There are two possible answers. The less convincing is the one used to justify the first lockdown, namely flattening the curve. If hospital capacity is still our chief concern, we need to ask hard questions about SAGE and its strategy. How did it make sense to push the peak from the summer, when pressure on hospitals is lower, into the winter? In March, according to the minutes “Sage was unanimous that measures seeking to completely suppress the spread of Covid-19 will cause a second peak.” So why did it want the lockdown extended through May and June?
The potentially better answer is that ministers know more than we do about a credible inoculation programme. There are currently 11 vaccines in final-stage trials, of which six are already in limited non-trial use. If we are just a few weeks away from a vaccine roll-out, then buying time would indeed make sense. But it’s one hell of an “if”.
I don’t envy the people who face these decisions. Ministers have more information in front of them than have columnists, but it is still incomplete. And they must make choices in a political climate that stubbornly refuses to come to recognise the notion of the lesser evil. As things stand, all the government’s options are unappealing. If it declares a tough lockdown, bad things will happen, and if it declares a moderate lockdown bad things happen. Either way, commentators will point to those bad things as clear proof that ministers should have taken the other path.
Back in March, there was a sense of national purpose, and party politics was suspended. Since then, positions have hardened on both sides. Supporters of the lockdown, who originally defended it as an emergency measure to build capacity, have drifted into demanding that everything should stay shut until there is a vaccine. Opponents have moved from arguing that lockdowns are disproportionate to denying the evidence of rising cases, opposing mask-wearing as tyrannical or claiming that the whole thing is a plot got up by Big Pharma. As the French economist Frédéric Bastiat put it, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is not to be skilfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.”
In the circumstances, a proportionate response will satisfy almost no one. Still, we need to try. One way to mitigate a full lockdown is to limit the restrictions on the people at least risk. We might, for example, simply offer to pay benefits, equivalent to disability allowance or income support to any working-age adults who want to shield – either because they are vulnerable, or because they live with someone who is or, indeed, because they feel vulnerable even if they are not objectively in a high-risk category. Paid voluntary shielding would cost a fraction of what a second lockdown would cost.
Yes, it is an imperfect solution. So, in current circumstances, are all the others. But what is the alternative? To close everything down for months? For years? Surely we can do better.