But What Would a Sceptic Have Done?

6 January 2021  /  Updated 7 March 2021

by Freddie Attenborough

Now that we’ve entered into another lockdown, and all we’ve got to look forward to is baking banana bread and crying, I thought it might help to keep the phone lines at The Samaritans free for those most in need if I forced myself to engage with the following question: What would we sceptics have done differently? As we’re all too grimly aware, of course, lockdown zealots have spent the past year detaching themselves from reality, and now ride ghost-trains nervously around funfairs that they’ve built in their own minds. Scrutinising what, for want of a better word, we must describe as the ‘logic’ of the plan they’ve devised for the rest of us, however, we find ourselves unimpressed. Angry, even. Enforced participation in a socially destructive, deeply dispiriting negative feedback loop consisting of brief stop-offs at eight endlessly recurring and all equally dismal staging posts is, after all, not everyone’s cup of tea. But there it is. That’s state power for you. The whip is cracked, the organ plays, and Lo! Our hamster wheels just keep on turning. Curtailment of civil liberties, anxiety, depression, white elephants masquerading as ‘Nightingales,’ insolvent businesses, undiagnosed tumours, rising unemployment… and so it goes, day after day. Sifting through the rubble of our national self-respect, cataloguing artefact after broken artefact, and wishing all the while that we could forget the roles we’ve been forced to play within this unreal, nightmare-like mode of existence. If nothing else, the following schematic representation of the circuitous route we’re taking around and around the disaster zone does at least have the merit of reminding us that any relics of the Old World you forget to mourn during one lockdown (livelihoods, businesses, free speech, talkRADIO’s YouTube channel, and so on), can always be picked up and honoured with a few tears the next time around. So here’s how our dystopian merry go round works.

  1. Society is locked down on the basis of a crypto-religious faith in an as yet decidedly shaky looking vaccine while, in the meantime, the government does little, if anything, to build society’s resilience to coronavirus infection.
  2. Unsurprisingly, now that everyone’s living under virtual house arrest, a slight fall in cases is identified.
  3. Lockdown is then lifted ever so slightly, and Boris Johnson is immediately wheeled out of storage to conjure some wonderful hostages to fortune during speeches or press conferences in which he throws around words and phrases like ‘World-beating,’ ‘Victory is ours,’ ‘Sunlit uplands,’ ‘Rejoice, rejoice,’ and ‘Advance, Britannia!’.
  4. Unsurprisingly, now that people aren’t living under house arrest, a slight rise in cases is identified.
  5. Enter SAGE, stage-left, ready and eager to purge Boris’s soul with pity and terror.
  6. Boris is then wheeled out to face the cameras again, only now in possession of phrases like ‘So very sorry for your imminent losses,’ ‘Dark times ahead,’ ‘Go back to your constituencies and prepare for death,’ ‘May you rest in the arms of the Lord,’ ‘Run into the light,’ and so on.
  7. Society is quickly locked down again on the basis of a crypto-religious faith in an as yet decidedly shaky looking vaccine while, in the meantime, the Government does little, if anything, to build society’s resilience to coronavirus infection.
  8. The cycle is repeated from Step 2, above, ad infinitum.

This much we know. But what is – or, sadly, would have been – our plan?

I ask because the figure of ‘the sceptic’ as an articulate, well-read, statistically astute critic of lockdown is one we are familiar with. But what of the sceptic as a hard-headed, tough-talking and pragmatic policymaker? S/he remains something of an enigma.

It is for that reason that, in the discussion that follows, I present 12 possible theses on how society could have responded to COVID-19. The key words here are ‘possible,’ and ‘could.’ Why? Because it’s not for me to say whether the levels of biomedical, virological and governmental alarm surrounding COVID-19 are ‘really’ out of proportion to the medical risk posed. The scientific and medical facts are not yet fully known and, in any case, even once firmly established will remain largely inaccessible to a layperson such as myself. But what you, me, all of us should be doing, however, is participating in an ongoing debate about how society should, might, could respond to COVID-19. We should be able to argue amongst one another and, in so doing, learn more about what we really think represents ‘the best way forward’. Debating. Having our say. Acting as citizens. There’s not enough of this about anymore, but it’s the type of thing that used to matter quite a lot. So it’s in that spirit – the spirit of the Old World – that I present my possible suggestions. Pull them apart. Create your own. Find out where I live and shout obscenities at me in the small hours of the night through a megaphone you’ve pushed through the tent flap. Whatever you want. It’s all the same to me. I’m just here like Toby, on behalf of the authorities, collecting information on high-risk, homegrown anti-lockdown extremists. Besides, this exercise is about as much fun as any of us will get until mid-February 2021 (or, realistically, well beyond that date, given that by then they’ll have had more than enough time to discover another mutant strain).

For me, then, an initial four-week lockdown during March 2020 would have given the Government time to set in motion the following processes and actions.

