No one wants a lockdown – so why are we hearing about ‘lockdown cheerleaders’? | Stephen Buranyi

Nobody wants a lockdown. You’d think that would go without saying. As England faces a three-tier system of regionally unequal lockdowns or the possibility of a national “circuit breaker”, there is no one sitting around thinking, “Oh good, time to tank the economy, halt NHS services, and wreck everyone’s mental health, again. I love this.” That’s perverse, and such a person surely doesn’t exist.

And yet I’ve been hearing a lot about this supposedly pro-lockdown person lately. There is certainly a vocal, self-identified anti-lockdown position: pro-business, anti-disruption, with a sudden interest in both herd immunity and Sweden. But who, according to those in the anti-lockdown camp and their supporters in the media, opposes this position?

The answer is illusory persons who actually like lockdown, and who sound suspiciously like other recent bogeymen – elites, technocrats and vague anti-democratic forces bent on turning fear into political control. Whether that is “Doom-mongering scientific modellers who specialise in causing panic”, “doom-mongering politicians”, elites for whom boosting lockdown is a “high-status opinion”, or “lockdown fanatics”.

Nothing enters British political discourse until it has been thoroughly polarised and placed on one side or another in our many rumbling culture wars. And so the entire discussion about the nature and severity of lockdown now falls cleanly into two camps: pro- or anti-lockdown, with no sane person claiming to be the former. We are told that Boris Johnson’s cabinet is divided between anti-lockdown hawks and pro-lockdown doves, while the experts appointed to give technical advice to the government are caricatured as “pro-lockdown spin doctors”.

This filters down into the scrum of social media, where all nuance disappears and people tend to say the quiet part loud. Search the term “lockdown cheerleaders” on your favourite platform and you will find hundreds of fellow citizens theorising that the country’s top scientists are hell-bent on imposing restrictions for unclear but nefarious ends.

This obscures the fact that nobody actually wants a lockdown. The first one happened because, as England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, said: “We were fighting a semi-invisible disease.” We didn’t know enough about how the virus spread, or what measures were effective against it. If nothing else, lockdown is an effective way of keeping people apart. It’s a blunt tool – like opening a stuck lock with a sledgehammer rather than a pick – that a government with no other options can reach for as a last resort.

But it shouldn’t come to that. What those who are in favour of a lockdown as a temporary last resort actually want is to not face the pandemic blind, again. For months now, scientists and commentators from across the political spectrum have been pushing for the things that would keep us out of lockdown, including an actually effective test and trace regime and a support system that would ensure people who may have the virus are able to isolate properly.

These things are possible. As the world league table of Covid-19 statistics continually reminds us, nations such as South Korea, Japan, New Zealand and Germany have sophisticated responses that monitor and respond to outbreaks with pinpoint accuracy. South Korea tracks down and tests 100 close contacts for every positive Covid-19 case, while New Zealand traced a recent outbreak back to a single rubbish bin lid.

We don’t have anything approaching that. Our leaders became obsessed with getting the total testing numbers up – and we now do over 1.5m tests a week. But that’s an empty metric when there are still severe delays in getting tests back, only a handful of contacts are identified, and of these only 62.6% are ever contacted. Plus, research suggests that without a guarantee of support, only a small fraction of people are actually isolating, even if they have Covid-19 symptoms. The government lacked the capacity to handle any of this itself, so as usual outsourced these services out-of-mind, and now there are untold numbers of people spreading the virus without any reliable way of finding them.

The state fumbled its sophisticated tools – so now it’s reaching for the blunt one instead. At this point it should be obvious that every lockdown follows a policy failure. There is no pro-lockdown contingent, only people who warned that another lockdown would be necessary if the government bungled every other better option. That has come to pass. Lockdown was never a goal, it’s just another punishment we endure for being governed poorly.

The idea that we can avoid lockdown at the last minute is obviously attractive. And it becomes even more so when the alternative is presented as a never-ending string of future lockdowns, promoted for some unfathomable reason by uncaring scientists. But that was never their intention. We may not be able to avoid this lockdown by taking a sudden leap into unproven theories of shielding or herd immunity (the problems with these approaches have already been addressed at length), but there are proven ways to prevent the next one. How to hold the government to delivering them should be what we’re talking about.

• Stephen Buranyi is a writer specialising in science and the environment

The Guardian

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