The pandemic must now be a debate, not a decree

by | 13 Jan 2022

The latest phase in the pandemic shows that the time when debate only occurs after the rules are made must now come to an end

Well that was hard to follow – the thing that was not a panic then was petrifying and then was probably totally fine, all in the space of just over a month.

That’s a compressed recap of Scottish Government messaging. At the very end of November the unambiguous message was that it was not time to panic over the Omicron strain. By early December the message was hard-core panic, a ‘galloping’ ‘tsunami’ of danger which had left them ‘more afraid’ than at any previous point in the pandemic.

So by the second half of December it was time to clamp on the restrictions and cancel Hogmanay. Thank goodness though the sharp actions taken in mid-December saved us, until it turned out that the data on our salvation could not bear the weight of the claim. In fact by late December the signs were that it wasn’t making much if any difference at all.

It was only a few days after that where we reached the point when our terrified government overcame its fear, came out from behind the sofa and immediately cracked open the airports again because things were OK, and only a couple of days after that before we were all told to be cautiously optimistic because we’d turned the corner and most of the couple-of-weeks-old restrictions were to be scrapped again.

Phew, that was close. By not panicking and then panicking and then unpanicking again, all in the course of about five weeks, Scotland was saved from… No, hold on, that’s not really what happened at all.

What happened was this; in the late autumn a new variant of Covid had arisen and while the almost immediate anecdotal evidence was that it was more transmissible but less severe, there was no solid evidence for this. This left politicians in a legitimate quandary – what indicator tells us that action is required?

Case numbers of a new variant that is more transmissible are bound to rise but does that mean that risk to life is rising in the same way? What balance must be struck? Boosters were speeded up to try to increase protection from the new strain.

But in the end a decision had to be made; more restrictions or not. Either route was a gamble. Lockdown unnecessarily and you do major economic and social harm (never mind the psychological impact). Fail to lock down and you could be facing a public health crisis. Few will envy the decision that had to be made.

And in different parts of the UK different administrations took different gambles. It should be acknowledged that no-one had certainty, but it should also be acknowledged that there is a fairly strong consensus now that one of the gambles was right and one was wrong. And Scotland was wrong; the economic harm from the substantially increased restrictions was not matched by any gains in public health (at least so far).

Think back on how long it took for a hard-core lockdown to suppress case numbers in both 2020 and 2021 – if we are in a position to reverse decisions made as recently as three weeks ago it simply cannot be as a result of those decisions and must be despite them

So what does this tell us? That everyone is flying blind and so all decisions are understandable in the circumstances? I think this is the wrong conclusion to draw.

Rather, the political imperatives of different governments were clearly on show and rather than reassure us that decisions are based on science alone it shows that they really weren’t, they were based on political positioning.

The UK Government not only has libertarian instincts but was facing both a party and a media which was increasingly hostile to restrictive measures. For it the threshold for serious restrictive action was high; things had to be bad before it were going to take on the ‘freedom lobby’ in the party.

But for the Scottish Government the calculus was quite different. After botching the early phase of Covid it developed a reputation for good management of the pandemic and was rewarded by liberal commentators for making the ‘tough decision’ to be very cautious. The Scottish Government is anything but libertarian.

So in Scotland the political threshold was very low. The business sector would clearly complain but that was manageable if the commentator class would provide one more round of applause for sacrificing civil liberties for ‘stability and safety’. So to get the commentator class on board perceptions had to be managed, hence the somewhat irresponsible fear-mongering and apocalyptic adjectives of early December.

It really wasn’t wise to claim that this was the scariest and most dangerous moment in the pandemic because there was absolutely no evidence for that. It wasn’t a statement of science but of politics. It might potentially have developed into a situation that was genuinely scary – but it didn’t.

What it did do was suppress dissent; in the face of what may well have been ‘god, do they know something we don’t’ worry from commentators and the opposition, real questions about this decision-making were not asked. Scotland complied.

It was wrong to do so; stronger questions should have been asked. Fundamentally, the first lockdown was unavoidable as we wandered into a crisis largely blind and entirely unprepared. We needed to buy time to work out what was going on and what to do. The second lockdown was largely a function of the errors made at the close of the first lockdown.

But both were strategic; they were tools to get us to vaccination – and by hook and by crook they did. At that point all the calculus should have changed. It feels strange to have to write this but the thresholds for substantially restricting civil liberties really should be high. It really should be driven by solid data and clear experiential learning.

What happened in Scotland was not that. The experiential learning of Omicron was dismissed as anecdote and the data was looked at partially. The driver of the decision was really managerialism – what evidence there was in favour of a lockdown was about managing capacity in the NHS, not that this was a disease of an order that would usually prompt the response we ended up with.

The Scottish Government itself clearly doesn’t have confidence in the decision it made or it wouldn’t be fiddling the figures (or more accurately their context) to hack together a post-hoc justification. It certainly wouldn’t be reversing that decision in the course of a couple of weeks (think back on how long it took for a hard-core lockdown to suppress case numbers in both 2020 and 2021).

If we are in a position to reverse decisions made as recently as three weeks ago it simply cannot be as a result of those decisions and must be despite them. That is the reality.

None of this is easy but the balance of assumptions was going to have to shift progressively against lockdowns

This is absolutely not hindsight, though you’ll have to take my word for it (or talk to people I met over Christmas) because I was on leave and not writing by the time this all happened. My views was based on a careful assessment that thresholds for action should be rising, not falling, and those thresholds must be clearly breached. Until they are, this is an occasion where ‘wait and assess’ should have been the approach.

And if the real underlying reason for what just happened was that the NHS has been stripped to the bone, those responsible must answer for that (a subject I consider in more depth for Common Weal today).

What this whole affair shows is just how far away reality is from the clearly spurious claims that the politicians are simply ‘following the science’ and that these decisions are made utterly without political context or interests getting in the way. It’s all political judgement and politicians have their own interests.

Which is why suddenly, three weeks after matters were so terrible that Hogmanay had to bite the bullet again, the Scottish Government is rushing out new statements about how it is going to produce a route map to living with the virus. I mean, seriously, are we expected to believe that it is science which changed so much in this time, not political calculus?

It has become almost as if questioning Covid policy is a punishable offence now. I was a full-on lockdown hawk for the first lockdown and a more reluctant but obedient lock-downer second time (given that it could have been avoided with a proper plan and should have brought more criticism than it did).

No, none of this is easy – but unless there is a very clear reason for it with very clear evidence, the balance of assumptions was going to have to shift progressively against lockdowns.

Thankfully the Scottish Government now seems to agree. It would just be more persuasive if it had got there without don’t panic/panic/don’t panic messaging that has accompanied an error it refuses to admit it made.

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