“In retrospect, lockdowns were a mistake.”
If you agree with the above statement, you are, I’m afraid, still in the minority. Three years to the day since Britain brought in its first nationwide lockdown, the latest wave of UnHerd Britain polling shows that only 27% of voters agree that lockdowns were a mistake, while 54% disagree and 19% are not sure. The strength of feeling also tilts in the other direction: fully 30% of people strongly disagree with the statement, while only 12% strongly agree.
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Having estimated results for all 632 constituencies in Britain, our partners Focaldata could not find a single seat where the “lockdown sceptics” outnumber the “pro-lockdowners.” Chorley in Lancashire and Leeds Central are the closest thing to sceptical enclaves (here, supporters of lockdowns outnumber opponents by a single percentage point) but it is still a minority position. If “defenders of lockdown” were a political party, it would sweep the nation in a landslide.
To those of us at the coalface of interrogating the wisdom of lockdowns for the past three years, it is a bitter pill to swallow. As someone who counts himself among the 12% of voters who strongly agree with the statement, allow me to tell you what life is like inside this embattled minority.
To the majority of people who believe lockdowns were right and necessary, the Covid era was no doubt distressing, but it need not have been cause to re-order their perception of the world. Faced with a new and frightening disease, difficult decisions were taken by the people in charge but we came together and got through it; mistakes were made, but overall we did what we needed to do.
For the dissenting minority, the past three years have been very different. We have had to grapple with the possibility that, through panic and philosophical confusion, our governing class contrived to make a bad situation much worse. Imagine living with the sense that the manifold evils of the lockdowns that we all now know — ripping up centuries-old traditions of freedom, interrupting a generation’s education, hastening the decline into decrepitude for millions of older people, destroying businesses and our health service, dividing families, saddling our economies with debt, fostering fear and alienation, attacking all the best things in life — needn’t have happened for anything like so long, if at all?
To those who place emphasis on good quality evidence, it has been particularly exasperating. In the early days of 2020, we had only intuitions — there was no real data as to whether lockdowns worked, as they had never been tried in this way. As millions tuned in to our in-depth interviews on UnHerdTV with leading scientists, we made sure to hear arguments in favour of lockdowns as well as against. Devi Sridhar made the case for Zero Covid; Susan Michie said we should be locking down even harder; Neil Ferguson (whose last-ever tweet was a link to his UnHerd interview) told me how exciting it was that the world was attempting to stop a highly infectious disease in its tracks.
There were periods when the evidence looked like it was going the other way, such as Sweden’s worse-than-expected second wave in winter 2020-21. Professor Fredrik Elgh dramatically predicted disaster for that country, which ultimately didn’t transpire — but he had me worried.
In the past year, however, we have for the first time been able to look at the Covid data in the round. Many of the countries which appeared to be doing “well” in terms of low levels of infections and deaths caught up in the second year — Norway ended up much closer to Sweden, while countries such as Hungary, which were initially praised for strong early lockdowns, have ended up with some of the worst death tolls in the world. Due to the peculiarly competitive nature of the lockdowns, the results were neatly tracked, allowing clear comparison between countries and regions. While we spent the first year arguing about deaths “with” Covid as opposed to deaths “from” Covid, all sides in this discussion have now settled on overall “excess deaths” as the fairest measure of success or failure: in other words, overall, how many more people died in a particular place than you would normally expect?
My view on these results is quite simple: in order to justify a policy as monumental as shutting down all of society for the first time in history, the de minimis outcome must be a certainty that fewer people died because of it. Lockdown was not one “lever” among many: it was the nuclear option. The onus must be on those who promoted lockdowns to produce a table showing a clear correlation between the places that enacted mandatory shutdowns and their overall outcome in terms of excess deaths. But there is no such table; there is no positive correlation. Three years after, there is no non-theoretical evidence that lockdowns were necessary to save lives. This is not an ambiguous outcome; it is what failure looks like.
If anything, the correlation now looks like it goes the other way. The refusal of Sweden to bring in a lockdown, and the neighbouring Scandinavian countries’ shorter and less interventionist lockdowns and swifter return to normality, provide a powerful control to the international experiment. Three years on, these countries are at the bottom of the European excess deaths league table, and depending on which method you choose, Sweden is either at or very near the very bottom of the list. So the countries that interfered the least with the delicately balanced ecosystem of their societies caused the least damage; and the only European country to eschew mandatory lockdowns altogether ended up with the smallest increase in loss of life. It’s a fatal datapoint for the argument that lockdowns were the only option.
So why, three years on, do most people not share this conclusion? Partly because most people haven’t seen the evidence. Nor will they. The media and political establishment were so encouraging of lockdowns at the time that their only critique was that they weren’t hard enough. They are hardly going to acknowledge such a grave mistake now. Nor do I expect the inquiry to ask the right questions: obfuscation and distraction will continue and mea culpas will never arrive.
But it can’t all be put down to the media. Over that strange period, we were reminded of something important about human nature: when frightened, people will choose security over freedom. Endless opinion polls confirmed it, and politicians acted upon it. Tellingly, those constituencies most in favour of lockdowns in our polling are leafy and affluent — New Forest West, Bexhill, Henley, The Cotswolds. Perhaps some people even enjoyed it.
Meanwhile, the dissenting minority is not going anywhere. This new class of citizen is now a feature of every Western society: deeply distrustful of authority, sceptical of the “narrative”, hungry for alternative explanations, inured to being demonised and laughed at. The dissident class skews young (it includes 39% of 25-34 year olds) and clusters around poorer inner-city neighbourhoods; it heads to alternative media channels for information. Its number was greatly increased over the lockdown era as those people lost faith in the way the world is run. They will continue to make their presence felt in the years to come.
As for me, the past three years have changed how I view the world. I feel no anger, simply a wariness: an increased sense of how fragile our liberal way of life is, how precarious its institutions and principles, and how good people, including those I greatly admire, are capable of astonishing misjudgements given the right atmosphere of fear and moral panic. In particular those years revealed the dark side of supposedly enlightened secular rationalism — how, if freed from its moorings, it can tend towards a crudely mechanistic world in which inhuman decisions are justified to achieve dubious measurable targets.
I hope there is no “next time”, and that the political class will never again think nationwide lockdowns are a proper policy option in a liberal democracy. But if they do, I suspect the opposition, while still perhaps a minority, will be better organised.
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