In early 2020, when the possibility of lockdown was being very vaguely discussed for the first time due to the small number of precedents in countries that had been touched by Covid sooner than others, someone said to me on Twitter: "You can't put human civilisation on pause for a year or two", to which I replied "why not?". To be clear, he wasn't in denial about the gravity of the situation, because he actually worked in the NHS and understood better than most the scale of the disaster that was about to hit. But even someone like him weighed up the competing imperatives of saving thousands of lives and maintaining business as usual, and concluded that business as usual was more important.
The reality is that lockdown was an idea that was unthinkable until it suddenly became inevitable. It ultimately wasn't even a choice, because the NHS would have sunk without it. Which raises the troubling thought that if it had been just about possible to keep the NHS afloat, we'd almost certainly have let Covid sweep through a totally unvaccinated population, no matter how astronomical the death toll. Indeed I can recall a Westminster journalist excitedly saying "this could work..." after seeing what turned out to be a wildly inaccurate projection that the NHS wouldn't quite be broken by the peak of the epidemic. I just find that mindset incomprehensible - the calculation was not "how do we save lives?" but "is it feasible to sacrifice lives so I can keep going to the gym or to the cinema or to the office?"
For many weeks government officials seemed to think their role was not to prevent infections, but to reframe the idea that infections should be stopped as totally irrational - almost as a mental health issue that had to be rectified with condescending sermons from on high. That was in spite of the fact that the World Health Organisation itself was imploring governments to take all necessary measures to stop the virus in its tracks. Catherine Calderwood "explained" to us that we would all just get on with our lives as normal while large numbers of people around us became seriously ill and died, exactly as we (supposedly) would during a bad flu season. But really that was a mandatory message for the plebs only. If you were wealthy enough you could always opt out of the danger by taking to the hills while the madness unfolded.
The lesson of 2020 is obvious: that drastic interventions to prevent the spread of the virus should never have been unthinkable. They were always perfectly realistic and effective, they saved a huge number of lives, and therefore self-evidently they should have been deployed irrespective of whether the NHS was thought able to cope. But, as bonkers as it may seem, there are people out there who claim to have learned the opposite lesson. Indeed they claim with breathtakingly cynical dishonesty that society as a whole has learned the opposite lesson, and that there is somehow now a consensus that we should have laid out the welcome mat for Covid in the spring of 2020. That is gaslighting, pure and simple, and it was arguably the all-time low point in the history of the Herald newspaper when they published an article by Joanna Blythman a week ago entitled "Lockdowns don't work. Nicola Sturgeon must be stripped of her power to impose them." (And I fully appreciate the implications of saying "all-time low point" given the extensive contributions of controversial journalist David Leask to the same paper over the years.)
"In March 2020, states all around the world tore up established global pandemic planning strategies"
Rubbish. The established UK strategy that was eventually discarded was specifically a strategy for pandemic flu, not for a pandemic caused by a non-flu virus. It should never have been followed in the first place, because as the World Health Organisation pointed out from a very early stage, Covid differed from flu in two vital respects - it was more deadly, and its mode of transmission rendered it controllable by means of social distancing measures and rigorous contact tracing.
"Two years on and we’re still waiting for either the UK or Scottish Government to present us with an evaluation of the impacts of this groupthink blunder."
Er, no, Joanna. There was indeed a groupthink blunder, and that was to treat a non-flu virus as flu. That catastrophic mistake ended - or more accurately was put on pause - when social distancing measures were belatedly introduced.
"No wonder governments are not keen to rake over the bones of their decision to put such faith in ‘non-pharmaceutical interventions’: lockdowns, masks, social distancing, travel bans, curtailment of education and social interaction."
Actually those decisions will stand up to scrutiny very easily, because the evidence that they were unavoidable and saved lives is utterly overwhelming. Where governments are on a much more shoogly peg is in relation to the fatuous justifications they gave for not introducing non-pharmaceutical interventions prior to late March 2020. For example, there has yet to be a reckoning for the staggeringly inaccurate and irresponsible comments Jason Leitch made during his Grand Complacency Tour of the TV and radio studios in February and March 2020, but that reckoning will surely come one day before a public inquiry. He'll be asked to explain his absurd claim that it was essentially impossible to catch the virus twice, and therefore that we could somehow make the problem go away by forming an orderly queue and taking our turn to be infected. It wasn't so much that he was knowingly saying something that was utter tripe (although we know now beyond all dispute that it was), but that he was making a claim of fact without any sound basis whatsoever. There simply wasn't enough evidence to know at that stage whether reinfections would or would not mean that the morally repugnant herd immunity strategy was impossible in practice. Leitch will also surely be challenged on his patently false claim to know better than the World Health Organisation that the virus couldn't be stopped in its tracks by measures that had already succeeded in South Korea.
