Why lockdown is like abstinence

Abstinence is a great way of stopping sexually transmitted infections – it's just that it is of limited effectiveness. 

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One of the many difficult truths about lockdown is that it sucks. It is particularly painful for people who live alone; people who live in homes of multiple occupation with strangers; the poor; schoolchildren of all ages and their parents – but it is a difficult, painful and unnatural way to live regardless of family type, income or occupation.

Thus far, lockdowns are the only reliable way to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and prevent it overwhelming healthcare capacity. That is true whether those lockdowns are mandated by law, or if they take place from below – as has happened in Sweden, where the government never mandated closures to stem the tide of fresh Covid-19 cases, and here in the United Kingdom in the early days of the pandemic, when many people began reducing their social contacts in the weeks before the government forced them to do so.

The problem is that lockdowns stop Covid in the same way that abstinence prevents sexually transmitted infections or unwanted pregnancies: effectively, but only for as long as people stick to the rules – which, ultimately, they don't. States much more repressive than the UK have tried to use abstinence as the sole method to control sexually transmitted infections – and they have failed. Ultimately, you cannot stop people having sex, no matter how risky it is. The same is true of curbing people’s social interactions.

So, any lockdown strategy has to start by recognising both the real harms of a lockdown strategy and its real limitations. The consequences of children missing school, for example, in terms of their mental health and education, are sufficiently large that states ought to be willing to close almost anything else in order to keep schools open.

Previous Conservative governments have been fond of talking about the need for tax and spending decisions to “balance”. This is significantly truer of decisions about Covid: if your aim is to prevent the virus from spreading unchecked through the population, then what you keep open and closed also has to “balance”. It’s not a good idea, for instance, to spend the best part of £500m encouraging people to “eat out to help out” if you want to be able to keep schools open throughout the next academic year. Nor is it wise to exhort people to return to offices when they are capable of working remotely.

It’s not that these aren’t choices with an economic cost – it’s just that lockdown itself also has an economic cost, whether it happens as a result of legal fiat or because people decide they aren’t willing to risk a trip to the cinema.

Equally you have to think intelligently about what you can’t meaningfully prohibit. The return of universities is a good example of this. As the England football team demonstrated last week, people in their late teens and early twenties are going to want to meet and get to know each other better, and while you can punish them after the fact, you cannot prevent it.

A better solution for universities would have been for the government to encourage, facilitate, fund and if necessary compel more distanced teaching, while acknowledging that, yes, people in their early teens and twenties are going to make contact with one another.

The problem with the UK's Covid-19 strategy, along with that of most other countries, is that is based around not actively upsetting anyone. Eventually it will, of course, upset a lot of people anyway, but for not it allows the government to avoid responsibility for prioritising one group over another. The problem is that to have an effective anti-Covid strategy sooner or later you will have to make those choices.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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