August 24, 2021 - 3:00pm

Professor Jay Bhattacharya is one of the famous voices to have emerged out of the pandemic. A vocal critic of lockdowns, his name became synonymous with the controversial Great Barrington Declaration, which called for an “alternative approach to the pandemic” that would entail no lockdowns. Along with co-signatories Sunetra Gupta and Martin Kulldforff (who featured on UnHerd last year), the trio argued that public health strategies should instead centre on the ‘focused protection’ of at-risk groups while keeping society as open as possible so the healthy parts of the population could build herd immunity.

The declaration triggered a huge global debate, with critics arguing that many more lives would have been lost on account of the difficulty of shielding all those who were vulnerable. During this week’s interview, Freddie Sayers challenged Prof Bhattacharya on what would have happened if his strategy was adopted, whether he has changed his mind in retrospect, and how his ‘focused protection’ have would worked with waning immunity and new variants?

Did the early arrival of vaccines change his mind on lockdowns?

I did not think that vaccines would arrive in nine months, let alone 12. I was very pleasantly shocked and surprised. If you asked me in March 2020, “can there be a vaccine?” I would have said and I did say that it’s very unlikely. There’s no coronavirus vaccines, it’s been difficult to produce one. I don’t see how it’s possible…But I still would have had the same view of lockdowns… I still would have been in favour of keeping schools open. But I might have been more in favour of more restrictive things for older people.
- Jay Bhattacharya, UnHerd

On the Great Barrington Declaration:

We’ve been vindicated. The lockdowns were the single biggest mistake in public health history. I don’t see how anyone can look at lockdown and say ‘that was successful policy’. We’ve had lockdowns in country after country after country. Would you call lockdown a success in the UK? Would you call the lockdown in Peru a success? The lockdown in India or the United States? I don’t think by any measure you could call them a success.
- Jay Bhattacharya, UnHerd

On the backlash against the declaration:

I was naive, I have spent my career in academia. I’ve not spent my career in politics… I didn’t know that people would then use ad hominem attacks against me. I worked on the Santa Clara study when I was even more naive. There was a furious counter attack on that, again, with this ad hominem overlay that shocked me. I expected more serious engagement by serious people.
- Jay Bhattacharya, UnHerd

On the harms of lockdowns:

One in four young adults experienced depression or anxiety during the lockdown last year. One in four young adults have seriously considered suicide. I told you about the studies in the developing world where you have enormous numbers of people newly thrown into poverty, deep poverty, or newly food insecure, or who were actively starving. Disruptions in medical care that have harmed people with tuberculosis, with HIV, with malaria… The harms of lockdowns are extremely multi-dimensional. A child who skips a year of school will feel those consequences over a lifetime. They’ll be poorer, less healthy, and live less long. We’re just starting to come to terms with that.
- Jay Bhattacharya, UnHerd

Should young people take the vaccine?

They don’t have to. I mean, they can. I’m not against it. It’s an individual thing where you compare the potential harms of the vaccine versus the potential benefits, because it doesn’t stop disease spread. There will be some age where you say below it doesn’t make any sense because it would depend on the side effects.
- Jay Bhattacharya, UnHerd

The future of Covid:

Just like any other danger, we eventually get used to it. You read stories about horrible wars and it becomes like a thing you get used to. I think humans are capable of getting used to so many horrible things. I think we got used to lockdown. As a species we are adaptable that way, but that doesn’t mean we flourish that way. Covid is going to join the 200 other pathogens that afflict humans, and we will learn to live with it.
- Jay Bhattacharya, UnHerd