To Move the Lockdown Debate Forward We Need More Honesty

21 January 2021  /  Updated 7 March 2021

by Nigel Alphonso

On January 16th, an article appeared in the online magazine Quillette by Christopher Snowdon from the IEA, a right of centre think tank. The article purported to demolish the claims of a particular variant of ‘lockdown sceptics’ and as a result has garnered widespread praise including from Toby Young who tweeted that it was a thoughtful piece which sceptics needed to address. I respectfully disagree. The article was disingenuous – not in respect of what it said but in respect of its omissions and its failure to frame the argument within a judicious lockdown/anti-lockdown framework. This is not intended as an attack on Mr Snowdon per se but the criticism I make touches on the wider failure of the libertarian, left of centre and conservative movements to counter the lockdown arguments and the failure of the lockdown sceptics’ movement to achieve any penetration with the wider public. This essay is not primarily about the merits of lockdown or the technicalities of the data but about the intellectual honesty of some of the main protagonists on both sides of the argument.

First to the article itself entitled “Rise of the Coronavirus Cranks.” Mr Snowdon is at liberty to write whichever article he chooses. However, his article might more appropriately have been entitled “My problem with Ivor Cummins and Mike Yeadon” or “My problem with social media Covid deniers” as it seems the bulk of his article focused on a detailed rebuttal of claims made by these two individuals and by extension those he categorises as “Covid deniers”. While he states from the outset that he wishes to focus on “the most extreme variant of lockdown scepticism”, he proceeds to argue on the basis that this “extreme variant” as he puts it is paradoxically the dominant form of scepticism as exemplified by the twitter/social media world he inhabits. If that was not Mr Snowdon’s intention then I accept any inadvertent omission on his part. Unfortunately his article will have been seized upon by all lockdown advocates as being evidence of the general ‘crankiness’ and eccentricity of the lockdown sceptics’ cause. Nor sadly am I convinced that the subtle and nuanced conflating of multiple variants of lockdown-scepticism was entirely innocent – not just on the part of Mr Snowdon, but by multiple other commentators who have sought to attack lockdown sceptics.

Conveniently Snowdon (like Alistair Haimes – another manqué sceptic) positions himself as a “centrist” and spends the opening paragraph reinforcing his credentials in direct contradistinction to the lockdown “junkies” such as (in his estimation) Piers Morgan or the members of Independent Sage. Therein lies the issue with both the lockdown converts such as Snowdon as well as some lockdowns sceptics. Up until the early autumn, one could have been forgiven for thinking that Snowdon was an arch lockdown-sceptic. His myriad articles, podcasts, twitter pronouncements and attacks on the likes of Morgan, Sam Bowman et al, often in the most mocking and vitriolic terms, established him firmly in that camp. If he has changed his mind – so be it. I would fully respect that position as I do those who are clear and unambiguous supporters of lockdown. However, it is mistaken to think that a form of exalted centrism exists in this debate. On one side are those who believe that lockdowns save lives and that the moral imperative is to curtail liberty in the most draconian way in order to achieve that objective. On the other is the belief that lockdown itself is a grotesque invasion of individual liberty which does far greater harm than good and does not meet any public health test of efficacy.

Snowdon, despite his sceptical foundations, is it seems clearly in the former camp. He states explicitly that lockdown “will prevent tens of thousands of people dying this winter”. Leaving aside the veracity of this claim, Snowdon in that one sentence accepts the central argument of the lockdown advocates. The roll-out of the vaccine does not alter that argument although it acts as a useful pretext for those who have moved to the lockdown side. No amount of “centrist” plea bargaining can void the fact that Snowdon has switched sides. In that sense (and to the extent that he has supported two out of the three lockdowns) he is far closer to Piers Morgan than he is to any lockdown sceptic. Moreover, if one is in the lockdown camp, Snowdon’s frequent acerbic critiques against the mainstream media for constantly demanding more lockdowns, deeper lockdowns and sooner lockdowns seem misplaced and ill-judged. If one believes that lockdowns save lives then the logical critique of the UK Government must be that we failed to lockdown expeditiously, that when we locked down the rules were not stringent enough, that the messaging was unclear and that we emerged from it too quickly. Despite the increasing evidence (see the recent study by John Ioannidis et al of Stanford) of the futility of lockdowns in respect of pandemic control, one cannot doubt that if one believes in the central argument about saving lives and protecting the health service, then the mainstream media and academic critique of the government has an ineluctable logic.

