One by one, the lockdown myths are crumbling

Devi Sridhar
Rewriting history: Was Devi Sridhar calling for zero Covid or maximum suppression? - Simon Townsley
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You may remember from the depths of lockdown – although you’d be forgiven for trying to forget – the cavalcade of talking heads that would appear on our televisions, their movements seemingly unimpeded by legislation, to lecture us on the rectitude of being imprisoned in our homes. One such figure was Prof Devi Sridhar.

As chair of public health at Edinburgh University, Sridhar was the doyenne of zero Covid. She was all over the media, and apparently also enjoyed a chummy relationship with Nicola Sturgeon, whom she advised on Covid policy. At one point, they even seemed to cook up plans for an elimination strategy, presumably including border closures with England.

As many pointed out at the time, eliminating Covid was a doomed venture, as those nations that tried it found to their cost. Nowhere succeeded; cases spiked, even in countries capable of inflicting the most illiberal policies imaginable. In China, as late as spring 2022, when most other parts of the world had embraced normality, members of the public were being dragged into forced isolation in Portakabins. Simultaneously, the Hong Kong authorities undertook a mass-cull of pet hamsters amid fears that they might spread Covid-19 to humans.

Now, Sridhar appears to be trying to rewrite history. Conveniently, she has told the Covid Inquiry that she wasn’t really calling for zero Covid after all, merely a policy of “maximum suppression” until a vaccine arrived. And yet in June 2020 Sridhar wrote that “as an island, Great Britain is in a strong position to eliminate the virus”. “Eliminate” sounds pretty like a zero Covid approach to me. Like Sturgeon, she pushed the Scottish exceptionalism narrative, claiming in summer 2020 that Scotland could have sought “full elimination”, were it not for those Typhoid Marys in England.

Sridhar is the latest individual – from increasing numbers of academics to well, Piers Morgan – to begin to suggest that they didn’t mean things to go as far as they did. It’s irritating, but it’s a start. We are edging closer to the unspoken truth: that much of what happened during the Covid era was a mistake. One by one, the myths of lockdown are crumbling.

Consider some of the outworkings of those policies. When the vaccines arrived, rather than calmly making the (strong) case for people to have the jab, it was considered desirable instead to browbeat the public with grim emotional blackmail about “killing granny” and authoritarian policies, such as the vaccine passport. Now we may be paying the price.

The measles vaccine is tremendously effective against a highly infectious disease. Its introduction is believed to have prevented around 20 million cases and 4,500 deaths in the UK alone. The recent UK spate of measles outbreaks owes much to anti-vax disinformation, but also to lockdowns, which denied many children their routine vaccinations.

But heavy-handed attempts to impose jabs against Covid on the entire population when the virus largely affects the over-50s, may well have helped foment suspicion of vaccination in general. Indeed, many experts spoke at the time of the likely unintended consequences of overhyping the vaccine, but thanks to the authorities’ sledgehammer/nut approach to public health, such warnings were widely ignored.

Concern about the impact of lockdown on children was similarly ignored. Indeed, the idea that children would bounce back from compulsory confinement after being locked inside, denied socialisation and a proper education, has predictably proved a mirage. Overall rates of persistent absence remain stubbornly high; more than double what they were before a pandemic that conditioned many parents and pupils to feel as though attendance was optional. Lockdown may be yesterday’s story, but we are still living with its effects.

So too, the relaxed approach towards money-printing. It’s the elephant in the room in all discussions of the cost of living crisis. Blame is apportioned everywhere else, from the malign to the ridiculous: Putin to Liz Truss. Rarely, however, do politicians square with the public and admit that the mass printing of vast amounts of currency and more than a year of furlough just might have caused avoidable economic harm. And what of the idea that the NHS could safely focus only on Covid, neglecting other health measures in the process?

Even the myth of the all-conquering Covid leader – those who were supposedly more competent than their counterparts elsewhere – has taken a battering. For years, Nicola Sturgeon was either fêted in England, or treated as an impressive visiting dignitary, rather than facing the scrutiny focused on Westminster politicians.

Yet the Covid Inquiry is shattering these notions. Yesterday, former SNP finance minister Kate Forbes described an atmosphere of widespread secrecy; unminuted meetings no one knew about, and deleted WhatsApp messages – which, like those Hebridean ferries, will never see the light of day.

With hindsight, that stirring fantasy of Scotland’s vastly superior handling of the pandemic, with exemplarily low infection rates to match, demonstrated merely a Braveheart-level economy with the truth. Apart from a few exceptions, the pandemic has proved the graveyard of many leaders’ careers. As we will probably see today at the inquiry as Sturgeon takes the stand.

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