‘You cannot put people out of a job on a hunch,” a Glasgow restaurant owner said of Nicola Sturgeon’s new drinking restrictions in Scotland, which have forbidden the sale of alcohol in licensed premises and closed pubs and restaurants across the country’s central belt for 16 days. “I genuinely do not understand it – and we’re not being told why.”
The evidence given by Sturgeon to her parliament was that more than one-fifth of people contacted via test and trace said they had recently been in a “hospitality setting”. But others have been in shops, hostels, schools, or at home with friends. Cities have been flooded with hundreds of students. The restaurant owner was collateral damage to a philosophical concept: the precautionary principle.
During the early days of the pandemic we were all empiricists. We listened to the evidence of scientists. Each night I followed the death rate, the excess death rate, the foreign death rate. I noted the virus as it peaked in April, turning down whether of its own accord or through government policy no one seemed to know. It abated in May and lockdown eased over the summer. It has now picked up again and is clearly rising, but again no one says why. Governments proclaim the cure without knowing its effect on the cause.
Debates over the virus during the summer took a different path as politics began to displace science. A falling death rate lost news value and was replaced by a rising “cases” rate. We seemed to lose interest in the illness, instead mesmerised by testing and tracing, largely because in Britain these systems were a fiasco. Fear of the future supplanted our present reality. Boris Johnson veered between bloodcurdling alarmism and boasting of Britain’s status as a “world beater”. Labour’s Keir Starmer exulted in declaring this rubbish.
The conversation turned from how to handle the disease to something less tangible: how to predict and hopefully prevent its return. But what did the past six months’ experience tell us? We still lacked the tools to answer questions about places such as Bolton, where weeks of lockdown has seen “cases” increase tenfold. We could not dismiss a rise in hospitalisations and deaths. But how to apply the precautionary principle when such massive costs were at stake?
At that point I think I joined many lockdown sceptics in floundering. I treated scientists much as the Greeks treated the oracle at Delphi – according to taste. Imperial College London continued to champion lockdown. Its Office for National Statistics-based React study even backed the rule of six. Professors Carl Heneghan and David Spiegelhalter were more sanguine about “sitting it out”, with Heneghan pointing out that as Covid patients rose, other “unplanned daily admissions” eerily fell by far more. Epidemiologists rallied by Oxford’s Sunetra Gupta and others from Harvard and Stanford called for policy to be medicalised, to focus on minimising “mortality and social harm until we reach herd immunity”.
Most people at this point retreat into faith or ideology. The left sees coronavirus as proving the need for a strong state, with governments ready to loosen purse strings and clamp down on infection. The right, in contrast, is dismayed at the government wielding such power to impose its own risk assessments on others, reordering their private lives and relieving them of personal responsibility.
No subject is so neglected in schools and colleges as philosophy. It alone can show us a methodology, an empirical tool to find a way through this mess. The teaching of Locke and Hume presents empiricism as not an ideology but a constructive technique. Politics is being asked daily to measure tradeoffs, between the lives we think we can save by lockdown against the lives we may wreck by it. Lives are not money, but they create and cost money. Our early lockdown might have saved thousands of lives, but this doesn’t include the number of people who have died from untreated cancers as a result of delays to screenings and diagnoses.
I hate enslavement to the gods of measurement, but we cannot deny their role in evidence-based policy. When politicians are dicing with people’s lives they must have reasons for doing so – relevant, empirical reasons, not public popularity or risk aversion. Philanthropists such as Bill Gates and ethicists such as Oxford’s professor William MacAskill have tussled with the metrics of “doing good better”. The debate about how to rate “quality-adjusted life years” – in order to best allocate money to charity or welfare – may seem callous in measuring one human life against another. But how else to choose? When we lose contact with evidence and just waffle and bark, as do Johnson and Sturgeon, we have given in to the politics of fear and favour that now dominate this crisis.
Perhaps the present surge is just a blip and perhaps not. Someone must decide. We simply don’t know what might have been the impact of this disease had it been left to a well-supported, properly resourced health and care system to handle. We know for certain the actual response has caused more social and economic damage than any similar crisis in modern times.
When the pandemic was at its peak, a drastic policy was at least explicable. Policy now is conjectural, adrift in a world of perhaps, might and maybe, of risk avoidance and precaution. That world is devastating for millions of people, young and old. Those in power must explain the reasoning on which they build their decisions. They must declare their philosophy.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist