Britain has reached a Covid crossroads – and its leaders are being pressed to pick one of two stark options. Are they going to return to the lockdown days that brought life to a standstill six months ago, but succeeded in halting the rapid spread of the disease? Or are they going to turn their backs on “an authoritarian nightmare” that is preventing the nation from getting on with “the business of living”?
This is the basic division that has emerged over the summer in an increasingly heated debate between two unlikely groupings of scientists, columnists, campaigners and politicians.
On one side there are the lockdowners. They think the only hope of triumphing over Covid-19 is shutdowns to bring numbers of cases back under control. Pubs and restaurants may have to close and households once again may be told not to mix.
On the other are the libertarians. They say we cannot return to those days because it would trigger an economic collapse and allow thousands of untreated cases of cancer, heart ailments and other diseases to mount. Tens of thousands might die, they say.
Each side points to different nations that have had greater success than Britain in fighting Covid-19, albeit with very different policies. Each has attracted its own set of cheerleaders, politicians and journalists, as well as scientists who have also adopted strong contrasting stances. Here we take a look at the different camps and highlight those who have been their most vocal advocates.
Backbench Tory MPs have been the most vociferous. Desmond Swayne has accused Boris Johnson of an “over-reaction to the disease that has done much more lasting economic damage, and, counterintuitively, even more damage to our health than the disease itself”. Swayne is backed by Graham Brady, chair of the Tory 1922 committee, who last week tabled an amendment to the Coronavirus Act, aimed at limiting Johnson’s powers to impose future restrictions. It is thought likely to succeed.
Cancer expert Karol Sikora has insisted a new national lockdown would be a disaster. An extra 30,000 cancer deaths will soon emerge thanks to delays in doctors picking up symptoms and in patients being referred for scans and tests, he says. Worse could follow if we have a further lockdown. Sikora has been backed by Sunetra Gupta and Carl Heneghan at Oxford, who have also urged the UK not to impose tougher restrictions in order to counter the rising number of other illnesses we are now witnessing.
The conservative Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Sun have been consistent in recent weeks, with writers such as Allison Pearson, Julia Hartley-Brewer, Steven Glover, Fraser Nelson and Sarah Vine making vociferous attacks on moves to bring back restrictions. On Wednesday, the Mail asked: “Does the PM really want Britain to oscillate interminably in and out of lockdown to try to avoid even a single casualty? Or do we accept the contagion in our midst, protect the vulnerable and get on with the business of living?” On the same day, the Telegraph urged that “this rule by decree should end forthwith”.
The poster nation for libertarians is Sweden, where bars and restaurants have been allowed to stay open throughout the pandemic, schools have carried on and gatherings of up to 50 people have been permitted – and yet its infection rates have remained low over August and September. The death rate in the Scandinavian country now hovers close to zero.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has earned respect for her consistent hardline policy and promises to reimpose restrictions, while London mayor Sadiq Khan is now insisting that household visits should be banned for London’s 9 million residents. Among the Conservatives, MP Tim Loughton has urged Johnson to have more “level with you” moments to ensure people are given the proper information to counter the claims of “so-called independent experts and professors of denial”.
John Edmunds at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) has compared the current spread of the disease to a lorry speeding down a hill. “At present the lorry’s just at walking pace but it’s starting to pick up speed. We can either hit the brakes hard now and bring it back down to less than walking pace, or leave it to gather speed. Then the same little touch of the brakes will have far less effect.” Graham Medley, also at LSHTM, warns Britain’s daily coronavirus death toll will rise from 34 to 100 a day in three to four weeks unless measures are taken now.
Lockdowners point to the example of New Zealand, which has had only 1,831 cases, and 25 Covid-linked deaths
The Guardian, New Statesman and British Medical Journal have all strongly backed firmer restrictions. In the Guardian, Polly Toynbee dismissed the prime minister’s latest announcement of new lockdown rules as “feeble”, while an editorial in the Observer’s sister paper last week urged that “stringent measures ought to come into force across the country, alongside a clear strategy to rebuild the test and trace system. Boris Johnson needs to move decisively to contain the risk.”
For their part, Lockdowners point to the example of New Zealand, which has had only 1,831 cases and 25 deaths linked to Covid-19 after it imposed strict controls, closed its borders to foreign travellers and required its citizens returning from abroad to go into quarantine for 14 days. Case numbers remain extremely low.