Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 12 October 2020

The anti-lockdown crusade gains oxygen from this government's ineptitude


If anyone still doubts that Brexit was our Trump moment, look at some of the same characters (Tory MPs, newspapers, even voters) who supported Brexit getting behind what has become an anti-lockdown crusade. I use the word crusade deliberately. Rather than religion it is ideology that drives most anti-lockdown proponents. That ideology is libertarian, although to borrow a phrase from Chris Dillow on mask phobia, this libertarianism is just solipsistic narcissism. What the crusade isn't, for most of the anti-lockdown brigade, is evidence led.

That is not to say that some scientists may genuinely believe that lockdowns are never worthwhile. Science shouldn't be closed to heretical ideas, and there will always be scientists who put forward such ideas. Occasionally the heretical turns out to be true. So any defence of the need for lockdowns should be science based. Merely noting the correlation between Brexit and the anti-lockdown crusade, or the fact that an institute funded by the Koch brothers helped create the Barrington Declaration, is interesting politically but it is irrelevant to the science.

The alternative proposed in the Barrington Declaration is herd immunity plus protection for the vulnerable. As Mark Reynolds from Wired notes, there is no mention of test and trace, or mask wearing, in the Declaration. This is because the authors want everyone except the vulnerable to catch the virus as soon as possible.

On the vulnerable, everyone agrees that they should be protected, but the twist that herd immunity gives you is that if carers and others who meet the vulnerable are immune as a result of herd immunity they are not going to become infectious again and pass this on to the vulnerable. However the Declaration glosses over the rather critical problem in the interim before care workers have caught COVID. As I note below, without lockdowns it is likely to be at least 6 months before we reach herd immunity. 

That apart, their proposal for the vulnerable is identical to what the government should have been doing as part of its lockdown strategy. The other point they gloss over is that there is no neat dividing line between the vulnerable and non-vulnerable. The risk of death increases sharply with age, but it doesn’t start once you are retired. There is a significant risk from death if you are in your 50s and male, data from Spain suggests. Furthermore, we know very little about ‘long COVID’: those who are suffering from severe effects from COVID long after the virus has left.

The real dividing line between the Declaration and the public health consensus is herd immunity. Herd immunity is bound to result in a large number of deaths, because before herd immunity is reached more non-vulnerable will die and the risk to the vulnerable is bound to be higher (because they are more likely to come into contact with virus carriers). But the counterargument is that at least normal life will not be disrupted in the way it was during the lockdown.

The counterargument is simply wrong. As I have argued many times (e.g. here), it is not the lockdown that kills the economy but fear of catching the virus. As long as those who are not vulnerable think there is a real risk of death or serious complications from COVID-19, most will stay away from pubs, restaurants and other areas of social consumption of their own accord. Risk lovers and those who believe they are invulnerable will continue as normal, but there are not enough of them to make most social consumption businesses viable while the pandemic lasts.

The same point can be made about the impact on cancer cases and other areas of hospital care that the pandemic crowds out. This happens not because of lockdown, but because hospitals are full with COVID-19 cases, and when they are not because people fear catching the virus in hospitals. Herd immunity would make both problems worse.

A consequence of fear of catching the virus is that it takes much longer to achieve herd immunity than it would if most people ignored the pandemic. That in turn means that many social consumption firms will go out of business without government support. That leads to a second consequence, which is that the economy takes a big hit over at least six months, and without government support suffers some lasting damage on top of that.

So it is difficult to see how herd immunity with protection would bring any benefits, and it is certain that it would bring greater costs. It would be great for the selfish who are prepared to take risks for themselves and don’t care about others they may infect, but that minority is a key reason why lockdowns are necessary. For the crusaders all this doesn’t matter. Like smoking, climate change and Brexit, it is just too easy to get our (power without responsibility) media to run ‘two sides’ stories, and the work of the Declaration is done.

The reason herd immunity has made a comeback, after the short period in which the UK government flirted with it and killed thousands as a consequence, is the current mess the government has created. It has allowed a second wave to emerge, and has delayed an effective response. One reason for this delay is that Johnson and his circle share libertarian (think solipsistic narcissism) tendencies, and the other is that they find it hard to admit the mistakes they made over the summer.

The alternative to herd immunity that many more public health experts would sign up to is to use lockdown to reduce case numbers to virtually zero, and then have an effective test and trace system that can not only keep the numbers low but can also bring to an end any increase brought about by more social mixing. That last point is critical. If you wanted schools to go back in September and universities in October, you had to have a large amount of spare capacity in your test, trace and isolate infrastructure to deal with the increase in possible infections that will inevitably arise from both events. Students in particular require intensive testing. That means starting from a very low level of cases so there is less virus going around and the testing infrastructure has plenty of spare capacity.

Our ultra short-termist government did not have the patience to get case numbers right down in the late Spring. Johnson was too eager to give good news about lockdown relaxation and Sunak was too obsessed with the government's deficit (while ignoring the many millions handed out to friends and donors). The summer was the time to build up testing capacity and see if the centralised, private sector system could be made to work, but Dido Harding failed to anticipate higher demands and so did superforecaster Cummings. (A better option would have been to start building a new test and trace system that started with local public health teams, but I suspect that is a step too far for this government.) Instead of the summer being one of preparation, for our government it was about getting the economy back to normal. Their only mitigation is that other governments made the same mistake.

Once the test and trace system failed, another lockdown was inevitable, and should have happened immediately. It is no good prioritising cases with clear symptoms, when the number of asymptomatic cases is so large. The lesson from the past and around the world is to lockdown quickly and hard, so the government is doing the opposite. It will have to lockdown hard eventually, so why not during the second half of September or even earlier. Is this just incompetence, or the influence of the anti-lockdown crusade? To make one mistake that costs tens of thousands of lives is bad enough, but to repeat the same mistake just six months later should be unforgivable.

Postscript (13/10/20) 

We learnt yesterday that the government ignored SAGE advice three weeks ago for a much tougher lockdown. While the advice was not surprising given a runaway pandemic in large parts of the country, it does confirm that the government is now ignoring the science. Even Chris Whitty said at the press conference yesterday that he didn't think the government's measures go far enough to bring the pandemic in some parts of the country under control.

Which raises the question of why Prime Minister is ignoring his (and most other) scientists. Is it, as suggested above, the influence on him of the anti-lockdown crusade. Or is it the Chancellor who wants to spend as little money as he can get away with in the very short term. Both must surely know that a pandemic will set back the economy and the public finances far more than any measures proposed by SAGE. Whatever the reason, the government has shown that it alone is responsible for the many deaths and crippled economy that will surely follow from their inaction. 

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