Letter from a Liberal Sceptic

23 August 2020
George Orwell: Patron saint of left-wing sceptics

Thank you for publishing “The Left Wing Case Against Lockdown” by Alexis Fitzgerald. I am a Guardian-reading, remain-voting, Liberal Democrat who tactically voted Labour in the last election and I am very much in support of the information you are disseminating on Lockdown Sceptics. COVID-19 was politicised early on, as happens with every news item once it reaches social media, and sadly identity politics and fear have turned the narrative into a tragic reimagining of The Emperor’s New Clothes

Let me preface this by saying that I’ve never been one for conspiracy theories: There was a moon landing. The earth is round. My child is vaccinated. I know there is a virus, unrelated to 5G, whose effects can be severe with tragic consequences. However, I have been sceptical about the official risk assessments since the news footage from Wuhan emerged at the start of the year. And when a global reaction is so over-archingly bewildering that it has “someone like me” thinking there is more to this than meets the eye, something is wrong. I’ve stopped short (just) of believing that China engineered the entire thing to destroy the US economy and take down Trump. I did read the article in The Asia Times that linked to last October’s “Event 201” and find it rather odd this ‘event’ isn’t talked about more in the media. If you watch the video it looks oddly as though some ‘thought leaders’ and TED talk types who had been simulating virus response strategies (perhaps with good enough reason), just couldn’t wait to roll out their global virus-suppression protocol. When Covid came along (Coincidence? We may never know) governments went ahead on the advice of the WHO as if this were ‘the big one’. After Wuhan locked down with a strategy that was fairly alarming even by Chinese standards, our not-so-fearless leaders followed suit around the globe as though it were a game of Simple Simon. 

This is not the big one. I say that as a pretty risk-averse person. My young son calls me “over-safety woman”. But as a cautious individual, I also question advice. Education is important in my family. My grandfather was a doctor and a teacher at the ‘Ivy League’ Cornell University medical school, my uncle is a doctor, and two of my cousins have PhDs. I’m half-way through a health-related science PhD myself  (I have a long way to go as a researcher, but am trying hard and learning lots). I’m actually only saying that to keep you reading, as personal perspectives and anecdotal evidence sometimes get unfairly dismissed in the current data-obsessed climate. You’ll notice I’ve included no data or stats here. This crisis is about narratives as well as numbers. I’m just a layman (let’s be gender fluid) like many others currently scratching their heads or shouting at the telly in exasperation. All it took was a calculator (the back of an envelope would have done) to divide the number of cases, hospitalisations, or deaths by the population of the UK to realise that the chances of getting or dying from Covid never came close to justifying a full “lockdown” and all the attendant ramifications that you have documented so well on your site. The only positive digits in my calculation were on the right of the decimal point, preceded by a fair number of zeros. It doesn’t take a PhD to work this out.

Rarely, if ever, have I seen these numbers expressed as, say, a pie chart on the news. Perhaps this pie slice would have been too infinitesimal for the naked eye, tiny sliver as it would have been. Yet, conversely, it would have made it so easy for people like me to see the real (low) risk.  I realise mine is a crude method of calculation. Here’s something else crude: daily deaths reported as numbers. This seems a deliberate act of emotional manipulation. Say to somebody “157 deaths today” and  they probably picture a room of 157 people – a crowd, perhaps representing their year group at school, everyone who came to their wedding, or all of their friends. Express that as a percentage of the population, or visually as a shaded portion of a larger area, and the perception changes. 

With regard to the elderly and vulnerable – of course they should be protected, as well as they reasonably can be. But I know my 86-year-old mother, with her many underlying health conditions, would be appalled if any of her children’s medical care or jobs, or her grandchildren’s mental health or education were thrown under a bus on her behalf. Still, nobody asked her. In fact, I’m over 50 myself, and nobody asked me.  

