The Sunday Telegraph
We must beware a cynical bid to terrify Britain into loving lockdown
It is right to be suspicious of the scandalous doom and gloom predictions from scientific advisers
On Monday, we should hear that this grotesque social experiment is over. Not lockdown – that won’t end for the indefinite future. No, what will be wound up is the programme of torture in which an entire population was repeatedly subjected to the breathtaking prospect of a return to normal life only to have that possibility instantly snatched away – sometimes in the course of a single sentence.
Every statement by a government official – from the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary on down – over the past month has given hope and assurance on the one hand, only to contradict it with the other. (“Nothing in the data suggest that we need to delay lifting restrictions” but “growth of the new variant is cause for concern”, etc etc.) Presumably, these self-cancelling non-judgments were specifically designed to cover all contingencies and, possibly more importantly, to create so much confusion that none of the obvious criticisms of proposed policies needed to be addressed.
The broadcast media have apparently been so befuddled by the avalanche of expert opinion mongers queuing up for their 15 minutes of fame that they forgot to ask the most fundamental questions. For example, doesn’t the fact that the discrepancy between the number of cases and the number of deaths is becoming greater (cases rising, deaths falling) mean that the risk of serious illness from Covid has been enormously reduced? And therefore, shouldn’t the increase in cases of mild illness be seen as good news since large numbers of people will now become naturally immune to the virus through infection without becoming dangerously sick?
There were two possible explanations for this bizarre will-theywon’t-they-set-us-free game. The first was that it represented genuine chaos in which ministers were trapped by their own vow to follow the “data” – which would, in truth, be impossible in the terms they imply because the data at any given moment are not an unambiguous set of immutable facts. In situations of this kind, data are contentious projections subject to differing interpretation. So the gold standard which the Government has established for its decision-making is a chimera. In the vacuum created by this logically impossible requirement to adhere to the data, an army of experts (many of them mathematicians or behavioural psychologists who are not medically qualified) paraded through the news media with their analyses.
The ones given the most serious attention have been members of the Government’s own advisory bodies who apparently feel no compunction about pronouncing on, or openly criticising, government policy. This is, so far as I know, quite unprecedented.
For government-appointed advisers at a time of national crisis to pre-empt or attack ministerial decisions without resigning their advisory positions is, at the very least, irregular. At worst, it is improper and a danger to national confidence. This phenomenon reached something of an apotheosis last week when Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at UCL and a member of Sage, announced in a television interview that social distancing and the wearing of masks should continue forever. It might be of interest for the general public to be aware that Professor Michie is a member of the Communist Party. That is her right – as it is the right of anyone in a free society to choose their political affiliation – but it is important to understand that scientific opinion does not necessarily emanate from apolitical sources.
But there is a more disturbing interpretation of what may seem like outrageously unprofessional behaviour by the Government’s own advisers. Perhaps these boffins currently making themselves so enthusiastically available to the media were actually being encouraged by ministers who were happy for them to soften up public opinion for a delay in lifting restrictions. If that is the case – if this was really a cynical operation in which fear and resistance to a return to normal social conditions was being orchestrated yet again – then we are in the midst of a much more sinister political development than we knew.
The Government is not “following the science” so much as using the scientists in a mass mind-bending initiative which could preclude the need for legal enforcement (and therefore not require the permission of Parliament) because it achieves its ends through psychological manipulation and moral coercion. Perhaps ministers are only pretending to be scientific illiterates who believe that The Science is a body of theological absolutes rather than a means of inquiry to which disputation and debate are essential and the understanding of evidence must always be provisional. Maybe this is all part of the plan – which is to maintain the most damaging lockdown restrictions like social distancing (the very name of which makes clear how unnatural it is) for the foreseeable future without necessarily having to mobilise the police to enforce them.
What a very clever move this would be. It would, at a stroke, undermine the magnificent defiance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s threat to open his theatres with full audiences, defying the Government to “come and arrest us”, which might well have been taken up by the rest of the industry.
The Lloyd Webber declaration was not just about the survival of his own businesses or even the livelihoods of the performers and the staff they employ. Above all, what it certainly was not was a claim that cultural events were more important than lives. That, like many things that are being said at the moment, would be a wilfully ignorant misunderstanding. Culture and artistic expression, not to mention social intimacy, are what gives meaning and value to lives and lifts them above the level of bare existence.
But what if the Government succeeded in creating so much anxiety that audiences simply chose to stay away? The theatres wouldn’t need to be forcibly shut by regulations: they would just be starved to death by endless “guidance”. And we will have entered an era that the great dystopian novels anticipated in which people do what they are told because it is what they believe they want.
Instead of ‘following the science’ ministers may be using the scientists in a mindbending initiative that achieves its ends through moral coercion