The official blog of The Social Democratic Party.

The Tragic Necessity of the Lockdown

Our politicians could no more avoid this lethal lockdown than a person could walk past a drowning child

By: William Clouston

One day a judge will be appointed, witnesses will be called and an inquiry will begin into how and why the British government locked down society and large parts of our economy to tackle the covid-19 pandemic.  To find out what really happened it must examine a concept at the heart of our leaders’ decisions – human proximity.

In his 2009 book ‘The Life You Can Save’ the Australian philosopher Peter Singer invited us to imagine walking to work.  We pass a pond in which a toddler appears to be splashing about but on closer inspection we find the child is actually drowning.  Saving the child will ruin your new shoes and dirty your suit.  What should you do?  All morally competent people will immediately save the child.  What are shoes compared to a child’s life?  However, Singer goes on to point out that thousands of children die every day, unseen in distant places for want of food and medicine and yet millions of us take no action to remedy this.  Why?

The reason is proximity.  What we can see directly effects our emotions and moves us to action, just as what we can’t see – aerial bombing comes to mind – insulates us from human pain.  Proximity explains worldwide government action in applying lockdowns and it explains the ‘dust up’ between opposing epidemiologists Professor Neil Ferguson and the Swedish expert Professor Johan Giesecke.

Ferguson co-authored the Imperial College report which predicted more than half a million covid-19 deaths (without mitigation) in the United Kingdom and shifted policy towards lockdown.  Revealingly, the motivation for the Imperial paper was narrow rather than broad.  Its focus was on the present emergency (imminent deaths from a single cause) rather than those in the long term (future deaths from many causes).  Ferguson’s view was quite specific: ‘We were looking at surges in healthcare demand and how do you avoid a health system being overwhelmed.’  He was convinced that lockdown measures would avoid deaths – proximate deaths – by driving transmission down.

Giesecke took a different view.  He believes that lockdowns are mistaken, will do more harm than and advocates a ‘herd immunity’ strategy which would run alongside protecting the vulnerable.  Giesecke is quite resigned to our future, saying to UnHerd,  ‘I don’t think you can stop it.  It’s spreading…. It will roll over Europe no matter what you do.’  On this view, different policy measures won’t make much difference to the final death toll.  It’s as long as it’s short.

The real difficulties arise when you consider the lockdown’s effect of flattening the economy because this is a policy with a long and vicious tail.

The synchronised decimation of the world economy will likely have huge cumulative consequences to human health including increased heart disease, stroke, cancer, depression, anxiety and suicide linked to joblessness and bankruptcies.  Yet Imperial did not model this, which is a weakness because, merely from a utilitarian perspective, future deaths, although not yet visible, must count too.  The lockdown itself is lethal but no one, it appears, was in the room speaking for this future ‘non proximate’ devastation.  Looking forward, our task as Social Democrats is to work to limit the damage caused by these tragic events and, in particular, to do everything we can to prevent our young people from becoming covid’s lost generation.

This begs the question – could our government have acted differently?

I think not.  The lockdown was a tragic necessity and proximity explains why.  Covid-19 deaths are visible, publicised, present and therefore highly politically salient.  Attritional, long-term deaths from flattening the economy are exactly the opposite – presently unpublishable, immeasurable, unknown and unseen.  The future victims of this are hidden and few speak for them.  And our cynical ‘gotcha’ and ‘if it bleeds it leads’ press culture reinforces the problem.  A world in which celebrity journalists compete to publicly shame politicians – and the press pack physically hound their advisors in the street – is not a world in which future (possibly greater) deaths could ever have been treated on a par with present tragedies.

No government would have challenged its – rather narrow – scientific advice and kept the economy open in March when world class hospitals in northern Italy were leaving the old to die.  Tragically, human beings have a tendency to prefer smaller sooner payoffs over larger, later ones.

Is that what the world, on the biggest scale imaginable, has just done?  Probably.

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All Comments (32)

  • I agree with was has been said. However, I hoped proximity was also going to focus on population growth, too many people, the “I can do anything and go anywhere culture”, mass immigration, etc, ie, all elements that help spread pandemics. This is what proximity is about as well.

    Alan Balcombe

  • Over the last 10 years for every 10 British applicants with excellent qualifications that have applied to train as a doctor 9 have been rejected.The NHS has a shortage of doctors and a dependence on bringing doctors from abroad. Whilst those coming from abroad should be welcomed with open arms and valued and rewarded for the vital work that they do, it must be an imperative of the U.K. government to increase the numbers of young British Doctors and invest in British youth.

  • I think they real issue is why the government relied on only one Scientific view? Additionally why was none of his computer modelling peer reviewed? In the future computer models will influence many government decisions surely these should been in the public domain to ensure transparency.

