Ben Lowry: Lockdown sceptics have been undermined by crazy theories, but more sensible criticisms of the restrictions haven’t gone away

Lockdown scepticism has a low stock at the moment.

Saturday, 23rd January 2021, 1:55 pm
Updated Saturday, 23rd January 2021, 2:18 pm
Donald Trump speaks to supporters on Wednesday, the last day of his presidency. Foolish talk from him and others undermined the more considered critiques of lockdown
Donald Trump speaks to supporters on Wednesday, the last day of his presidency. Foolish talk from him and others undermined the more considered critiques of lockdown

The hospitals are full in Northern Ireland, where coronavirus infection levels have surged — as indeed they have done in all the regions on these islands.

Covid’s forceful winter reappearance has happened across Europe.

Sweden, which seemed for much of 2020 to have adopted a fair balance between containment of the virus and minimising harm in other walks of life, is not looking so good.

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Meanwhile countries that adopted a zero Covid approach appear to be vindicated by their ruthless tactics, such as Taiwan and Australia and New Zealand.

As we lurch from crisis to crisis, they have got infections down to such low levels that each case can be identified and zapped as soon as it appears. This is impossible once case numbers pass a certain level.

When the history of this time is written, those nations will probably be seen to have handled the pandemic the best.

Yet while that is very likely, it is not yet certain.

This is because sensible and thoughtful lockdown scepticism has not yet been shown to be groundless.

However, such scepticism is greatly damaged by the lunatic fringe of lockdown sceptics.

This includes the rubbish talk that Covid-19 is just like a bad year of seasonal flu, when it was obvious from Italy in February that it was far worse than that.

It has been clear since then, or certainly since late March, that the damage done by coronavirus falls relentlessly with age until, at the level of a pre-teen child, death in a car crash is far, far more likey than from Covid. But even so, as the prime minister’s experience showed, the virus hits people under the age of 60 in ways that seasonal flu does not.

Intensive care doctors said early on that Covid attacks the lungs in ways they had never seen before.

The severity of symptoms in some cases was also known (and explained in newspaper and magazine articles) way back, in March.

Even people who missed such reports cannot have failed to notice that Boris Johnson, then aged only 55, was fighting for his life in early April.

That was before we learned about the damage of long Covid.

Lockdown scepticism is further damaged by the ludicrous conspiracy theories about global plans to control people.

And by the idiocy of the former president of the United States, Donald Trump, and his chaotic response to the crisis, and his dangerous talk about disinfectant.

But sensible sceptics accepted from day one that Covid was very serious.

They also accepted that lockdown is highly effective in stopping a virus if taken to extremes (in that if everyone was rigidly confined at home for months, the virus would of course fizzle out).

The only question was whether the effect of the cure was worse than the disease.

As said above, at present it seems not. It seems that the cure was appropriate, and perhaps not administered severely enough.

This will be even more so if, as the prime minister said yesterday, the mortality rate in the new variant is worse than before.

It will be so if the reports of larger numbers of young people in hospital are a sign of a worsening mortality rate in the under 60s (as opposed to increased infection rates in those groups due to older groups shielding).

But look at some of the other stories that we report today, about resumption of cancer surgeries. Think about that!

Cancer surgery was cancelled, a quite remarkable state of affairs, often affecting people far below the median Covid death age of 82 (and citing that high average age is not, of course, to say that older people do not matter, but rather to wonder about the impact of lockdown on chronic diseases that have younger median fatality ages).

Or consider the story about further exams being cancelled.

Or the story on page 14 about the decline in the mental health of older people. I was talking to a woman who works in Alzheimer’s this week and she said that she had seen a sharp rise in deaths, hastened she thinks be lack of contact.

We will not know for years, or perhaps ever, the full toll from lockdown: the domestic violence, the chronic loneliness, the ruined jobs, ruined industries, the despair caused by lost jobs, the damage done to education and so on.

We seem to have become used to such privileged and safe lives in the western world that we seem unable to accept that there are some situations which arise in which there will be very large numbers of deaths whatever we do.

And this might be one of those grim situations: that pursuing lockdown causes immense suffering and heartbreak and death but letting the virus rip does too.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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