Baroness Hallett’s Covid Inquiry is turning into a comedy, if not a farce.
So far the inquiry has been dominated by Downing Street’s Punch and Judy style politicking rather than a forensic investigation into how and why the decision was reached to go for a hard lockdown.
These are the questions we want the answers to.
Yet the inquiry has failed to touch on whether the lockdown was necessary, let alone whether we locked down too hard. What’s more, why was the UK’s original pandemic plan – which did not include a lockdown – not followed?
Professor Sunetra Gupta, the Oxford epidemiologist who challenged the reasoning behind an iron curtain being placed around every home in the country from the beginning of the pandemic, has some of the answers. You will find them in her 12-page witness testimony to the inquiry, published last week via Collateral Global.
Gamble: Scientists were branded heretics for challenging the assumption that Covid lockdown was the only game in town
Gupta’s statement is not sugar-coated: ‘The blind adoption of lockdown and lack of debate as to how to respond to the uncertainties is a tragedy for which the whole of society is now paying a hefty price.’ It’s why she advised a strategy of ‘focused protection’ for the most vulnerable.
And the price was a hefty one. On top of the direct economic hit to the public finances, estimated by the House of Commons to be up to £400billion, are the less visible costs. The long NHS waiting lists, the lost immunity by the young to other diseases as well as the devastating trauma for so many. What if we hadn’t locked down so harshly, and adopted a Swedish-style more voluntary approach?
Doug McWilliams, of the Centre for Economics and Business Research, reckons about half of the £400billion on public spending could have been avoided. In a report out today, McWilliams estimates a ‘softer’ approach would still have cost the UK at least £118billion in lost GDP – around 7.6 per cent of GDP at 2019 values, but roughly half the 14.7 per cent actual shortfall in growth.
If the UK had not gone for a formal lockdown, he argues, we would have still lost £118billion in GDP plus an extra £200billion of public spending: enough to fund the NHS for a couple of years alone.
There would always have been some costs involved in fighting Covid because, as we saw early on in 2020 many people were already moving into a voluntary self-quarantine, and this would have had a knock-on effect on trade generally and of course on travel. He arrived at the numbers by revising the data to allow for the likely underestimates of UK public sector GDP during Covid.
Adjusting for the UK’s more complex economy, Cebr uses Sweden as a proxy for how we might have behaved without pulling down the shutters. Swedish GDP fell about 2.2 per cent in 2020, grew by 5.6 per cent in 2021 and 2.1 per cent last year. Swedish companies saw sales fall by 6.1 per cent in 2020, and UK businesses are likely to have experienced similar modest falls.
Locking down was always a gamble. We’ll never know whether it was the right choice. But what is emerging from the probe is that there was a frightening lack of rigorous debate about alternative strategies, and the trade-offs between them.
Worse still was the dangerous way so much debate was censored. Scientists such as Gupta were branded heretics for challenging the assumption that lockdown was the only game in town. It wasn’t.
What, or who, stopped the alternatives from being thrashed around more openly? Hallett must be careful not to allow such a mistake again.