This site first called for a Government breakdown of the economic and healthcare costs of lockdowns and restrictions on October 15. We knew well that such an assessment would complicate the debate on Coronavirus policy rather than clarify it.
Why? Because the dry figures that such a document would produce could only divide opinion further, since it would inevitably amplify public discussion about policy trade offs.
First, think about what might be called lives v lives.
Should the Government prioritise minimising deaths from Covid-19 at the expense of deaths from other illnesses – for example, from prostate cancer, or heart disease, or lung tumours? For such was the consequence of the NHS effectively closing its doors during the first lockdown last spring to the treatment of other conditions. And if so, to what degree?
Next, move on to lives v livelihoods.
If the ratio of saving a life from Covid, through lockdowns and restrictions, to losing a job is, say, one to a thousand (the figure is purely illustrative), is the exercise worth it? If not, when might it be, if ever? Now seek to apply the same calculation to incidences of domestic abuse, mental health damage, lost education opportunities, and so on. How can all these be measured?
Now for some other considerations.
Take the consequences for civil liberties of restrictions and lockdowns. Jonathan Sumption, the former Supreme Court judge, has written that the state “has taken effective legal control, enforced by the police, over the personal lives of the entire population: where they could go, whom they could meet, what they could do even within their own homes”. Did saving lives from Covid-19 justify these measures? If not, might it do so at lower number?
Finally, some cross-currents.
We have so far only cited deaths. But what about the damage caused by “Long Covid”? Or for that matter “long deaths” – brought about by worsened poverty, or healthcare elsewhere? What about the Government’s argument that minimising the virus is not an alternative to saving lives elswhere, but a condition of it – since hospitals overwhelmed by Coronavirus patients won’t be able to treat others?
Essentially, all this is the realm of value judgements – exactly what Ministers and MPs in other contexts have become increasingly wary of making, palming off such difficult decisions to the courts. Consider, for example, the way in which Parliament created a mass of protected characteristics in the Equality Act…without simultaenously declaring which had primacy over others.
So why did we want to stir up such a hornets’ nest?
For the simple reason that public discussion outside the right-wing press was almost entirely focused on countering Covid-19: on Government websites; in the coverage of the state broadcaster; in mainstream media elsewhere. It needed to be wrenched away, and then widened and deepened. For without such a broader discussion, rational debate would become impossible.
And although making those value judgements is hard, it isn’t impossible. Indeed, it is already done. The NICE and other government bodies already deploy the concept of “quality adjusted life years” – “a measure of the state of health of a person or group in which the benefits, in terms of length of life, are adjusted to reflect the quality of life”.
Graham Brady, Mel Stride, Steve Baker, Daniel Hannan and others all saw the point – writing on this site in support of a cost-benefit analysis. The trickle of calls for one gradually became a flood. And now we read in today’s papers that the Government is about to surrender its position on the tiering system.
We wrote on Friday that regular votes on the tiering plan are necessary. Boris Johnson is now apparently ready to concede them. Ministers gave way on the cost-benefit analysis late last week, having sought to obfuscate the issue for almost six weeks. One account reports a Treasury source saying now that: “we aren’t going to sugar-coat things.”
This morning, the Government’s position looks chaotic, with Michael Gove out and about in The Times yesterday, making a passionate case for the present tiering arrangements…and this morning’s media indicating that these may be gone by the end of February. At any rate, the fight over the cost-benefit analysis was one worth having.