The rearguard justification of lockdowns confirms the threat of their return has not gone away

LAST WEEK, as the Conservative leadership election finally came to an end, there was a flurry of articles taking both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak to task about their criticisms of the use of lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic. What was notable was the challenges to Truss and Sunak’s public comments were by Conservative sympathisers writing on pro-Conservative platforms – not, as might have been expected, by opposition politicians or members of the public health lobby.

The Recovery campaign has argued repeatedly that while we have currently seen the back of the lockdowns imposed upon the country we have not yet seen them widely accepted as a mistake never to be introduced again. If there remained any doubts the reintroduction of lockdowns at some point this winter could yet be demanded by an unholy cabal of politicians, officials, corporates and media commentators – and become irresistible enough for the new Government to relent and legislate for them – then these articles provided the evidence that lockdowns remain a real threat.

On ConservativeHome, the most dominant and long established of online cheerleaders for the Conservative Party, the Deputy Editor Henry Hill, questioned if Liz Truss had been wrong during her leadership election campaign to rule out the use of lockdowns in future.

“Truss’s commitment to rule out lockdown in any circumstances, which has had a warm reception, implicitly assumes that it can never be the best course of action – including, presumably, in early 2020.  But is this wise?

Henry Hill, Conservative Home, 1 September 2022

His answer was No, and he set out to explain why.

In The Spectator, Lee Cain, Boris Johnson’s former Director of Communications in 10 Downing Street, argued Rishi Sunak was not just wrong about the narrative of what had happened in the run-up to choosing to have lockdowns (arguing Sunak had attempted to rewrite history for his own benefit) but went further and argued the problem was the first lockdown was not introduced sooner. 

Putting aside any personal agendas of the authors for or against either candidate that may or may not exist and taking the two articles at face value as reasoned defences of not just using lockdowns in the past – but being willing to use them again in the future – the commentaries cannot go unanswered.

Without being overly technical and citing copious research papers and studies – for the issue at hand is essentially the political decisions that were taken (and I shall leave that for others) – there are a number of obvious points that need to be made.

The first is to say that both pieces rely on a classic straw man argument by suggesting that lockdowns were the only reasonable response because the alternative scenarios (the straw man) were worse. This reasoning depends upon omitting the most obvious scenario (of shielding the most vulnerable) and consequentially paints those who advocated it, either by implication or directly – as callous cold-hearted extremists beyond the pale. 

What is never conceded is that shielding the most vulnerable was not a ‘do nothing’ scenario.

Those advocating protections for those most vulnerable alongside a more open approach with some limited restrictions – were looking at the broader impact upon those already suffering from other life-threatening conditions and the implications for education of a whole generation, the mental health of those living under state-directed fear – and the huge damage that would be imposed on the NHS in the medium to long term. Hardly a cold-hearted and callous approach.  It was an attempt to be proportionate and work with the grain of human desire for self-preservation that would not require a totalitarian fear campaign with long term implications.

The issue of proportionality of practical compassion needs understood before we even consider the creation of the cost-of-lockdown crisis now faced by the public and the huge economic cost to the country’s finances that shall have huge collateral impacts on other state responsibilities and take generations to be paid down.

Looking at the ConHome piece in particular, at no point in his article does Henry Hill mention the campaign of fear that was required to make lockdowns work. Indeed there is a catalogue of issues noticeable by their absence: no mention of the failure to obtain a cost-benefit analysis against the health outcomes for others and how the NHS would cope after Covid; no mention of the rush to build the Nightingale hospitals that were then never used for their original purpose of handling the predicted huge demand; no mention of the obscene waste of public funds on rushed contracts – many of which continue to generate questions about their probity and the fitness for purpose of what was purchased; no mention of the impact on people choosing not to go back to school or not to go back to the workplace and many – especially amongst our oldest – simply deciding to no longer go out. No mention of the interventions around care homes or funerals or people seeing their dying relatives for the last time. All of these dire impacts were an unavoidable part of and co-existed with lockdowns.

