England Underestimates the Costs of Lockdown at Its Peril

We need to think hard about whether the benefits outweigh the harm for young people and those struggling with mental health.

By Jonathan Sumption and cross-posted from The Guardian.

Suppose there is nothing that governments can do to stop the spread of Covid-19. What then? It is not a hypothetical question, as England is discovering. “We’ve got to be humble in the face of nature,” the prime minister observed in Saturday’s Downing Street press conference. But humility learns from experience, and there was no sign of that in the measures he then went on to announce.

In my opinion, the problem with lockdowns is that they are indiscriminate, ineffective in the long term, and carry social and economic costs that outweigh their likely benefits.

Lockdowns temporarily reduce infections and associated deaths. But they do so only by deferring them to the period after they are lifted. Members of the government’s Sage group pointed this out back in February. “Measures which are too effective,” they said, “merely push all transmission to the period after they are lifted, giving a delay but no substantial reduction in either peak incidence or overall attack rate.” In the meantime, these restrictionsprolong the crisis, slow down the process by which the population acquires a measure of natural immunity, and cause immeasurable collateral damage. This is what we are experiencing now.

Lockdowns are indiscriminate because they do not distinguish between different categories of people whose vulnerabilities are very different. Some are young, some old.Some have had the disease and enjoy a measure of immunity whileothers do not. Some live alone and are starved of company, others have their families around them. Some live in rural Cornwall, where the reproduction rate is low, others in Liverpool, where it is high.

Allowing people to make their own judgments, tailored to their own circumstances and those of the people around them, is not only a more humane and rational response to the pandemic. It also directs resources to where they are actually needed.Instead, ministerstreat the entire population as an undifferentiated mass. This one-size-fits-all approach is irrational.

The result is to inflict an appalling injustice on the young, who are unlikely to become seriously ill but are bearing almost all the burden of the counter-measures. The average age at which people die with Covid-19 is over 82. As of 3 November, the Office for National Statistics reports that 49,420 out of 55,311 deaths involving Covid-19 were among people aged 65 or older. The risk of death for young people is very small. They are not the ones who are filling NHS beds. Yet their job prospects are being snuffed out. The spectacle of bright engineering graduates and talented musicians forced into unemployment, or to take jobs in which their training will go to waste, is a savage indictment of current policies…

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