The Government is Gambling with People’s Lives

3 February 2021. Updated 8 February 2021.

By Ben Hawkins

Imagine you are walking across a bridge over a rail line. Suddenly you hear screams coming from under the bridge. You look down and see that four people are tied to the tracks. What’s worse, you look up and see what looks like a runaway train carriage hurtling towards them. The carriage doesn’t look that big – if you could push a large object over the bridge in front of the carriage, you figure that it would be enough to stop the carriage and save the four people tied to the line. Looking around for such an object, you see an incredibly fat man stood at the edge of the bridge. He looks big enough to stop the carriage. Do you push him, knowing that falling from such a height and being hit by the carriage will almost certainly kill him? Do you sacrifice one life, to save four others?

This is an example of a trolley problem, a hypothetical scenario designed by ethicists to examine how we should behave in different situations. The above example is tricky, because whilst we would usually agree that four lives are more important than one life, the positive act of killing someone goes against many of our moral intuitions. Most people, when asked what they would do in this scenario, say they wouldn’t push the fat man.

Such abstract scenarios may seem irrelevant to real life. We certainly never expect to find ourselves in situations like the one described above – we don’t live in a world where people are frequently tied to train tracks, or where runaway train carriages can be stopped by pushing fat men off bridges. But the point isn’t to understand how we would behave in this particular situation, but to understand how we should behave when analogous situations arise in real life. And, in fact, we have such a real life situation to which such considerations can be applied. Lockdown.

Friday saw the publication of the Government’s most recent estimate of the overall impact of the both COVID-19 and the lockdown – the cost/benefit analysis of the lockdown that lockdown sceptics have been calling for for months. The results are not pretty. The estimate predicts that 105,000 people will die of non-coronavirus related causes as a result of the lockdown. This includes a predicted 18,000 people who will die as a result of cancellations of routine operations, 46,000 people who will die as a result of the chaos in our hospitals and care homes, and an astonishing 40,000 people who will die as a result of the economic downturn that the lockdown will cause. And here, we’re only considering those who will die as a result of lockdown – we’re not even touching on those other serious negative effects that lockdowns cause, such as severe damage to children’s education, or the misery that lockdown has inflicted on so many who live alone, including those elderly people who have died this year, spending the final months of their lives feeling isolated and unwanted. But even if we just consider deaths, the scale of the damage predicted to be caused by lockdown is truly devastating.

Returning to the scenario presented above, there are certainly parallels to be drawn. The 105,000 people are like the fat man, pushed over the bridge to prevent the deaths of others. If, going by the Imperial College predictions at the start of the pandemic that Covid would kill 500,000 without lockdowns, and given 100,000 Covid deaths so far, the argument for lockdown is that killing roughly 100,000 people is justified in order to save 400,000 others. This in itself is questionable. As stated above, most people do not think it is justifiable to push the fat man off the bridge, even if it would save four other lives. Likewise, it’s not obvious that we should take action that kills 100,000 people to save 400,000 lives. But for argument’s sake, let’s assume that we do consider such action to be morally justified. Even in this case, the actual facts of the matter are not so clear cut.

The number of deaths that the Imperial College models predicted Covid would cause without a lockdown, 500,000, was an estimate. It was not a matter of fact, but a case of scientists trying to make an accurate prediction. But of course, at the time nobody knew whether it was right. Let’s consider how this applies to our trolley problem. Perhaps instead of hearing the screams of the people tied to the track, you hear a shout from a bystander standing under the bridge near the train line. The bystander shouts up at you, “I can see people tied to the track. I can only see one for certain, but I reckon there may be up to four people tied down there.” How does this change the situation? If pushing the fat man is only guaranteed to save one life, but may possibly save more, what would you do? It becomes much harder to argue that it’s okay to push the fat man off the bridge – it’s no longer a certainty that the action will save more lives than it kills. And hindsight has shown us that such predictions made in relation to Covid death tolls are by no means certainties. When applied to Sweden, comparable models to those developed by Imperial College predicted that by May 1, 40,000 people would die in Sweden without a lockdown. As it happened, by that date, fewer than 3,000 people had died of Covid, despite no lockdown being imposed.

We also have to look at whether the action taken will actually result in the intended consequences. What happens if we don’t know whether pushing the fat man off the bridge actually helps. It’s quite possible, that he may be pushed off the bridge, fail to stop the runaway carriage, and result in not just the deaths of the four people tied to the track, but the death of the fat man as well. It should be obvious that before we push the fat man off the bridge, we should be pretty well sure that doing so will stop the carriage. Perhaps you have a friend with you, who predicts that the man is large enough to stop the carriage, but again, isn’t entirely sure. Your friend readily admits that such action has never been used before to stop runaway trains, and so you cannot be certain that such a prediction is right. Would you push the fat man off the bridge, based on the prediction that it might stop the train hitting the four people? I’m sure for most of us the answer is “absolutely not”. How could you justify taking such an extreme course of action without actually knowing whether it will work.

But do we know that lockdowns actually have the effect that their proponents claim that they have? No, we do not. In fact, the American Institute for Economic Affairs has compiled a list of 29 scientific studies claiming to show lockdowns to be ineffective in reducing the Covid mortality rate. Whilst there may be other studies claiming that lockdowns do work, it is far from certain that they are in fact preventing deaths on the scale predicted.

So let’s go back to an updated version of the scenario. You are walking across a bridge, when a bystander shouts from below that he can see someone tied to the tracks, and thinks he can see more. You see a runaway carriage approaching, which you think might be stopped by a large object. You see a fat man next to the edge of the bridge. You have a friend next to you who says that if you push him, it might stop the carriage. However, you have no evidence to support this. Do you push the fat man off the bridge? The answer should be an obvious “no”. To do so would be to gamble with the fat man’s life. It would be to gamble on the bystander’s predictions being correct. It would be to gamble on your friend being right that pushing the fat man off the bridge will stop the carriage. It would be reckless, and the only thing that could be guaranteed would be the death of the fat man.

Our response to this scenario can inform how we respond to the analogous situation of the lockdown – multiply the example by 105,000 and you have the same situation that we are in now. The Government has chosen to gamble those 105,000 thousand lives, in the hope that that doing so will prevent an unknown number of deaths. It is gambling on predicted Covid deaths being accurate. It is gambling on the as yet unverified assertion that lockdowns work. It is gambling that the number of lives saved by its actions will be more than those killed. In fact, the number of lives being gambled could be even more than this. A study from Bristol University has suggested that lockdowns in the UK will result in the equivalent of 560,000 lives being lost. Gambling with people’s lives in this way should never have been allowed. Human lives aren’t chips on a table to be played with on the roulette wheel of politics. Each one of those 105,000 people is an infinitely valuable human being: a son or daughter, potentially a father or mother, brother or sister, a friend, a companion, a husband, a wife.

Friday’s release of the Government estimate should be a turning point in how we approach the pandemic. The report acknowledges the scale of the damage caused by lockdown, and it is gargantuan. If this is the information that the Government is working from, on a moral level, they simply cannot insist on continuing with the approach that they have been taking up until now. We cannot continue with a policy, a gamble, that is wreaking so much havoc. Far too much damage has already been done. We need to end lockdown now.

Ben is a trainee lawyer with an interest in the philosophy of Wittgenstein.

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