  • Thank you; as usual, decency and integrity. How we have backed ourselves into this self destructive corner is an embarrassing, shameful and occasionally hopeless question. Remembering that there is a silent majority is the answer. Thank you for your lack of silence.

  • On the one hand I agree with the questionable role celebrity reporters have played in this. That said, I’m of the mind that full lock down could have been avoided. We had the Asian model to follow from the start. We ignored their past experience of handling similar epidemics. Why did we ignore the WHO call to ‘test, test, test’? Even before they raised that call, we had the evidence for that course of action.

    If the Imperial article (controversy over how robust a piece of evidence it is/was aside) had been used purely as a tool for NHS response planning, we could have avoided nation wide lock down. After successfully providing enough beds to care for critically ill patient’s we then left 1000’s of them to die in care homes. Reports suggest less than 50 beds of a potential 5000 were ever occupied at The Nightingale. Why?

    I agree that long term health issues resultant of the lock down were not considered in the response to the Imperial paper. It’s a complex issue though, as the number of COVID survivors rises alongside deaths, the ongoing health issues for those people becomes evident. I believed back in early March that test and isolate individuals was the way to go and I still hold that view. How were we ever meant to fight a communicable disease without information on how/where/who spread was happening? The government could have used February to prepare, but it was precious time wasted.

  • The biggest question that needs answering here is why, even after the realisation of the dangers posed by this disease, why were we still allowing people to enter the country from affected areas?

    Personally, I hope we all learn a lesson from this. Most people can work from home using modern technology. My commute has been a dream for the past 3 months. (I am an emergency environmental pollution worker). The air quality has been superb.

    We need a return to British manufacturing and stop this over reliance on imported Chinese low quality products. China has a ‘throwaway’ culture and that has to stop.

    If we can stringent our economy quickly and efficiently then money will be generated to fund the essential services that very well might slow down the incidental mortality rate.

  • Succinctly put. I do feel, however, having gone this long in lockdown, that lockdown is being eased far too soon. Will the NHS be able to cope should we have a devastating second wave?

  • Well they could have done it better…..we should have locked down earlier, tested more and traced more. We could have had the death rate of Germany but we have allowed thousands of senseless deaths. We could have actually protected the social care sector. It’s an elderly genocide

  • A very reasoned and reasonable argument. There was, however, another way that would have stopped the economy from tanking.

    Enough was known for the government to :

    1. Close all borders and allow only UK residents in to be quarantined for 14 days;
    2. Isolate the aged and medically compromised;
    3. Institute social distancing, the wearing of face masks in public and recommening handwashing;
    4. Set up testing and tracking.

    The government panicked when presented with Ferguson’s ridiculous model and MSM and social media hysteria.

  • An interesting article – unlike 99 percent of the media,
    at least you state the counter argument against lockdown.
    The infection fatality rate – 3.4 percent- was way out.
    Why haven’t the Cummings obsessed BBC noticed
    that’s it’s nearer 0.26 percent- according to the US Center for Disease control. For this – we’ve wrecked the economy.
    Perhaps the journalists don’t care because unlike many of us
    they get paid for Filing their reports from home. Rather than ‘safer than thou’
    Labour- SDP could be the the voice asking the questions that demand answers.
    1. Why did we lock up the healthy – whilst releasing covid infected patients back into care homes – throwing our most vulnerable elderly under a bus?
    2. When we are clapping the NHS – are we also clapping the Incompetent NHS management who outsourced to such an extent that they could not source simple PPE equipment like masks and gowns?
    3. Why are police following walkers around with drones and making up the law on the spot?

    The fact that most people’ have been scared to death by the government and the media might mean that the lockdown was inevitable- but that doesn’t make it alright.

  • It did not help, as reported on the social media, that Macron threatened to close ‘the Channel ‘ to the UK if we did not implement a Full lockdown, shutting off food supplies. S

  • I must say this expressions is intellectual and not of the common politic. I hope you maintain this proactive approach throughout your politics.

    Considering all, the Government measures have been productive. Let’s see if they have the creative skill to steer the economy. Could this be a great British moment.

  • The clarity in the article is excellent! The tone is also spot on, in my opinion.

    I wish the main opposition party would demonstrate a non-politcised critique of the Government with such straight forward talk.. even if it disagreed with the tenet of this article.

    As you say, I think the ‘gotcha’ style journalism is being copied from the US media and it is devisive and needless. We can all have different opinions, it is just if your arguments are not constructive, then they are destructive. I fear we are heading towards the latter.

