Professors Sunetra Gupta and Paul Dolan have written a piece for the Telegraph pointing out that lockdowns were rolled out across the world last March in spite of never having been tried before as a way of mitigating the impact of a pandemic and in spite of no cost-benefit analysis having been done. Paul Dolan is Professor of Behavioural Science in the Department in Psychological and Behavioural Science at the LSE. His main research interests are in the measurement of happiness and in changing behaviour through changing the contexts within which people make choices.
As it currently stands, it looks like lockdowns had a small effect but, to some large extent, the path of the virus can be explained by “natural” factors such as the accumulation of herd immunity and seasonal differences in the transmissibility of the virus. Furthermore, while lockdowns may have protected some vulnerable people from exposure to the virus, they may also have placed them at increased risk of future exposure by preventing high levels of herd immunity from establishing broadly across the population.
The profound costs of lockdown have been borne disproportionately by younger people, those with limited social support, those with mental health problems, and those in low-income groups with job insecurity. Some older people have benefitted from lockdown, but perhaps by not as much as would have been hoped for, and without ever inquiring into whether they preferred to be isolated from close family for so long. The most obvious beneficiaries of lockdown, at least insofar as the economic impacts are concerned, are those who can work from home on full pay – such as members of the government and advisory committees like Sage.
There are serious ethical questions about these intergenerational transfers and policies that have served to widen economic inequalities. The public inquiry into Covid must be broad enough to consider the narrowness of the perspectives and experiences involved in making decisions that have had such an unprecedented effect on the economic and emotional wellbeing of the youngest and worst-off members of the population.
The critical question, of course, is whether it would have been possible to reduce the mortality and morbidity risks to the vulnerable population at lower cost than lockdowns? Other options were available, such as focused protection, whereby those most at risk from the virus would have been afforded protection whilst those at low risk would be largely allowed to go about life as normal. But this was dismissed as callous without any evidence to support this claim.
Decision making quickly became more faith based than evidence based. In response to case numbers in the UK falling, Professor Neil Ferguson recently said, “I’m quite happy to be wrong, if it’s wrong in the right direction.” This betrays a complete lack of insight into the welfare consequences of lockdowns. The mainstream advice has been to reduce transmission through lockdowns and if this is wrong, and if lockdowns cause more harm than good, then he is not only wrong, but wrong in the wrong direction so far as human welfare is concerned.