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8 January 2021updated 30 Jul 2021 10:43am

Why lockdown sceptics should accept the overwhelming case for restrictions now

Locking down on a time-limited basis with a clear immunisation goal is very different from doing so indefinitely. 

By Rachel Cunliffe

The arguments made so confidently by lockdown sceptics over the past nine months – that there would be no second wave of Covid-19, that natural herd immunity was already building up, that there was no point waiting for a vaccine unlikely ever to come – have been thoroughly debunked by medical science and a terrifying new variant of the virus.

There can be no doubt that the second wave is upon us, with the most recent seven-day averages of UK Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations both surpassing last April’s peaks. The news that in the week ending 2 January one in 50 people in England had Covid-19 (and up to one in 30 in London) should prove a reality check for those who hoped that the rumours of a far more transmissible mutation were scaremongering from risk-averse scientists who would prefer social distancing to endure indefinitely.

Even the poster boy for lockdown scepticism, Toby Young, was forced to concede on Newsnight on 5 January that he had been wrong to suggest in June that “the […] second spike has refused to materialise” and “the one metre rule [is] unnecessary”.

The latest case numbers have resulted in the ridiculing of Young and his fellow lockdown sceptics, who include Daily Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson and actor-turned-professional-anti-wokeist Laurence Fox. And to a certain extent that is justified. Pearson, after all, vacillates between wondering aloud if the pandemic is really happening and arguing with scientists and medics on Twitter, while last November Fox entreated his Twitter followers to break the lockdown rules and broadcasted his own non-compliance.

It is convenient, in an age of polarisation, to bundle those wary of restrictions in with these vocal polemicists. Raise concerns about the impact of school closures on social mobility, the experience of young people spending lockdown in spaces smaller than a prison cell, the growing national debt that threatens to burden future generations or the impact of eliminating social contact on the nation’s mental health and you are as likely to be accused of favouring the economy over saving lives as to spark an honest conversation about impacts and trade-offs.

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Likewise, those who argued over the summer that the data then signalled there was an opportunity for further opening up; who cited other countries’ apparent success with different policies; who worried about the government imposing November’s “circuit-breaker” lockdown on the basis of out-of-date and dubious figures; and who questioned a strategy of “lockdown until vaccine” when the vaccine looked years away and cases seemed to be under control have found themselves lumped in with the more vociferous sceptics. 

[See also: Why isn’t the UK talking about airborne transmission of Covid-19

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Now that the situation has changed substantially into a race between a ready-to-go vaccine and a highly transmissible new strain, the case for restrictions has changed too. Locking down on a clearly time-limited basis with a clear immunisation goal is a very different prospect from doing so indefinitely in the vague hope a way out can be found.

The highest-profile anti-lockdown voices seem unwilling to accept the shift in circumstances, preferring instead to double down and find increasingly far-fetched “evidence” to confirm their delusions. It is up to those in the middle who shared their concerns, if not their fanaticism, to call them out – not just because restrictions are more justifiable now, but for the sake of returning to normality as soon as possible.

Because at some point (barring a debacle on a scale even more spectacular than those we have seen so far), the government’s vaccination plan will start to work. Lockdown may not end by mid-February as assured, but at least now we have a roadmap: 13 million vaccinations, covering the elderly, healthcare workers and the most clinically vulnerable.

As immunity increases, the risks of Covid-19 will be reduced – both the risk of death as the most vulnerable are protected, and that of the healthcare service becoming overwhelmed, as hospitalisations fall and key workers become less exposed.

When that time comes, the debate about reopening the economy and society will re-emerge. England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty is already warning that restrictions may be re-imposed next winter. Precautionary principlists will argue that the risk of one Covid-19 death is one too many (which would ignore how cost-benefit analysis is used across every other area of government policy, from new drugs to driving regulations), and that we should not relax the rules until the entire population has been vaccinated. 

 [See also: How Belgium’s second lockdown became a Covid-19 success]

The most lockdown-happy of all will privilege eliminating Covid-19 risk over educating children, saving businesses, boosting mental health and reinstating civil liberties on the basis that coronavirus deaths are more easily measured and plotted on graphs than the more nebulous consequences of the restrictions.

If by that point the opposing side has lost all credibility by continuing to campaign against strict rules even when their benefit – and necessity – is clear, they cannot hope to have their voices heard. And nor do they deserve to.

Support for lockdown is not and should never have become a binary issue. The costs are real, and are measured in human lives, financial destitution and shattered prospects for future generations. Suspending hard-won civil rights cannot be done casually; dissecting the impact of this decision and challenging the government before it is done again is a democratic imperative. But in a debate that has become characterised by the most sensationalist players, dissenting voices can be easily dismissed.

Not everyone who questioned the merits of lockdown back in March, June or October was a Covid-denier who would rather let the elderly die than give up their right to go to the pub. And deriding them as such will do nothing to persuade them of the case for rules or unite our fractured society. 

But it is up to all lockdown critics to soften their stance and accept that the facts have changed. Acknowledging this, accepting the rules now and waiting for the vaccine rollout is the only path towards restoring life as we knew it – and convincing the most risk-averse in our society that this cycle of lockdowns can and must come to an end.

[See also: How the UK lost control of the mutant strain of Covid-19