Option 1: Allow the virus to move through a large majority of the population in pursuit of the possibly unachievable goal of 'herd immunity', and only have in place restrictions that are sufficient to prevent NHS capacity from being overwhelmed by too many hospitalisations at any one point in time. This option would cause catastrophe on multiple counts. It would lead to hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths as a direct result of the virus, but it would also cause a large number of other deaths as an indirect result of the chaotic process of lockdown being repeatedly lifted and reimposed over a period of eighteen months or two years. That would be inevitable, because the virus is highly infectious and has a high hospitalisation rate, so as soon as you relax restrictions enough to allow a sizeable chunk of the population to be infected, the situation will swiftly spiral out of your control again and you'd need yet another lockdown to avoid NHS collapse. What's so stupid about this idea is that at the end of eighteen months or two years of carnage, you'd probably have a vaccine anyway and you'd wonder why you'd just allowed a quarter of a million people to pointlessly die.
Option 2: Use the current lockdown to properly squash the epidemic, and only ease restrictions when the number of new cases has come down dramatically. In the post-lockdown period, keep the numbers persistently low by means of mass testing, meticulous contact tracing and moderate social distacing, and then hold out for a vaccine. That's the closest thing to a win/win that's available to us. It means the vast majority of people will not become ill, hundreds of thousands of lives will be saved, and the indirect harms caused by lockdown will be minimised in the long run, because suppression of the virus via contact tracing should ensure that second, third, fourth and fifth lockdowns will not be required.
The Scottish Government, to their great credit, came out decisively in favour of Option 2 a few days ago. It's a pity they didn't do that in February or early March before people started dying, but better late than never. Perhaps the change of heart was partly down to Sridhar's influence, or perhaps the penny just dropped with ministers and their other advisers that they should have been listening to the World Health Organization all along. Either way, it was an encouraging moment for progressives everywhere - because, after all, surely the cornerstone of progressive beliefs is that the lives of 'weaker' people are not somehow expendable.
That said, there is at least one person who we'd normally regard as a progressive but who takes a radically different view. Iain Macwhirter was one of the liberal journalists who were seduced by herd immunity in the early days, but unlike most of his peers he's remained stubbornly wedded to it, even as the arguments in favour have been utterly discredited. He's penned yet another bewildering column today, in which he denounces Nicola Sturgeon for trying to prevent mass infections, and for seeking to keep lockdown measures in place for long enough to achieve that. He suggests that the Scottish Government should just accept the prospect of the vast majority of the population being infected, because "everyone realises" that is likely to happen anyway.
Oh, really? Everyone realises that? Well, the World Health Organization certainly don't - they say the virus can and must be suppressed until vaccines or antivirals are ready. The great majority of governments around the world don't realise it either, and nor do their scientific advisers. The Scottish Goverment don't realise it, and even a sizeable chunk of the UK government's own advisers don't realise it. So who is this "everyone" that Iain speaks of? Oh wait, here we are -
"Professor Jason Leitch, the National Clinical Director, has been saying it loudly since March."
Ah. Jason Leitch is "everyone". You know, I'm almost beginning to wonder if Iain is an old buddy of Leitch, because the unshakeable faith he has in the man's infallibility, to the exclusion of all other expert opinions, is close to incomprehensible otherwise. As impressed as we all are by the salesman's patter of Leitch, and even by the fabled Masters degree that he boasted to Piers Morgan about, I'm not convinced that he outranks the world-leading experts of the World Health Organization.
Elsewhere in the article, Iain gets into dangerously Trump-like territory by presenting his own wishful thinking as if it is established scientific fact.
"It is well established that the virus cannot survive long in sunlight and that people are much less vulnerable to coronavirus-type diseases in summer."
That is, let's be honest, utter rubbish, and Iain is deeply irresponsible to peddle misinformation in that way. This is a new coronavirus which has not co-existed with humans for a prolonged period, and it's therefore purely a matter of speculation whether it will have the strong seasonality that is associated with the four coronaviruses that cause the common cold. But if anything, the balance of scientific opinion at the moment is that it probably won't, and that increased temperatures during the summer will have only a marginal effect on infection rates. Professor Neil Ferguson suggested that transmission might dip by around 10-20% during summer, but that this won't be enough to avoid a mass epidemic if suppression efforts are stopped. But Iain seems to have a curious idea that we're over the worst for now thanks to the weather, and that we should lift the lockdown and enjoy some freedom while we can, before restrictions are reimposed in winter due to the second wave that "everyone knows" is coming. (Presumably that'll be Leitch again.) If we did what Iain wants, a huge second wave would be inevitable, right enough, but it would happen in the next few weeks, not on a convenient schedule later in the year. It's lockdown that is holding back the tide for the moment, not the spring weather.
The main source for Iain's faith in the seasonality theory appears to be Professor Carl Heneghan, whose outlier views have made him a poster-boy for right-wing Tory MPs gagging for any pretext to "open up the country". But the reality is that even 'herd immunity' enthusiasts on SAGE like Graham Medley disagree with Heneghan's opinion that lockdown wasn't responsible for taking the heat out of the epidemic. Medley is on record as stating that the lockdown was absolutely essential. So Heneghan really is out on a limb. Incidentally, it's probably not a coincidence that Heneghan was also selectively quoted the other day in a front-page Times piece co-written by Mark McLaughlin, who has emerged as another leading propagandist for the notion of lifting lockdown and allowing the virus to spread widely. (McLaughlin has a very different tactic from Macwhirter, though - instead of attacking Nicola Sturgeon, he pretends that she and the rest of Scottish Government, and all of its advisers, are in total agreement with his own views. His basic proposition is that anyone who wants to 'lift lockdown without a vaccine' - which to the best of my knowledge means the entire human race - must be a supporter of 'herd immunity'.)
The consequence of abandoning suppression of the virus in the way that Iain urges would be a biblical death toll. 250,000 deaths was Imperial College's projection of what would happen in the absence of suppression, but if anything that's starting to look like an underestimate. It's believed that 40,000 people have died already, and yet the modelling suggests that only around 4% of the population have been infected so far. We can all do the sums and work out how many will be dead if we allow a 60-80% infection rate. But Iain's own characterisation is that people of his generation and older would be "marginally at risk". I've no idea whether he's got his head stuck in the sand or whether he's lost his moral compass completely - but I do know it must be one or the other.