How dare anyone demand an apology for Covid lockdowns – have they forgotten the terrors of early 2020?

The myth is being perpetuated that lockdowns actually caused more deaths than lives saved. It is a ridiculous suggestion, but a seductive one

Sean O'Grady
Sunday 16 October 2022 09:46 BST
Another Covid surge inevitable, Chris Whitty warns MPs

Advocating lockdowns might not seem the most appropriate way to enjoy a sunny bank holiday, but I fear it’s necessary.

Thanks to some unwise remarks by those two second-raters vying to lead our poor knackered nation, the Covid denialists have been emboldened. Not only do they vow to resist any future public health precautions, but they are demanding that those of us who advocated lockdowns should apologise, both for the lockdowns themselves and the undoubted misery caused, but also for the non-Covid excess deaths now being experienced. It is getting absurd.

Liz Truss, inexplicably and inexcusably, has ruled out lockdowns in the face of any future pandemic, no matter how deadly; and Rishi Sunak now says he didn’t argue hard enough in cabinet about the economic damage and let the scientists become “empowered”.

Where once these two said they wanted to be guided by the science, they have now joined the ranks of the anti-science conspiracy theorists. It’s terrifying to behold. At least Boris Johnson, genuinely reluctant and slow to impose the lockdowns, did bow to the reality of the position in 2020 and 2021 and take the painful action required to save many lives.

His successors seem, strange to say, more cowardly about doing the right thing in future. They seem to have sided with those who’d rather not run up more national debt, and thus pay higher taxes, to save the lives of others. It’s an ugly sort of backlash.

The myth is being perpetuated that lockdowns actually caused more deaths than lives saved. It is a ridiculous suggestion, but a seductive one, and one that is gaining currency, on social media and among folk who should know better.

Have we forgotten the terrors of early 2020? A completely unfamiliar, poorly understood but highly infectious and potentially deadly coronavirus was ripping through populations in China and Europe, causing deaths and serious illness. Health services in Italy couldn’t cope with the demand.

People choked to death, effectively asphyxiated by the virus, before they got near a doctor. At that time we were utterly defenceless and, no matter how much we’d like to have dismissed it as not much worse than flu, in too many cases it caused an agonising, unnecessary death.

To reiterate: when the first lockdown was announced by Boris Johnson in March 2020 there was little knowledge about the disease and how it spread, no cures, no vaccines, no treatments, no testing kits, little protective equipment in hospitals, a shortage of hand sanitisers, masks and disposable gloves for home use and, most important of all, simply not enough ambulances, hospital beds, intensive care facilities and respirators to save lives.

We were trying to build the basic Nightingale hospitals just to warehouse the sick and making grim plans for mass graves. All this seems to have been forgotten, strangely, in an orgy of post-event denialism.

Covid was a potentially fatal disease that had – and has – the especially nasty feature that it is easily spread while people are asymptomatic. Before they ever get a cough or a fever they can unknowingly make many others sick – an especially insidious feature of Covid.

Like any plague, it spreads exponentially, and soon there was hardly a place in earth unaffected. As the slogan of the time went, we had to stay indoors to protect the NHS from collapse and to save lives. As the disease took hold in hospitals and care homes, staff went off sick and there were even fewer people to care for those dying from Covid.

For some reason the nation now wants to indulge in an act of collective amnesia. We want to pretend now that things weren’t that bad and the lockdowns weren’t really needed. The lie is being spread that the lockdowns have left us with a terrible backlog of cases, hence the delays and queues for NHS treatment now. Yet it was cold that did that, not the public health precautions.

So the opposite was – and is – the truth. Without social distancing, restrictions on gatherings, mask wearing, hygiene regimes and self-isolation, even more cases would have overcrowded GP surgeries, ambulances and hospital wards, and left even fewer resources available to treat other urgent cases.

The alternative would have been to just leave people with Covid: feverish and unable to breathe, to die alone at home, often with the excuse that they were too old anyway – the “let the bodies pile high” attitude once attributed to Johnson.

In fact, during the pandemic the NHS did still attend to other non-Covid sick people – I know this from personal experience – and did so because the lockdowns and other public health precautions allowed the medics the space to do so. No doubt, too, some people suffered mental health problems, many children had their educations disrupted and some of those who felt unwell didn’t come forward for attention.

The economy, which we rely on to fund free health care, was damaged. But all of those situations would have been worse had the lockdowns not broken the chain of transmission and prevented overload. Harsher and longer lockdowns would have become inevitable as the system broke down.

As I say, the unspoken alternative strategy (used in previous centuries) would have been to confine Covid patients to their homes and not allow them out or offer them treatment at all. Boris Johnson would have been left to die in his Downing Street flat after he fell ill with his own serious case of Covid, possibly caught through a cavalier attitude to the tiny micro-organism.

The case for the lockdowns has been put eloquently by Chris Whitty. A national hero, Whitty is now having his reputation quietly trashed by people who should know better. This is what Whitty told MPs last year when he was asked if the emergence of the omicron variant meant it was being prioritised over cancer treatment: “That is sometimes said by people who have no understanding of health at all, but I do not think it is said by anyone who is serious, if I am honest. When they say it, it is usually because they want to make a political point.

“The reality is – and if you ask any doctor working in any part of the system they will say this – that what is threatening our ability to do cancer and to do all these things is the fact that so much of the NHS effort, and so many of the beds, are having to be put over to Covid that we are having to work in a less efficient way because Covid is there. Finding a way to manage Covid that minimises the impact on everything else is absolutely central to what we are trying to do.

“In a sense, I completely agree that there are multiple other things in addition to Covid. If we do not crack Covid at the point when we have big waves, as we have now, we will do huge damage elsewhere. The idea that the lockdowns cause problems with things like cancer is a complete inversion of reality.

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“If we had not had the lockdowns, the whole system would have been in deep, deep trouble and the impact on things like heart attacks and strokes, and all the other things people must still come forward for when they have them, would have been even worse than it was. I want, through all of you, to make it absolutely clear that that is an inversion of reality.”

It seems that the present epidemic of amnesia is one unexpected consequence of Covid. The constant refrain that we have to “learn to live with Covid” seems intended to mean we shouldn’t worry about it and should treat it like a bad cold – indeed, we should forget all about that nasty pandemic, because if we stop thinking about coronavirus then it will go way. But of course it won’t, and one day a variant both more dangerous and more infectious will emerge.

We should now be making sure the incidence of Covid is minimised, through simple precautions such as masks on crowded public transport, free testing kits and mandatory self-isolation while infectious. And one day, in extremis, we might need a lockdown to prevent a collapse of the NHS. If we took more precautions now, a lockdown would be less likely, but might still be needed. Are we really so forgetful?

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