Leading article

Ministers need to defy the instinct to lockdown

12 September 2020

9:00 AM

12 September 2020

9:00 AM

One of the many ironies of the past few months is that young people, while least affected by the virus, have paid the heaviest price for lockdown. They have been deprived of education, had their exams thrown into chaos and, as a result, many have been denied the university places they deserved. Apprenticeships and internships have dried up and office closures have kicked away the ladder which allows new arrivals to advance. And now Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, is accusing ‘affluent younger people’ of dangerously selfish behaviour, of socialising once again in a way that could ‘kill your granny’.

We seldom hear from ministers an acknowledgement of the price paid for policies which have had a questionable effect in stemming the advance of the virus. One in three young employees was furloughed at the height of the crisis and young workers were three times more likely than employees in general to lose their jobs. When heavy unemployment strikes (and the figure may soon surge over three million), the young are most likely to suffer the brunt of it.

The new ban on social meetings of more than six people has come just in time for Freshers’ Week, when students paying £9,000 a year will have to adjust to a digitised simulation of the university experience. There is now talk in government circles of ‘exemplary arrests’ — police swoops on students having fun, for example — to show that ministers are quite serious about the new rules. But is it too much to ask for the evidence on the impact of bans on social gatherings? Or for the evidence that we are looking at a ‘second wave’ (again, Hancock’s language) rather than smaller ripples?

It’s true that many young people attended outdoor parties over the summer, stretching guidelines to, and sometimes beyond, the limit. But when they did so, they would have been making a rational decision based on a personal risk assessment.

Overall, Britons have adhered to lockdown rules to an extent far beyond that which officials ever imagined. But this might change if ministers become a little too trigger–happy with regulations and start trying to impose restrictions or quarantines without being sure that a resurgence is under way. When faced with an unclear picture, the UK government bias, it seems, is towards tighter restrictions.

The priority for restrictions should not be students but care homes, which accommodate 3 per cent of the elderly but are where 30 per cent of Covid deaths have taken place. The young could be asked to avoid meeting elderly relatives, but allowed to go about their lives. Some would argue that allowing the virus to surge among the young may even be helpful, as it helps build immunity among those least likely to suffer or die.

Lord Sumption, a former Supreme Court judge, has pointed out that the hyperbolic ‘don’t kill granny’ warnings undermine confidence in government by treating young people trying to live a normal life as if they were murderers. Granny would probably be wise to isolate herself, but she is not heading for the beaches or going to raves. As Sumption also points out, governments which refrain from using such language have done far better in retaining public support.

Caution is needed when considering the data and its limitations. Oxford’s Carl Heneghan has pointed out that the local lockdowns in England were enforced after positive tests surged, but without a significant uptick in illness, deaths or hospital cases. Hospitalisation rates, he argues, are a better indicator of the real problem. This advice holds good for national measures too.

We can’t say with confidence why deaths have not (so far) increased with infections. Perhaps a less potent version of the virus is circulating. Perhaps we have built up some level of natural immunity, especially in areas such as London where the virus hit hard the first time round. The NHS has a much better understanding of the virus, with significant breakthroughs in the treatment of patients (far fewer are put on ventilators now). Whatever the reason, Covid deaths have been falling in England and Wales for 19 consecutive weeks and they are now far below the death toll from flu and other respiratory diseases.

The ‘excess deaths’ that are starting to rise are not in hospitals but in private homes. This underlines fears that the sick, elderly and vulnerable with ailments other than Covid-19 have put their needs on the backburner, staying away from hospitals and GPs for months. The consequences of that are inevitable. There ought to be far more questions asked about that trend, especially if more lives are at stake.

British people — of all ages — showed themselves to be generous and selfless at the height of lockdown, adhering to the government’s message to ‘stay home’ for the safety of others. To revert to the lockdown instinct now risks discarding the lessons of the last few months. There has to be a cleverer way of handling the pandemic. Ministers must try harder to find it.

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