travel bans, vaccine passports – falls away. The justification for repressive measures was that the Coronavirus could cause mass fatalities, not that we needed to protect younger people from something that might knock them out for a few days.
Which brings us to the third and most important point. What we do next will establish a new baseline. There was much talk in March 2020 of whether the Coronavirus was “just ’flu”. Frankly I wonder whether people who talk about “just” ’flu have ever had ’flu. But leaving that aside, the danger is that, from now, ’flu will be treated like Covid. Lockdowns, utterly unthinkable 15 months ago, could easily become a standard response to new diseases.
So it is vital to understand their costs and benefits. Obviously, immobilising the entire population is bound to have some impact on slowing the transmission of a disease spread by human contact. But the correlation is weaker than you might think. As Noah Carl has shown, there are plenty of examples of countries that imposed strict lockdowns and then, while the restrictions were in full force, saw major surges.
The reverse is also true. It has for some reason become fashionable to argue that Sweden’s approach failed, because it had more infections than its Nordic neighbours. (Sweden, for these purposes, is only ever compared to other Scandinavian states, for reasons that no one explains.) But this is fundamentally to misunderstand what the original argument was about.
Supporters of the Swedish approach did not argue that it was exactly like Britain or, indeed, that it was doing everything perfectly. Their contention, rather, was that Sweden was the control in the global experiment. Back in March 2020, when the rest of the world locked down, closures were sold as the only way to halt exponential spread. Sweden disproved that contention as early as May 2020 when, without closing shops, schools or restaurants, it saw a decline in case numbers.
That should have been that. Plainly, a country could protect itself without a complete shutdown. Cases would peak with or without draconian measures. Indeed, Professor Simon Wood, a statistician at Edinburgh University, has shown that the rate of new infections had already started to decline before the imposition of each of the three British lockdowns.
That, though, is an unpopular message. It suggests that at least some of the suffering we have gone through over the past year – not just the economic losses, but everything from ruined education to poor mental health – could have been avoided. To repeat, the argument is not that lockdowns are wholly ineffective, but that their cost is disproportionate.
Why am I saying this now? Because it is sensible, immediately after an event, to write yourself a memo to which you can refer next time. There will be more pandemics – whether derived from the Coronavirus or from new sources. And, given the state of our media discourse, they will now be met by calls for new lockdowns. Yet gathering evidence suggests that our closures were wrongly targeted, excessively harsh and, above all, too long. That, surely, is the enquiry we need most urgently.