Earlier this month, three of the world’s leading epidemiologists published a short treatise, which reflected their concerns about the physical, mental and financial impacts of the global response to COVID-19.
Authored by professors Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University, Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University and Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University, the treatise – otherwise known as the “The Great Barrington Declaration” (GBD) – urged governments to adopt a light-touch, yet heavily-targeted, approach to COVID-19. Its key aim is to safeguard the most vulnerable, while at the same allowing for the reopening of national economies and wider society.
The intervention came at a key moment in global decision-making, as governments in Europe and the US began to weigh up how best to stave off, or mitigate, a “second wave” of hospitalisations through the winter season.
The proponents of the GBD as well as others who have advocated for such targeted responses to the pandemic, have so far received cool, and at times hysterical criticism of their proposals – with some academics and government officials, in the UK and US, labelling their research-based suggestions as “dangerous” and “emphatically wrong”. As one prominent detractor, Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves said earlier this month: the GBD proposition is “grotesque” and akin to a “cull… of the sick and disabled.” What he didn’t touch on, however, was the lack of conclusive evidence, as yet, to support his own proposal – which is also the prevailing policy – of perpetual lockdowns.
This unwillingness to engage with alternative options raises serious concerns – not only for how we fight the impacts of COVID-19, but for the future of academic progress on this subject. Since the outbreak of the virus, here in the UK, advocates of lockdowns, such as Professor Neil Ferguson, have often been allowed to push their opinion in national media without adequate rebuttal. This gives the impression that their assessment is fact and that “the science” is settled on the subject. Government figures, such as the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, have also sought to undermine any debate, by calling alternative strategies, such as the GBD, “false” or “lacking in substance”. This is despite ongoing skirmishes, in medical journals, on the merits and efficacy of herd-immunity and lockdown-driven responses.
Perhaps most worrying, though, has been the absolute unwillingness of governments to countenance any opinion that runs contrary to their strategies of draconian restriction. In the UK, where the Government claims to be “following the science”, it is curious that polices that will limit individual freedom are imposed without publication of supporting data, while alternative, research-based proposals, from international experts including Nils Anders Tegnel, are labelled “reckless” or dismissed outright.
The Prime Minister, his cabinet, and members of the country’s emergency advisory group. SAGE, have repeatedly told Britons that they “don’t want” to reintroduce or extend lockdowns. But the reality is that this has become their default strategy for containment; and there will be no deviation.
Their defence is that there is no other “effective” means of limiting transmission – and that this, somehow, permits the rolling back of privacy regulation and individual freedoms. But this is a policy that’s riddled with flaws and it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Just look at Peru, which initially implemented one of the world’s most extreme lockdowns. It now has one of the worst outbreaks, and an emerging dengue epidemic to boot. In Melbourne, Australia, which has been under a strict lockdown for almost three months, the virus, though at low levels, is still present. And, here, in the UK, where there have been various forms of shutdown or curbs for several months, cases are still rising as we move into winter. Thus, it’s become clear, that, whether endorsed by the scientific community or by politicians, locking entire communities away is not a silver bullet.
In fact, it is incredibly damaging, as data is beginning to show.
While it is true that over 1.1 million people have died from COVID-19, worldwide, since its outbreak, the human cost from the response will be far higher.
Indeed, a new report by Oxfam suggests that more than 130 million people will die of starvation, due to supply chain disruptions caused by national lockdowns. The mental health impacts of state-mandated restriction are also beginning to manifest in hard data, both here in the UK, and elsewhere.
At the same time, substance, child and domestic abuse are increasing at alarming rates. Across education, too, there is now evidence that pupils, particularly from lower income backgrounds, are falling behind in school. And, beyond this, we have statistics from dozens of countries that show rising business closures, and spiralling unemployment, which, despite being common misattributed to Covid-19, are, in fact, a consequence of imposed cessations in economic activity.
It is strange that we have reached this point. A position where alternative – and, in some cases, middle-road – proposals are dismissed in their entirety, while gross restrictions, which carry scarce supporting data of their efficacy, are sold as scientific fact. It’s a dangerous game for the government to play – and one that, if maintained, could prove difficult to escape from.
Lockdowns may well be in vogue, for now; but there is a growing sense, in academia and among the wider public, that they no longer constitute a proportionate response to this pandemic.
David Yorath is a communications specialist and former advisor and speechwriter for a Conservative Member of Parliament.