Three years on, there is a new generation of lockdown sceptics – and they’re rewriting history | Richard Seymour
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Was the pain worth it? Between March 2020 and March 2021, the UK had three national lockdowns. The goal was to control the spread of Covid-19. Essential businesses were closed, as were schools and universities, and “stay at home” orders meant families and friends were often kept apart. At the time, the government was unenthusiastic about lockdown and many Tories opposed it. Lord Sumption, for example, insisted that if it weren’t for lockdown, people could have “a perfectly normal life.”
Now a new chorus of lockdown sceptics includes people who position themselves on the left, such as the historian Toby Green and his colleague Thomas Fazi. They have joined the ranks of the Tory right in saying that the public, which strongly supported lockdown and even wanted to go further and faster than the government did, were misled by an apocalyptic campaign by medical professionals overstating the benefits and understating the costs of lockdown.
Commentators on the left and centre, wary of lockdown’s economic costs and sceptical of constant appeals to “the science” when it comes to Covid-19, have expressed sympathy for some of Green and Fazi’s argument around the necessity of lockdowns; though Green and Fazi have gone much further, in arguing that vaccine resistance was rational and that masks don’t work. As David Wallace-Wells documents in the New York Times, this is part of a general pattern of revisionism among journalists, politicians and even some health professionals about Covid-19 and lockdowns.
One problem with assessing the claims about lockdown is that it isn’t a single action. The catch-all term “lockdown” permits a certain muddying of the waters, as when a “meta-analysis” carried out by a trio of anti-lockdown economists, led by Steve Hanke of the libertarian, Koch-funded Cato Institute, included such things as “mandated face masks” in its definition of lockdown. This study is one of the sources cited by Green, who doesn’t mention the political bias of its authors in his case against lockdowns.
Nonetheless, more serious studies find that lockdown succeeded on its own terms. For example, the early epidemiological studies of China’s lockdown found that it reduced the growth of cases and increased the doubling time of infections. An early cross-country analysis of lockdown found similar benefits. A study of lockdowns from 41 countries in the journal Science by a team of statisticians found that on average, every single non-pharmaceutical intervention (NPI) reduced infections. There were similar findings in Scandinavia. In the UK, a study found that lockdown reduced Covid-19 deaths by 86%. A recent study in England found that roughly 20,000 lives would have been saved had the first lockdown been introduced just a week earlier.
Such findings are, of course, contested. A study by a group of economists in Chile suggested that most of the decline in infections was due to voluntary behaviour. And there was a high degree of uncertainty about the extent of the benefits ascertained by the Science study. Nor would making the epidemiological case prove that lockdowns were justified, as the costs could still be greater than the gains.
After all, the costs of lockdown were enormous. The immediate economic crunch was the worst since 1709, and threatened severe industrial scarring. Although government interventions forestalled the worst of it, the cost was enormous: up to £410bn. And according to one study, depression and anxiety tripled during the peak of the first lockdown.
However, the arguments made by lockdown sceptics don’t help anyone seriously committed to working through the trade-offs, because they consistently misstate the facts in order to minimise the disease. For example, Green and Fazi’s book, The Covid Consensus, claims that the average age of death for Covid-19 was higher than average life expectancy. The implication, which is widespread among lockdown sceptics, is that most of those who died were close to death anyway. But the Office for National Statistics tells us that the average age of death from Covid-19 was much lower than for flu or pneumonia. According to the Health Foundation, ONS data shows that each of the 146,000 people who died with Covid-19 in the first year of the pandemic lost an average of 10.2 years of life: a total of 1.4m years of life.
While minimising the risks of Covid-19, lockdown sceptics also tend to indiscriminately ascribe all the economic consequences of Covid-19 to lockdown. But an early study in Scandinavian countries suggested that such restrictions were only responsible for a small share of the drop in consumer spending. The effect of voluntary social distancing was a significant contributor to the fall in growth. For example, a Cambridge University study found almost no difference between the economic effects of mandatory and voluntary social distancing.
More alarming is the apocalyptic tone of some of the claims being made. For instance, Green and Fazi claim that vaccine resisters have been discriminated against in a manner unheard of since fascism. A few years ago, this sort of boilerplate comparing Covid-19 responses to totalitarianism was the province of paranoid groupuscules like the White Rose, grotesquely named after an anti-Nazi resistance movement, and a few dull Spectator columnists. For such moral idiocy to be packaged for a leftwing audience is bizarre.
All of this is extremely odd. The costs of lockdown were severe. A case could in principle be made that they were too much. However, the value judgment that most people made was that suspending capitalism for a while, even at some cost to their income, social lives and mental health, was a good thing. That should infuriate the right, and their backlash is understandable. Why it should drive those ostensibly on the left to such gross hyperbole and travesty of the facts is something more of a mystery.