I acknowledge that behind every death statistic there is a story, and many of these have been heart-breaking. Of course. I am human. This is why I can also see that there is a story behind every person affected by the lockdown measures. So far, I’m one of the lucky ones. The worst that’s happened to my family is that my son’s school play was cancelled a week before they were due to perform it, his grade 2 drum exam result was partly decided by an algorithm (presumably no consultation with Stewart Copeland or anybody about this) and yoga classes have become a multi-media technical undertaking worthy of NASA, with restrictions, literally, on the way you are allowed to breathe. Still, I can live with all that. In some ways, the lockdown was kind to me. More sleep, less traffic and free money. Thanks, guys! Others will not have been this fortunate. Some people have already lost relationships, business and homes, and even loved ones to suicide. 

That the government and SAGE have so gravely miscalculated their response to this virus is a both tragedy and a scandal, a misuse of power and a spectacular failure of ethics. Not only does the response make no sense in relation to the number of deaths over various age groups, but there has been an almost callous disrespect of life quality and the life-altering negative experiences of those affected by the measures taken. How many people who made these decisions for us, in the cabinet or from SAGE, are going to be closing the doors of long-standing and much-loved businesses, spending hours on hold trying to reach Universal Credit or face being evicted from their rented flats with nowhere to go? None.

Finally, the fallout from the lockdown caused by policy-makers’ apparent disregard for a little thing called “human behaviour” has been so painfully easy to foresee that my eyes hurt. I’m quite sure I’m not alone in having predicted every controversy that unfolded, from the rise in domestic abuse cases, to the reluctance of some parents to send their kids back to school, to the exams shambles. 

What did we expect? The prime minister is an upper class cad who might be a bit of fun at a dinner party (if people still had them), the cabinet are like a bunch of school prefects stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time (although you probably can’t be in the wrong place in a school any more) and Cummings just seems to me a massive poseur, a posh boy in disguise who’s neither as clever nor as weird as he thinks he is, who should high-tail it off to Silicon Valley where he belongs (assuming he passes the temperature check at the airport).

I know the situation could change. The virus could mutate. I could be wrong. This is a fact that I – unlike some of those currently in decision-making positions – am prepared to admit. As things stand, I think that we’ve got the balance wrong. Very wrong. It’s borderline lunacy across the world, and I’m staggered. It’s as if “Health and Safety Gone Mad” is now in bed with “Political Correctness Gone Mad” to create a monster that is everyone’s worst nightmare.  

This isn’t hindsight, either. I was all for shielding high-risk groups, testing, PPE, increasing hygiene measures and avoiding congestion with sensible crowd control. But fines just for being “outdoors”? Are we really comfortable with this? Total closure of schools for months? Delays to cancer screening? Cancer screening?  Really??  What, in the name of public health, were they thinking? It was always abundantly clear that by shutting everything down, or forcing businesses and people out of existence with impracticable restrictions, that we were robbing Peter to pay Paul. Few have had the balls to say anything. The BBC website has about the same level of analysis as my son’s children’s magazine “The Week Junior.” I’m tired of reading that the problems we now face are “caused by the pandemic”. The pandemic didn’t cause any of this. The response to it did. But eventually, if the virus doesn’t get worse – I’m open to the fact that it could – I  think the tide will turn and a blame game to rival the 2021 Olympics will begin. And when the next virus comes our way (and there will be one – unless we better address deforestation and China’s wild animal trade surely  “Covid 21” is a distinct possibility) I hope things will be done differently. 

A few months ago, I would have tried to express some of this on Twitter, but I could soon see that the debate had divided, bizarrely and for no apparent reason, along the lines of Brexit. It made me feel as though I’d gone to bed on March 19th as a bleeding heart lefty liberal and woken up on the 20th as a rabid right wing libertarian. I don’t understand why people can’t see that caring about the economy is caring about poverty. Concern about civil liberties is central to fighting oppression. Awareness about mental health is as important as statistical analysis of physical health. Come on, my liberal friends. This is as woke as you can get. Wake up. And stay woke! 

My husband yesterday mentioned that he’d recently made reference to The Emperor’s New Clothes to a much younger co-worker.  Despite being a bright guy from a highly selective school, the young man had never heard of it. Walking with my son today in the woods,  we went over the story together. I want to make sure he knows it.

Thanks for sticking your neck out by publishing your blog.  

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