The Spectator

Covid and the politics of panic

During Easter weekend four years ago, the country felt on the verge of catastrophe. The prime minister was in hospital having just come out of intensive care, the Covid-19 death toll was at more than 1,000 deaths a day, and hospitals were trying to cope with a flood of patients. It had been estimated that 90,000 ventilator beds would be needed; we had only 10,000. That weekend, no one went to church and no one visited family: instead we sat inside, preparing ourselves for the horror to come.

Science is always evolving, never settled. Our understanding changes as we gain new information

No one knew, then, that the virus was already in reverse. No one knew that 10,000 ventilators would prove enough or that the emergency Nightingale hospitals that had been set up would not be needed. The 20,000 extra ventilators, when they finally arrived, ended up on an MoD base. We didn’t know then – though we know now, too late – what damage lockdown would do to our children’s education, to the economy and to our entire culture.

In the early weeks, scientists were learning about the virus. So the crucial question is why their discoveries weren’t acted on. Long after it was known that the virus didn’t spread in the open air and that it posed minimal risk to the young, nonsensical restrictions were placed on the public. Instead of ‘following the science’, politicians and policy makers became entrenched in their most fearful positions.

Covid exposed the frailty of our democratic safeguards. The opposition refused to challenge the government, even when its intervention was most needed. The police were given powers to hound the most vulnerable people in society, while parliament voted away its right to scrutinise. Many journalists came to see it as their job to promote the government’s public health message, too.

Institutions need to be designed to withstand hysteria. Ours crumbled in the face of Covid, and in doing so helped to create the disaster Britain now faces: a disfigured economy, a damaged education system, an epidemic of worklessness, crushing debt. Only Sweden resisted the lockdown experiment, and has since counted fewer ‘excess deaths’ than any developed country.

Even now, when so much about the virus is known and the risk of further pandemics all too clear, no one in government has conducted a simple cost-benefit analysis of the measures used. Perhaps lockdown did save lives – but for how long, given that most of those who did succumb to Covid were in their eighties or nineties? Against all this should be weighed the excess deaths, many of far younger people, that have occurred (and will occur in the future) as a result of delayed medical treatment. Successive Tory governments refuse to look into this.

Four years ago, we also saw how susceptible government is to relying on computer models and projections which use flawed or incomplete data, and how vulnerable this makes us. Covid exposed a flaw in the democratic process which has still not been righted: there is no proper scrutiny of the modelling on which policies are based. This goes for the net-zero agenda too, while those who challenge the data are often derided as ‘sceptics’. It’s an unhealthy set-up.

To use the word ‘sceptic’ as a pejorative is to forget the democratic tradition. The more extreme the crisis, the greater the need for questions and tests. Scientists and academics who challenge the status quo should be encouraged rather than punished. Ministers should get accustomed to working with ‘red teams’ designed to apply maximum scrutiny to official public health advice.

Four years ago, a professor of epidemiology, Oxford’s Sunetra Gupta, released a study suggesting that Covid may have started to spread earlier than anyone thought, and that as a result of this, the doomsday scenario which some scientists were predicting might not come to pass. The abuse she faced as a result of not yielding to the general hysteria was instructive. It revealed an intellectual establishment where to challenge authority was seen as heresy. Academics who did question the government’s strategy ended up having their reputations attacked and their livelihoods threatened. Universities offered no support to dissenters, but stayed silent.

Science is always evolving, never settled. Our understanding changes as we gain new information, and it’s vital for our institutions and our government to remember this, particularly in a national emergency. In the face of a political consensus, debate is needed more than ever – and it is needed now in particular. The official Covid Inquiry is moving at a glacial pace; but we need to know now whether the government’s strategy of repeated lockdowns worked, or whether it inflicted avoidable damage.

Much of the misery we see around us at present is rooted in decisions taken around Easter 2020. The lost years of education, the stagnant economy, the welfare crisis, the NHS waiting list of 7.6 million. To fix all this those Covid policies need to be examined. But for that to happen, frank discussion is needed about the nature and depth of that damage. Even four years on, it’s not too late.