For some months I have been anticipating how analyses of the way that the Government handled the Covid-19 pandemic would focus on the common prejudice that, if only we had locked-down the country sooner and harder so many lives would have been saved. Without giving sufficient weight to the huge lasting economic and social damage that lock-downs cause.
I was not surprised therefore, when accounts in the media trumpeted the findings of the joint report by the Commons Health and Science & Technology committees and their criticism of exactly that failure to lock down swiftly enough.
Well, nothing is ever quite as bad as first reported. I have now read the report for myself and it is much more nuanced than was evident in the news broadcasts.
It is clear from the report that the policy of choice ought to have been not to lock-down at all, but instead, to follow the example of those jurisdictions that avoided lock-downs because, having earlier experience of the SARS infection, they had developed sophisticated and efficient systems to trace all the contacts of infected persons and isolate them.
The parliamentary committee’s criticism is more focussed on our failure over the longer term to have developed such systems because we really only ever planned for a severe flu epidemic.
When it comes to the analysis of the position last autumn, when there were also demands for swifter and more extensive lock-downs, the report actually supports the Government having resisted those demands.
The usual suspects are now demanding, once again, that the life and livelihood of the nation be restricted to accommodate the needs of the NHS. I find this surprising because Covid-19 hospital occupancy is lower now than it was a month ago. We are told to be alarmed at the current 50,000 infections per day, -when following the removal of restrictions in July- we were told to expect 100,000 cases per day and still hold our nerve.
In any event, in most cohorts the figures are relatively flat, the growth is largely accounted for by five to twelve-year-olds, who are the most able to shake it off like a common cold.
A principal cause of the pressure that the NHS is under is the rise in what used to be common respiratory and viral infections which are of now increased severity precisely because we have lost so much of our natural immunity by restricting social interaction. The more we see social and economic restrictions as the answer to reducing Covid-19 infections, the more we will generate problems from the loss of our ability to resist other common viruses that put elderly and vulnerable people into hospital, let alone the growing problems for mental health.
Living with the Covid-19 virus means treating it in the way that we treat other endemic diseases. We live with flu which, on a typical winter’s day will carry off 250 souls, but we don’t obsess about it and publish daily statistics.
Over the last 18 months the Lock-down policy has enjoyed high levels of public support, indeed pollsters were telling us that the public would welcome even severer restrictions. Now however, the situation has changed significantly and the public are much more alive to the long-term damaging costs of restricting economic and social life. Hopefully this may act as a constraint on the willingness of ministers to submit to the noisy lobby demanding a return to restrictions.