I am reminded of Cato's Guilty Men, the 1940 British best-selling polemic that established the 'appeasement' approach as wrong, and charged (Cato was three anonymous journalists, not a judge) the many men named as dolts or worse who had squandered the past ten years, and let a great evil rise unchecked. Churchill, newly elected to a national unity government, would save the day, and rid the top of the failed dead wood; Churchill did save the day, and nation, but he keep most of the top untrimmed. He was, after all, a Conservative.
For then, think now. Ten years of NHS underfunding, and gross under-preparation for the pandemic, long-warned-of. For the 'Munich' agreement, and the deal, think of the 'herd immunity strategy' - or the late 'lockdown' - or indeed, the now unfortunate '20,000 deaths will be a good result claim' (oft-repeated). But who, then is Churchill?
In one sense, PM Boris is, because his return to power, as the newly-Christened survivor of the plague, make him a convert to the cause of lockdown, to a degree. In another sense, he is the culmination of all the Brexit-facing-away missed chances, to act early, and competently.
One of the main ideas we are spoon-fed daily at the science-political briefings is that the government will be 'led by the science'; as many observers note, there is no such thing as THE science, there are sciences.
There is also data, research, hypothesis, newly-gathered evidence, ongoing studies, long-term peer review, and theory. The major error is to pretend that science, an objective statement, can ever lead an 'ought' decision - that is, an is cannot lead to an ought. This is known as Hume's guillotine.
The entire problem the government, and the country is now facing, is that, even if the 'is' can be substantially ascertained and agreed upon - the ought, as a normative decision, cannot follow logically. The ultimate leadership will have to be, in fact, a decision made on the grounds of the ethical, or political - or economical, which it might be argued, is always a balance between ethics and politics.
If the government decisions and actions yield acceptable results (the good results are no longer possible), then the politicians will share the credit; if this becomes a shit-show, the SAGE eggheads could be thrown under a Boris Bus. However, we now have a bifurcated moment, historically at least. The past - that is, everything Covid-19, COBRA, SAGE and the NHS related, up until the now of now, has happened, and is therefore up for debate, criticism, study, and defence; it is not open to improvement.
As Churchill himself is quoted by Cato as saying in the 1940 book that opens this post, we can only use the past as a way to avoid such errors in the future.
It is to the future, then, that we must all, citizens, scientists, sufferers and policy wonks, turn, for the next move in this nigh-impossible game. I say game, because one needs game theory to figure out the best way to manage the trade offs involved.
The 'is' that we don't want to deny (as opposed to the false conspiracy theories) can be summed up as following:
a) the virus is novel; and first began to be noticed in late 2019, in China;
b) it has an R0 level of between 3-5;
c) with lockdown measures, that lowers to below 1;
d) the ways to stop the pandemic include: herd immunity; an R rate of vanishingly close to zero; a vaccine; and/or a robust medical cure;
e) social distancing cannot cure or contain the virus, but it does slow the spread;
f) lockdowns cause major damage to society, in terms of education, business, and mental health;
g) lockdowns also offer a social good insofar as working together, the public feels patriotic and helpful;
h) the death rate is between .10 and 5%;
i) the infection rate in Western countries is between 3 and 21%;
j) left to spread on its own, it would be expected to infect 60-100% of the population within 48 months or less;
k) the vaccine may take another 6-24 months to discover and mass manufacture;
l) there may be no immunity even after infection;
m) all previous pandemics return within a season or year in a new spike.
I offer these as widely-held facts - some may be debatable, but I have left the numbers wide enough to permit swings of data.
What these facts tell us is two-fold - and what we need to accept - the lockdown is not a policy made up by politicians without basis in fact or reason; to ask it to now go, because we are 'tired of it' is like asking chemotherapy to stop because it makes us feel rum; or to ask the enemy bombs to stop because they are loud and break our windows and heads.
Easing of the lockdown mathematically leads to a rise in the contagion rate, the R0; until immunity or a vaccine, a rise in the contagion rate will lead to a new rise in the death rate (exponentially).
So, is it actually good for business to open the floodgates too soon, in the naïve belief that we need water more than we need to stop a flood?
The business-financial argument seems to be based at best on wishful thinking, and at worst, on a callous indifference to the NHS burdens, and the likely deaths of many thousands more innocent people.
It is simply not the case that we know for certain that economic hardship now will destroy or blight lives for good - there may well be, in future, a few more remarkable discoveries or tech inventions that once again renew the economy, as with the Internet and the PC; we do know that opening pubs, clubs, and football stadia too soon will by definition permit a larger second wave to rise (or the first wave to simply resume).
I see this as the classic Amityville shark analogy, mentioned here before, and used by others also. Closing the beach is bad for business, yes; but opening the beach BEFORE the shark (Jaws) is dead, will be bad for business also - worse in fact.
I do not see the business argument for ending lockdown in May or June offer any justification for believing Jaws has yet been killed; Jaws is being hunted, yes; has maybe even be harpooned once; but is not dead. Jaws remains deadly.
Re-opening soon means, within weeks or months (latest by October) seeing another 20-40 thousand people die within 8 weeks. It seems inevitable now, counting care home deaths, that by May 1st, there will have been 30 or 40 thousand deaths, ON TOP OF, those that would have already happened in January and February from the yearly influenza; even factoring in that some would have died this year or next 'anyway' this is a major loss of life. 2020 will see more civilian deaths in the UK since the Blitz of the Second World War. Covid is a Nazi.
And so we come full circle. Can we appease this rough beast?
No - far better to go full Wuhan on its ass - shut the nation down for 6 months or so; crush the R rate down to zero; then open slowly, tracking and isolating every new case; while rigorously policing borders. By spring 2021, the UK would be a richer, and safer place, than it will be if it goes down the slapdash half-assery of on-again off-again mini-lockdowns. The totalitarian states have shown that dithering and delay is a weak response; let us not be Neville, but be Winston.