Boris Johnson had one job in his first speech since recovering from his bout with coronavirus. Unsurprisingly he failed completely.
The one job he had was to give the British public a clear indication of when the interminable lockdown he has inflicted on them was going to end. Or, failing that, at least to give some cogent justification as to why the lockdown needs to continue.
He did neither. Instead, he did what he always does — flannel, caper, procrastinate.
Boris is good at capering. It’s why people like him: because he doesn’t take himself too seriously and is never short of a colourful, jaunty phrase.
Here he is, for example, treating us to the japesome notion that coronavirus is like a mugger:
If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger, which I can tell you from personal experience it is, then this is the moment when we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor.
Entertaining but characteristically dishonest. Coronavirus is nothing at all like some criminal who can be wrestled to the ground, arrested and put away in prison for the public good. The idea that the British government or any other government is capable of achieving such a thing flies in the face of every epidemic in history.
Viruses come and go but they never wholly disappear: they’re something that successive populations have to learn to live with. Pretending otherwise with an amusing metaphor gives a misleading impression of how the current crisis is going to be resolved. (Clue: not by wrestling the virus to the floor).
But the dodgiest bit of his dodgy, slippery, mendacious speech was this:
So when we’re sure that this first phase is over, and that we’re meeting our five tests — deaths falling, NHS protected, rate of infection down, really sorting out the challenges of testing and PPE, avoiding a second peak — then that will be the time to move on to the second phase in which we continue to suppress the disease and keep the reproduction down.
Eh? What?? This is a rhetorical cheat known as a Gish Gallop — a sort of upmarket snake oil salesman’s patter — where the speaker bombards his audience with so many ideas in quick succession that they simply have no time to see they are being taken for a ride.
But wait. Those ‘five tests’ are not laws from heaven, engraved on stone tablets, from which any sane government diverges at its peril.
They were invented on the hoof by a desperate, floundering, headless chicken Cabinet as a post hoc rationalisation for their inability to decide when to end the lockdown.
Originally, the sole rationale for the lockdown was to “flatten the curve” — “squash the sombrero” as Boris would insist on phrasing it — in order to ensure that “our NHS” wasn’t overwhelmed with desperately sick Covid-19 patients it was unable to treat.
As it transpired — full marks for journalist Peter Hitchens for predicting this when few others did — the NHS never did get overwhelmed.
So now what we have is a clear case of mission creep. Its stated objective having been achieved (quite possibly more by accident than design), Boris Johnson’s useless government now has to find some new excuse to give a veneer of credibility to its craven reluctance to end the lockdown.
Hence that “avoiding a second peak” justification.
OK. But where — as Toby Young asks at Lockdown Sceptics — is the evidence that phasing out the lockdown and keeping more modest social distancing measures in place would lead to this second wave?
As Lyman Stone points out in an excellent essay in Public Discourse, the burden of proof isn’t on lockdown sceptics to show that they don’t work. Rather, the burden of proof is on the lockdown advocates to prove that they do. “If you’re going to essentially cancel the civil liberties of the entire population for a few weeks, you should probably have evidence that the strategy will work,” he writes. “And there, lockdown advocates fail miserably, because they simply don’t have evidence.”
Stone is an economist specialising in population and demography and he looks at the effect of the lockdowns in Spain, Italy and France and compares them with the mitigation strategies pursued in Sweden and Holland. His conclusion? Lockdowns have made no difference when it comes to reducing COVID-19 deaths. To check this, he crunches the data from the US, comparing Covid mortality rates in those states that have locked down with those that haven’t and finds that for every two weeks a “stay-at-home” order is in place the death rate actually increases by one person per 100,000.
That is to say, lockdowns actually have a negative effect on Covid mortality. “We don’t need to have a national debate about whether the economic costs of lockdowns outweigh their public health benefits, because lockdowns do not provide public health benefits,” he concludes.
Even more compelling, if it is correct, is the study by Israeli scientist Isaac Ben-Israel which suggests that coronavirus has a natural trajectory regardless of what measures are taken to stop it.
It turns out that a similar pattern – rapid increase in infections that reaches a peak in the sixth week and declines from the eighth week – is common to all countries in which the disease was discovered, regardless of their response policies: some imposed a severe and immediate lockdown that included not only “social distancing” and banning crowding, but also
shutout of economy (like Israel); some “ignored” the infection and continued almost a normal life (such as Taiwan, Korea or Sweden), and some initially adopted a lenient policy but soon reversed to a complete lockdown (such as Italy or the State of New York). Nonetheless, the data
shows similar time constants amongst all these countries in regard to the initial rapid growth and the decline of the disease.
In other words, Boris Johnson may claim — as one day he undoubtedly will — that the extended lockdown was what ‘saved’ Britain from the worst ravages of coronavirus. But the evidence from countries with more lax lockdown regimes — such as Sweden — may well show that he could have achieved much the same effect with far less damage to the economy.
Professor Ben-Israel could, of course, be wrong. But as Dan Hannan argues here, that possibility is insufficient a reason for Boris Johnson to plough ahead with his interminable lockdown.
He writes in the Sunday Telegraph:
It will not do to respond by saying: “Let’s keep the lockdown going a little longer, just to be sure”. The default position should be to retain our freedoms unless there is solid evidence that abandoning them will make a significant difference. In any case, at £2.4 billion a day, time is a luxury we don’t have.
In his speech, Boris makes all that right noises about how worried he is about the effects of his lockdown on the economy.
And I know how hard and how stressful it has been to give up, even temporarily, those ancient and basic freedoms — not seeing friends, not seeing loved ones, working from home, managing the kids, worrying about your job and your firm — so let me say directly also to British business. To the shopkeepers, to the entrepreneurs, to the hospitality sector. To everyone on whom our economy depends — I understand your impatience, I share your anxiety. And I know that without our private sector, without the drive and commitment of the wealth creators of this country, there will be no economy to speak of. There will be no cash to pay for our public services, no way of funding our NHS.
It’s about time this lame-duck Prime Minister put his money where his mouth is.