  • As ever i agree with you William, even though i am a trapped in the middle Labour Party member with no voice. I would ask which path would you have followed if in power? And the data from Sweden suggests it had more deaths than its near neighbours but, as you say these are the imediate deaths. I am however sick of our media and your description is valid. Although Cummins did wrong in the eyes of the media I am sick to death of the coverage which won’t go away, the “gotcha” mentality cares little for the ordinary people dying and the many thousands who will lose their jobs once the Furlough system ends.

  • The huge elephant in the room is the corruption of statistical evidence. There is now no hope of ever learning anything of use in coping with any future epidemic when we no longer have the ability to establish how many of those who have died actually succumbed to the virus and how many of those were merely guess work by doctors who were instructed to include the words Covid-19 on the death certificate because symptoms seemed to fit the cause of death. Why would anyone consider that to be a right and proper thing to do if you know that research into the cause and effect was essential in trying to prevent this particular strain of the virus from spreading?

  • I am doing my best to assist the mother of a disabled child with an EHCP, who according to the Government could still go to school despite the lockdown, except the school decided otherwise. It argued that as a special school it cannot accept all its pupils who all have EHCPs, and has denied him a place since the lockdown began. Even though he is in Year 1, the school continues to exclude him. His learning disability means he will not be able to cope if he does eventually get a place for two or three weeks before schools break up for the Summer, so she now has to keep him out of school for a full six months.

    He is very demanding, does not understand anything about law or authority and has a foul temper if thwarted. He cannot understand why public buildings he is used to exploring are shut and flies into a violent rage when he discovers doors are locked. He takes the lockdown personally because he can’t understand anything bigger. He demands constant attention from the moment he wakes to the moment he goes to bed and has injured his mother when she has been too exhausted to get up to help him. Her injuries cannot heal because he will not leave her alone. All the services on which she depends for support have been closed or moved online where they are difficult to access or cannot provide practical help.

    My proximity is not to my fellow citizens who might become seriously ill, but to two vulnerable people to whose wellbeing the lockdown is a direct threat, because it has been implemented without sufficient thought for the real needs of the vulnerable in our society.

  • Corona viruses have been around for ever. We have evolved with them, and much of the lack of effect we have seen with the healthy is due to the innate immunity we have built up. Combined with vitamin D and not being obese there were experts who knew enough about corona viruses to stick with the first plan, and target the vulnerable.
    We now have the bizarre fact of having to use masks, which restrict oxygen for those with breathing difficulties, breathing in their own exhalation, restricting the ability to read lips, an essential requirement for those with poor hearing. People are kept inside where they have no exposure to the essential bacteria that keeps their immune systems able to cope.
    A cool head was required by government, and they buckled from their own advice.
    We have scared the life out of people, for a virus that is proven to be no worse than an influenza.
    The one thing the SDP should have first and foremost in their mind when commenting about this is to follow the money, and ask who pays for and funds the scientists that are giving the advice. There are billions of pounds relying on their advice and the direction they want us to head.

  • A good article – and refreshing to read something that suggests that ‘the government was not to blame.’ Years ago, police stopped using the word ‘accident’ and, instead, the word ‘incident’ became common. It was a reflection of a world where ‘accidents’ no longer happen – someone is to blame. We have become a ‘blame culture.’ Maybe my view is simple, but, in general, I truly believe that politicians do the best they can and go into the job to make the world a better place. The pitfalls are plentiful, the mistakes magnified and the successes seldom acknowledged. History and hindsight note the errors and governments seek to learn from them. Endless vilification of individuals in office achieves nothing but the press love it. The SDP seems to have a much broader and fairer view of events and people than any other party. To me, it is a great appeal!

  • I don’t agree I’m afraid. The case for rescuing a drowning child is clear cut. The case for lockdown was made by an hysterical media over reaction spooking a government too fixated on populism – and based on a speculative algorithm no more scientific than my punts on the gee-gees. Lockdown has been more existentially damaging for our nation than most seem to realise, and I am disappointed that a party I’ve respected (and joined) as being ‘sensible’ doesn’t have profound reservations about the whole debacle. Over-reactions, restrictions on core liberties, the profound inequalities of recent policies and so much more set such a dangerous precedent; notwithstanding their immediate sociological and economic catastrophic impact.

  • Excellent article. A focus on immediate, clearly apparent problems is indeed a negative feature of our society, and the cause also of our ill-preparedness for this pandemic. Hopefully this crisis will trigger some interest in longer-term thinking.

  • Hey William
    Im an SDP member in Woking.
    I agree with everything you say except that with a country as sophisticated as ours it should be relatively easy to slice and dice Covid infection by hospital/ care home / community and by region. Armed with this information there are areas of the country who are potentially being locked down needlessly if there are very few cases in their community. I could be sat here typing you this note before I head to the super market for my socially distanced shop where there might not be a case 20 miles from here? I wouldn’t know.
    The time has surely come for a regional approach? We are all blinded by the 30,000+ deaths where the answer is in the detail.