All of the ramifications of how people have reacted to their treatment – for many it felt like imprisonment and without any recourse to justice or appeal – will take years if not decades to play out. For those with any doubts please read our series of Testimonies.

Also not mentioned is there were three lockdowns, when Hill’s justification for the comprehensive legal restriction is only presented as gaining the NHS time so it could gain capacity to deal with the Covid onslaught at the start. It was pointed out by many critics that prolonging the lockdown beyond the initial three weeks to “save the NHS” was only building up infections for (inevitably a worse) second wave and subsequently for a third wave from the second lockdown. These further lockdowns are not defended – does that mean Hill concedes they were wrong – or does he defend them too – and if so why not a fourth lockdown and what about one this winter when either a dangerous flu or Covid strain appear? Clearly he is sympathetic to lockdowns at least being an option.

Lee Cain’s Spectator article (an edited version appearing as a letter in the printed edition) is even more bullish than Hill’s – arguing the biggest mistake was not agreeing to a lockdown quickly enough.

“We locked down because we knew the cost of ‘letting Covid rip’ was far more damaging to both the health and wealth of the nation. But as the pandemic fades into our collective memory – and critics try to rewrite history – it’s clear that the biggest mistake we made was not locking down but doing so too late.”

Lee Cain, The Spectator, 1 September 2022

Again, like Hill, Cain rubbishes any alternatives to lockdown as sub-optimal and confirms that the Barrington-style scenario was not offered in the choice before the Prime Minister (and colleagues):

“The PM sat in silence as three scenarios were sketched out on a whiteboard. The first looked at no restrictions, the second at social distancing measures and the third considered a national lockdown. Only under the last option would the NHS avoid collapse. But it took the PM a week to declare a national lockdown. That decision eventually saved tens of thousands of lives.”

Cain’s defence of the Johnson legacy is also absent of the shocking and embarrassing policy failures that accompanied lockdowns as listed above. He makes an additional mistake, however, he claims Sunak was wrong to say no trade-offs were considered and argues they were and that these were put by Chris Whitty on a daily basis. This is glib, and preposterously so. Where is the evidence of the cost-benefit analysis for the impact on government, all its other dependents for life saving and affirming services – critics of lockdowns have been asking for such evidence for months and still it cannot be seen because it does not exist. We also know that SAGE did not consider these issues and that it has had its minutes doctored to remove dissent. Nor was there a balancing ‘expert’ committee to SAGE asked to consider the broader impacts of pandemic policy. Again, these aspects are not mentioned by Cain.

It is noticeable the accusation that those against lockdowns were by implication content to see Covid-19 “let rip” through the UK population – when that is simply not true – is also justified by accepting as gospel the now widely discredited modelling of Imperial’s Neil Fergusson when predicting 500,000 Covid-19 deaths from doing nothing and ‘only’ 250,000 deaths if employing lockdowns.

The feeling one gets from reading the two articles is that they are actually about defending the legacy of the Johnson government before it (technically) ended on 6 September – and justifying the decisions that led those who succumbed to backing the Lockdown approach (such as Cain) or those that defended such decisions at the time (like Hill). 

I think it is clear Hill and Cain are not representative of the current mood in the Conservative Party – and it is, I believe, doubtful they represent the mood of Conservative supporters towards lockdowns in March 2020 – especially if you strip away the innate loyalty to a serving Conservative Prime Minister. Party politics, however, is of no consequence here. The point is there was an alternative to lockdowns; it is not generally discussed because those who were in power and opposed to an alternative saw to it that it was not put before the people. Advocates of a more proportionate response of using limited restrictions and protecting the most vulnerable – such as MPs Steve Baker and Mark Harper – did exist but were marginalised by their Government. It is only right that now with the restrictions lifted the true narrative is reclaimed and those who denied a full debate are subject to the revisionism that comes from fresh testimony and evidence seeing the light of day.

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Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and managing editor of the Recovery blog. 

For the Henry Hill article on ConservativeHome go here: It is unwise to rule out lockdowns as a weapon against future pandemics

For the Lee Cain article in The Spectator go here: What Rishi Sunak gets wrong about lockdowns