The End of Covid? - Reflections on the UK's pandemic response
BY JAMIE SPRATT
The Prime Minister announcing the 'living with Covid' plan in February 2022, which scraps all restrictions in England, including the need to self-isolate when testing positive.
In a strange turn of events, Russia has invaded a sovereign nation unprovoked, shattering the illusion that we have been living in the ‘end of history’ since the fall of the USSR. It is remarkable, and undoubtedly convenient for some, how quickly the news cycle has moved on from COVID. This is where we must be careful. As we debate whether the events in Ukraine require a collective effort from the West and we potentially revisit the liberal interventionist model of international relations, a look back at the past two years is required.
As part of the ‘living with COVID’ plan, all restrictions have been lifted in England. This signifies an end to self-isolation rules when testing positive and an end to free testing at the start of April. Hospitalisations remain low, with deaths at the same rate as expected for this time of the year. Yet, from the predictable corners of the public sphere, we hear that this is too risky and even unethical.
What do they mean, exactly, by too risky? In the context of disasters and emergencies, risk is usually quantified in a risk assessment or a cost-benefit analysis. This is surely vital information for policymakers to have – will the measures that they impose save more lives than they take. In the context of this pandemic, the basic question is this; are more people going to die as a result of lockdown measures than are saved by the apparent reduction in transmission? Astonishingly, the government still hasn’t released any of these assessments for the measures they have imposed the past two years – so we don’t yet know what their initial risk assessment was. There are studies now coming out that have collected real-world data to investigate the effectiveness and harms of lockdowns, showing that a vast amount of damage has been done for very little benefit. The poorest and youngest of society have taken the brunt of policies that were falsely advertised to protect the elderly.
What lessons should we take from the past two years, then? First and foremost, I would like to see legal safeguards put in place to prevent this kind of damage from being inflicted on us again. The Public Health Act 1984, from which politicians derived most of their draconian power, needs to be amended to require a much more profound level of scrutiny. A higher body needs to be set up in the civil service, which SAGE would feed their advice to. This body would also take advice on SAGE-equivalent panels for the economy, social wellbeing and other areas of life that would be affected by any measures. There needs to be more research done into professional groupthink and ideas to prevent this from happening. A ‘red team’ of scientists was set up to challenge the advice from SAGE; this is a good start. It would lead to more debate and discussion, and ultimately better policy.
I think the most important takeaway is that we must be extremely guarded and cautious when the next crisis presents itself. It is during these periods that our civil liberties and fundamental rights are most at risk. Partly due to the natural human clamour for safety and comfort, but also the equally human desire for power and status which politicians and the powers that be succumb to. By volunteering our rights every time we perceive our safety to be threatened, we create an incentive for people in power to exaggerate or even manufacture crises for their own gain.
We must also interrogate the mainstream media’s response to the crisis. During the initial weeks of the pandemic, every mainstream outlet, whether that be the BBC, Channel 4 or ITV, was calling for the immediate imposition of lockdowns and curtailment of our rights without any thought of the consequences. Very few journalists and virtually no mainstream ones were questioning whether we should even be following the authoritarian policy of lockdown. There was no one asking for a cost-benefit analysis of these measures. No one asked why we threw our previous pandemic plan out of the window.
It is no secret how much power and sway the media have in political systems. It was why Tony Blair put so much emphasis on his ‘spin doctors’ and ‘optics’. To a lot of leaders, a large, perhaps primary concern is how they are perceived in the media and downstream from that, public consciousness. I would like to see more discussion on how media narratives and social media inform policy at the expense of rigour and effectiveness.
Above all, I hope that the British people have woken up to a newfound appreciation of their rights and civil liberties, and how these are the foundation of living in a functioning liberal democracy. We must be guarded against future threats such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which would remove our right to peaceful protest. Or the Conservative party’s stated intention to water down the Human Rights Act 1998. This is the next fight for any civil liberties-minded person.
Image Source: Flickr (Number 10)