As the lockdown eases, what lessons can we draw from the Covid-19 crisis? First, we should never allow a mass shutdown again. Apart from anything, we cannot afford it: the government will be lucky to borrow the money spent bailing out the economy, taking our national debt above £2 trillion.
Next time, there can be no 8.9 million on furlough, no business interruption loans, no business rates holidays, no 50% collapse in output for months and other horrors. We may still reach 15% unemployment; another lockdown would harm our industrial base so badly that we might see 25% out of work. Then there is the collateral damage of thousands of unnecessary deaths from cancer, heart disease and other killers that have been neglected, and the awful toll on mental health and education.
Lockdown and “Save the NHS” mania also meant that the authorities failed to protect those in care homes and even introduced the disease by decanting patients from NHS beds. Lockdown is an utterly unproven policy, with negligible research demonstrating that it works, while countries that did not lock down, such as Japan, Sweden and Iceland, provide evidence that other, less damaging, interventions can be more effective.
Second, ministers need to be better qualified in scientific and technical matters, to challenge expert advisers. The deference of our elected officials towards the unelected gurus on the Sage group of experts has been pathetic. Sage minutes show how meetings descended into groupthink and confirmation bias. Ignoring the costs and consequences of the lockdown was grossly irresponsible.
The government’s scaremongering — “Project Fear” on steroids — has helped to demolish our national confidence and created millions of hypochondriacs. Practical considerations and growing evidence that the disease was spreading in hospitals and care homes were ignored because they didn’t fit the narrative. The cabinet and Sage have suffered from the sunk cost fallacy, amid desperate efforts to conceal their mistakes and overreaction to the virus.
Third, we must fight the tyranny of models. Theoretical projections such as Professor Neil Ferguson’s 500,000 deaths terrified the government and the public, triggering lockdown, with untold collateral damage to our wellbeing and liberties. Imperial College London predicted 2.2 million deaths in the US — a similarly overblown and inflammatory number. The software that was the basis of Ferguson’s model was deeply flawed and produced unreliable data — it was never peer reviewed, nor properly questioned by the public health experts, despite Ferguson’s disastrous track record over mad cow disease and swine flu. Spreadsheets replace judgment and common sense, acquired by personal experience and talent; they can lead to big errors, manipulation and distortions.
Fourth, we need to resist safetyism. Society has become so risk-averse that civilisation might regress because of irrational fear. The false promise of security and absolute safety — together with mass media hungry for catastrophe — means that inevitable uncertainties and surprises become existential threats in our minds. A comfortable, almost decadent 21st-century life for so many has led to us becoming weak, over-sentimental and unable to cope with our mortality. The idea of schools not opening until September is ludicrous, given that only three people under 19 without existing comorbidities have died in England from the virus. A fetish about being “safe” is undermining the essential functioning of everyday life.
Regulators and bureaucrats who want more rules, restrictions and policing of our freedoms should be sent packing. Societies advance thanks to experimentation and innovation. As Ronald Reagan said after the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986: “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”
Fifth, the incompetent responses by government to the virus demonstrate that, even in a crisis, the public sector and command-and-control don’t necessarily work well. From lockdown to the testing fiasco, from mad ideas such as two-metre social distancing and two-week quarantines, the decisions have been incoherent, arbitrary and often flawed. We need less “big government”, not more, and greater private sector involvement in society — more choice, more freedoms, more competition.
Greater state involvement in life will make us poorer and more miserable, as shown by the failures of so many collectivist systems. China might be productive but it is also a dictatorship that is a serious threat to the world, as shown by its behaviour over Covid-19.
Let us hope that society remembers these errors and doesn’t repeat them.