    Best Regards keep doing a great job

    Ian

  • A well thought out article sir. I certainly hope that the Swedish governments approach to the pandemic is not a major catastrophe because that means a devastating loss of life. However their per capita rate is on the rise so a rethink should be on the agenda or the current Swedish government will not only be counting a very high human cost. But will also be having to wait a very long time before re-election. lock down is/was essential. Not only for the drowning child, but also the elderly neighbour who doesn’t deserve to be left for dead in a hospital corridor alone. As for the future unseen casualties of covid 19 then a transparent and specific taxation rise directly aimed to improve heath and social care to try and limit the aftermath effects of covid 19 surely will not be to much to ask of the uk tax payer? Think of it as a donation to a telethon appeal only spread over many years.

  • My own metric is the prevention of premature deaths not deaths as such. Of course this is tricky to define but I would concentrate on three-abortion, the climate crisis, and wars. Your whole analysis falls apart over the first-abortions, the taking of another human life, is proximate and known but now accepted wholesale in Europe and many other ‘civilised’ societies. At the same there is a focus on preventing the premature termination of lives in the decades ahead partly by stating’it is upon us, we must act now’, when it is not proximate in your sense. The premature termination of life in wars is, thank God, is a much reduced factor in the UK and ‘advanced’ societies such that each death in Iraq was announced in parliament. Meanwhile 4000 babies are aborted in Britain each week on grounds that go well beyond those (often validly) given in the 1967 Act. All part of what Jenkins termed a ‘civilised’ society. Extraordinary. We just seem to ‘park’it as a private matter.

  • Of course lockdown leads to a great many negatives which need to be balanced against the positives of lockdown in curtailing the virus. However, there are also positives to lockdown, which never seem to be mentioned in this calculus: for example, lower pollution is undoubtedly saving lives and reducing misery; reduced traffic deaths; increased leisure time; lower commute-related stress. Mr Giesecke’s judgement is looking increasingly poor, in my view. In Stockholm, serelogical tests show that only 7% have contracted the disease; countries are showing that with disciplined application of lockdowns, social distancing, mass testing and contract tracing, the disease can be defeated: Hong Kong, Taiwan and New Zealand are all excellent examples, but there are more.

  • Having had a couple of weeks to reflect further on this, I think I do have to disagree about the basic thesis! (Is that allowed?) It is not the rôle of Government to give in to crowd hysteria, but to take wise decisions for the good of all, including explaining the hazard of triggering social and economic damage to people’s real lives. there’s no point avoiding half a million deaths from a virus if it leads to a million deaths from poor nutrition, substance abuse, psychosomatic effects of loneliness, fear or poverty, domestic violence, suicide, health and safety failures caused by economic desperation and corner-cutting, or many other causes attributable to a lockdown or economic consequences thereof. What happens if we can’t get the harvest in because of the economic disruption? People will starve, that’s what.

    It’s the rôle of Government to notice these things and explain them, not to give in to public or media pressure.

    When the lockdown was announced, its stated purpose was not to prevent the disease happening, but to shift the peak into the late spring and summer where it could be handled better. That mission seems to have crept and now we have to keep the lockdown indefinitely while we wait for a vaccine to appear. That could last years. We were supposed to get it over with in summer so it would be behind us before we head into next winter. Now it is with us for the indefinite future because we didn’t take the opportunity to put it behind us.

    I don’t pretend to know which approach would have been better, but I can’t help wondering whether the lives saved will be worth the lives ruined.

  • I disagree, the Gov was bounced into lockdown by Sage (Ferguson), France, China’s precedent and too much groupthink. Giesecke is very reasonable and our advisors agreed with him initially, until the utterly unreliable Ferguson was listened to. Why his argument carried the day, given his previous unfulfilled doom-mongering, we can only surmise.
    Un herd’s evidence from Profs Levitt, Gupta & Sikora was compelling but does not seem to have reached Gov level.
    It now seems that the “peak” likely flattened by itself, not as a result of school closures and lockdown. Could we have done better, yes if we had closed borders immediately and run a track and trace system like Korea but as yet the death rate is not that high: no-one got hysterical about the estimated 50,100 excess deaths in the winter months of 2017/18 (Office for National Statistics).
    Prof Karol Sikora advises that there will be very many additional deaths from cancer and cardiovascular disease going untreated as a result of lockdown. Once the virus was here in force a shielding scheme for vulnerable groups may have been a better way to proceed.

Family, Community, Nation.