  1. Private sector actuarial and insurance company risk modelling teams to have been brought in to audit and, as appropriate, supersede/correct the rather remarkable (some might prefer the term ‘implausible’) pandemic modelling data that was, at the time, being spewed out by Imperial College London.
  2. NHS capacity to have been freed up not by dumping elderly NHS inpatients back into care-homes, but rather, by temporarily deploying Army Field Hospitals (like, for example, 22 Field Hospital), all of which are capable of providing an NHS standard of healthcare anywhere in the world at very short notice. In the medium term, proposals 2 and 5 (below) would have kicked in and thus relieved any build-up of pressure in the system. Let’s remember why I’m making this suggestion: the Government’s disastrous decision to send elderly inpatients back into care homes during March and April 2020 without first putting in place an adequate testing system, ended up seeding countless infections within the social, residential and adult care sectors and, by implication, causing much needless death ‘from’ Covid. The aim here, then, would have been to contain nosocomial outbreaks as precisely that: nosocomial outbreaks.
  3. What about identifying strategically significant NHS hospitals via demand and capacity modelling, and, as appropriate, reconfiguring large areas of those hospitals as temporary European style infectious disease hospitals (in old money, effectively ‘plague hospitals’). This surely would have taken some pressure away from non-Covid hospitals and, at the same time, minimised the spread of nosocomial infection amongst non-Covid inpatients and their families.
  4. A reconstituted SAGE committee that could have better reflected the diversity of scientific, biomedical, epidemiological and public health opinion on and around the question of how best to respond to COVID-19. The Government seems to like diversity when it comes to nice warm, cuddly things like identity. Perhaps both they and SAGE should have given it a go in matters pertaining to cognition.
  5. Unproductive, wasteful expenditure on furloughing the UK workforce and scrambling together the (as yet largely underused) Nightingales wouldn’t have been necessary if the country had been able to remain open for (socially distanced) business. The generation of additional temporary and/or quasi-permanent capacity within the NHS’s workforce and infrastructure might have made this possible. So what about releasing huge central funding grants to extend, say, twelve existing university medical schools, and, in addition, develop three new university medical schools in the UK. Each site would have been designed to include capacity for 80-150ish beds that would have been split up into three-six separate wards. Crucially, these facilities would also have included ICU/CCU facilities. Existing medical schools would have opened these new facilities during September 2020, while new medical schools would have fast tracked their facilities for use during winter 2020, before opening their doors to new undergraduates during September 2021. Given the amount of money we’ve now spent on a furlough scheme that does nothing but perpetuate dependence on a state which is slowly destroying its own taxable assets, this investment in infrastructure might well have represented money well spent. If China can build hospitals in less than a week, then why not the UK across a nine-month period? I doubt very much that the contractors involved in such a critical national project would have done anything other than bust themselves to get it done on time and on budget (a la those builders who contribute to the BBC’s DIY SOS programme). Besides, if we’re in the type of ‘national emergency’ that our leaders say we are, then isn’t it essential to think big? The point of them being attached to universities, of course, would have been that, unlike our tinpot Nightingale efforts, they’d have had a post-pandemic purpose in terms of research and teaching. Meanwhile, the rest of us could have got back to work and life whilst maintaining Swedish style social distancing.
  6. What about fast tracking fourth year medical students through their final year of studies during the Summer of 2020? Accommodation fees could have been waived, tuition fees halved, and staff could have been given pay and promotion incentives to run ‘fat and short’ modules to completion (and graduation) by September 2020. That would have meant that during academic year 2020-2021, not only would two new cohorts of medical staff have been taking up their first hospital posts but teaching staff would also have been freed from final year teaching to spend more time on the wards. Perhaps similar schemes could also have been rolled-out for Nursing, Biomedical and Microbiological degrees.
  7. If we could have kept largely ‘open for business,’ then some of our unproductive, wasteful expenditure on furloughing the workforce and hashing together the (as yet largely underused) Nightingales could also have been redirected towards ‘firewalling’ the homes of those with pre-existing health conditions that made them acutely vulnerable to coronavirus (e.g. community support, employers given grants to enable remote working, free deliveries of essential items and digitally lockable storage boxes fitted either in front gardens or secured to on-street front-walls, etc., etc.). This too would have meant the rest of us could have got back to work and life sooner, building towards that level of herd immunity that would have protected these people just as effectively as a vaccine.
  8. Individual tax cuts for the 2020-2021 financial year to boost investment and consumer spending and designed specifically to keep pubs, retail, cultural and creative and catering industries (etc., etc.) above water. What about the 40% top rate reduced to 35%, and the 20% basic rate reduced to 12.5%? The subsequent fall in tax receipts would still have represented but the tiniest drop in the ocean of what the Exchequer has now thrown into the bottomless, completely unproductive, pit that we know as ‘lockdown’.
  9. The tax allowance raised for the poorest during 2020-2021 from £12,500 to, say, £16,000 (but only in situations where, say, an individual earns less than the UK national average of approximately 26k a year. Note that suggestions 8 and 9 are progressive tax changes.
  10. Corporation tax abolished for the 2020-2021 financial year but only for firms with gross revenue under the VAT limit of £85,000 (i.e. smaller companies). This tax-credit would have been reclaimable in situations where company accounts showed proof that an equivalent amount had been spent on investment in staff, creation of jobs, training and plant and machinery.
  11. How about a Parliamentary Enquiry into the Government’s handling of the response that was ongoing and had no fixed terms of reference, so as to reflect the extraordinary nature of what’s happened/happening (and to pick up and query some of SAGE’s more hyperbolic statements and claims). Members to be selected by the Prime Minister (that is, Boris, not Carrie – we wouldn’t have wanted it to become an eco-environmental extravaganza) and the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer.
  12. Finally, instead of a Parliament that hid itself away on Microsoft Teams from day one, what about a Parliament that led from the front, set an example for the rest of us, allayed fears, poured scorn on conspiracy theories, calmed moral panics, and, simultaneously, ‘Sp[o]ke for England, Arthur,’ as in days of yore? Strange as it may seem to us the People of Lockdown, but apparently, back then, not every MP sent out generic responses to constituents’ letters or strutted around morning TV studios crying crocodile tears and streaking their pretty little made-up pantomime faces, before then eventually swanning off to take-up extraordinarily well remunerated one day a week non-executive directorships in the healthcare sector after their stints as ‘public servants’ had come to an end.