Shutting down harder and faster next time is the wrong idea
A common maxim in the world of emergency planning is that preparedness is a journey, not a destination.
The last three weeks of the Covid inquiry has witnessed a consolidation around the future of UK pandemic preparedness: a new lockdown doctrine. In essence, we must build on the last few years and establish the critical infrastructure for rapid lockdown.
On Tuesday, Matt Hancock, the former Health Secretary told us:
Sir Jeremy Farrar, previous director at the Wellcome Trust and current WHO Chief Scientist, warned the inquiry not to be complacent in our “new pandemic age”.
Views expressed this week sounded similar to those outlined in Bill Gates’s recent book, How to Prevent the Next Pandemic. The Gates Foundation has become the WHO’s second largest donor, giving it an oversized influence in determining the shape of future pandemic responses. In his book, Gates outlines a plan echoed so far in the UK inquiry: lock down fast and make reopening dependent on a vaccine.
But what would preparing for this new command-and-control infrastructure really entail? And what risks are involved?
Lockdowns require a compliant population. During the pandemic, we witnessed a symbiotic relationship between Government, the media and the formation of public opinion: the more the Government imposed control policies, the more the public seemed to want them. In UnHerd‘s survey of 10,000 UK voters conducted last December, only 27% believed lockdowns were a mistake. There are many reasons for this, but it is hard to ignore the weaponisation of fear and the public discourse around misinformation. Studies show the pandemic has increased authoritarian attitudes and eroded support for core democratic beliefs.
Then there are the methods used to curtail civil liberties. Covid lockdowns precipitated the world’s largest rollback of individual freedom “ever undertaken by governments during peacetime (and perhaps even wartime)”. Violations of democratic norms by governments were wide-ranging. Human rights were removed through unlawful criminal and punitive action.
Beyond that is economic support. In the UK, £311 billion was spent on pandemic-related support measures, the majority directed to businesses and households. Globally, the IMF estimated $18 trillion was spent by governments up to September 2021, with only 8% going to the health sector. This fiscal support precipitated the largest one-year increase in global debt since the Second World War, which rose 30% in 2020 to 263% of global GDP. This spending is now predicted to drive future Government austerity in the context of a looming debt crisis.
In this regard, preparing for lockdown requires, among other things, putting in place methods to shape public opinion, curtail civil liberties and deploy massive Government spending programmes.
So as much as I dislike Matt Hancock, I dislike the use of CCTV to monitor social distancing rules even more. The whole nation did not need to know that his marital infidelity was also a breach of his Covid rules. The great irony of the new lockdown doctrine is that our political class can’t keep to the rules but want more of them. And that should worry all of us.