"As sobering rationality and pragmatism returns to countries that lost their heads over SARS-Cov2, lockdowns now look like the biggest public health mistake in history."
I mean, is it just me? Right now, we are living through an unprecedented period when governments (particularly the UK government, but others as well) have taken complete leave of their senses. An insanely large percentage of the population is currently walking around with an active infection, far more so than at the outset of the various lockdowns we've gone through - and yet this is the moment at which our masters have chosen to lift all restrictions wholesale. It is nothing short of jaw-dropping for Joanna Blythman to characterise this willful neglect, this total abandonment of all sense of human responsibility, as "the return of sobering rationality and pragmatism". It is no less barking mad for her to describe the much more sensible policy that preceded it as "the biggest public health mistake in history".
And OK, the Scottish Government haven't yet done anything quite as insane as the UK Government's decision to drop the requirement for people who test positive for Covid to self-isolate - the kind of development you'd normally only expect if Zippy from Rainbow was put in charge of public health. But that's a pretty low bar. What the Scottish Government have done is prematurely allow indoor mixing of large groups of people indoors, well before Omicron has been brought anything like under control - most notably in the ultra-dangerous environment of nightclubs, thus guaranteeing huge numbers of needless infections.
The excuse for this "libertarianism for pathogens" approach is, of course, that Covid has supposedly been "de-fanged" due to vaccination and widespread immunity from prior infection, and that we can thus afford to rely much more on "personal choice" going forward. But that's utter garbage for two main reasons - a) the existence of Long Covid, and b) the clinically vulnerable. If you were to ask the government or its advisers whether the "de-fanging" of Covid means that Long Covid has also been de-fanged, the best they'd be able to say with any honesty is "we hope so" or "it would be nice to think so". With Long Covid, we're essentially back to the same place we were in when Leitch claimed in early 2020 that herd immunity would work because reinfection wouldn't be a problem. What he really meant was he hoped that would prove to be the case, and it was unthinkable that he could be wrong because people needed to be able to go to the office and to gyms and to cinemas. Well, that's just not good enough. Covid hasn't been de-fanged until we know for sure that Long Covid has been de-fanged. Until then, the precautionary principle must apply. As I pointed out on Twitter the other day, even if just 2% of Omicron infections result in Long Covid (and there are good reasons for supposing it could be much higher than that), up to one million people in the UK would be affected if the virus is allowed to sweep through the entire population. The wrecking of one million lives is not less important than the ability of luckier people to go to nightclubs or pubs.
As for the clinically vulnerable, the idea of "personal choice" is a sick joke, because the current free-for-all leaves them with only one choice - either withdraw from the bulk of indoor activities, or risk serious illness. That is no sort of choice at all. There's also a huge dilemma for people who have a lot of contact with a vulnerable person - and I find myself in that category. Either we stay away from the vulnerable person, or we just don't socialise or mingle with others indoors. I actually had much more freedom of action during partial lockdowns, because society recognised that the responsibility to protect the clinically vulnerable was collective not personal, and thus the virus had been driven down to very low levels across the whole population.
Back to Joanna:
"All of a sudden, high-profile commentators who were baying for more, longer, and harsher lockdowns are pivoting like mad. Belatedly they are filled with empathy for sobbing relatives cruelly kept from the bedsides of their loved ones and other grotesque examples of lockdown mania that they had fulsomely cheered on."
If any previously sensible commentators are indeed "pivoting like mad" (and ah hae ma doots), then they're blithering idiots, because it wasn't lockdown that kept sobbing relatives from the bedside of their loved ones - it was the spread of the virus itself. If we had simply got on top of the virus from the word go in the way that New Zealand did, then most - not all, but most - of this pain could have been averted.
Don't let hard-right populist gaslighting in the Herald of all places distract you from the betrayal of the public that is currently taking place. As experts have pointed out, the removal of restrictions when the virus is absolutely everywhere means that the government has been defeated by Covid, and that ministers are choosing to permanently accept a sicker population that is constantly being reinfected, with all of the consequences of that for the economy and for children's education. That is not a choice that future generations will look kindly upon. But hey, at least people without Long Covid can go out dancing between infections.
* * *
Via the Scot Goes Pop polling fundraiser for 2021-22, which I set up in the autumn and is part-funded.
If you prefer to donate directly, that can be done via Paypal or bank transfer:
My Paypal email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or email me for my bank details. (My contact email address is different from my Paypal address, and can be found in the sidebar of the desktop version of the site, or on my Twitter profile.)