There will however be no apology from Snowdon to Morgan, no public mea culpa for the simple reason that a form of cognitive dissonance, now pervasive among some classical liberals, ensures that Snowdon can still pose as the libertarian spear-wielding slayer of the nanny state while tacitly supporting some of the worst excesses of said nanny state that this country has ever endured. To be fair to Snowdon, he does not deny or deprecate the extreme privations of lockdown and never has. Indeed, he has hitherto been one of the most articulate chroniclers of the lockdown devastation. But it illustrates a wider point that when the nanny state reached the apotheosis of its evolution and literally decided to lock us up not for anything we had done but for things that we might do (i.e., infect and potentially kill another person – infinitesimally small a risk as that is) the defenders of freedom went missing – instead focusing their considerable intellectual heft on attacking the unholy trinity of “false positives”, “casedemics” and Covid denialism.

I make no judgement as to any of these three claims apart from the last which I completely reject. Snowdon expresses a cogent and compelling argument in opposition to them. Those who are qualified to interrogate the data (including Cummins and Yeadon) should continue to do so and where their arguments are questioned, they should respond with vigour (as Cummins has done here and Yeadon has done here). However, the idea that Snowdon’s ersatz public service efforts are necessary to counter the apparent creeping tide of Covid denialism is somewhat belied by the fact that the majority of the public not only support the current lockdown but would happily reconcile themselves to tougher restrictions. I doubt many people have heard of Cummins or Yeadon, whereas Hancock, Whitty, Sturgeon and a host of other public figures (not forgetting the irrepressible Professor Devi Sridhar) are never far from our orbit with their doom-laded prognostications. When the overwhelming public and media messaging has been rampantly pro-lockdown, one wonders where Snowdon acquired the idea that his community of social media statistical illiterates were gaining the ascendancy. Other than providing a useful alibi for the now pro-lockdown Snowdon, his article adds little to the debate. That is not a criticism of its substantive content which is detailed and apposite – merely a reflection on its wider relevance.

Why then has it been treated by some of the mainstream media commentariat with such reverence? I believe the answer lies in some of the weaknesses of lockdown scepticism which perhaps invite a withering putdown of the kind contained in Snowdon’s article. Too often the perfectly reasonable interrogation of data by experts opposed to lockdown can be misconstrued by the lockdown advocates and misused by the denialists. Whether it is through desperation as Snowdon suggests or a desire to be seen as data-driven and scientific, these niche strands of scepticism sometimes resonate unfavourably when juxtaposed with the rising daily count of Covid deaths and real scenes of acute pressure in some of our hospitals. As stated earlier, there is a compelling scientific and public health argument to be made against lockdowns and those pursuing this path should not be deterred by accusations of “second-wave” false predictions or the tired claims of Covid denialism nor feel the need to always resort to some of the more esoteric data minutiae. There are also the moral, ethical and legal arguments against lockdown as expounded powerfully and movingly by former Supreme Court judge Jonathan Sumption and MPs Graham Brady and Charles Walker. An emergency situation may have required an emergency response, but the abuse of health regulations to effectively create new and sustained powers of coercion is an area of scepticism that has been sparsely mined in the general legal and human rights community and received less attention in the lockdown-sceptic firmament – at least in comparison with the scientific debate.

Unlike some of our adversaries, we on the anti-lockdown side (and I use that phrase deliberately rather than ‘lockdown sceptic’) must be ruthlessly honest about our intentions. We do not believe that an alternative strategy to lockdown would have cost more lives but intellectual and moral honesty should force us to admit that even if that sad eventuality transpired, it would have been preferable to the current malaise. As we survey a devastated economy, a dislocated society, an unfair allocation of cost to the most disadvantaged and economically fragile, the erosion of human rights and the brutal imposition of state controls with scant democratic accountability – we ask ourselves: “Is this what our country has become? Is this who we are?”

Christopher Snowdon is right to say that there are no easy answers. Outside the polarised world of Twitter, I am sure most people appreciate this. However, only by both sides engaging in civil discourse based on our true rather than confected motives and intentions can we begin to have the debate which will lead us out of this quagmire.

Nigel Alphonso is a business consultant.