Like most people, the revelations from the leaked WhatsApps of government ministers during the pandemic have left me with a mixture of emotions.
At one level, they reveal how difficult it is to make decisions amidst considerable uncertainty. It is always easy, after the event, to point to mistakes and say they could have been done differently.
So anyone except those – and there are plenty of them around – with a dogmatic central planning mentality will empathise with the initial struggles of the government to deal with the problem.
When data first started emerging from Wuhan, it suggested the death rate for those infected was between 3 and 4 per cent. Our television screens were quickly filled with nightmarish scenes from Northern Italy.
Understandably – against the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s libertarian instincts – a lockdown was imposed, coming into force on 23 March 2020. But whereas the initial uncertainty was huge, it quickly narrowed as firmer information emerged.
For example, in the notorious paper from Neil Ferguson and his team from Imperial team College London, they assumed a death rate of “only” 0.9 per cent, translating into half a million deaths without a lockdown. So even then it was accepted that the death rate would be very much less than the terrifying Wuhan figures had suggested. As it turns out, the true number was very much lower than the Imperial estimate.
By early April, it was apparent that the public across Europe had reacted to the pandemic in the way in which humanity has reacted to plagues for thousands of years: we stopped seeing one another. In the modern jargon, social mixing fell dramatically.
By the simple expedient of taking the peak day for deaths and backtracking the known average time from infection to death, it was obvious that the number of cases in almost every country had started to fall before lockdowns were imposed. People themselves were taking steps to avoid being infected.
Within just a couple of weeks of lockdown, then, the case for it had been seriously weakened.
A number of distinguished economists such as David Miles of Imperial College and Bob Rowthorn at Cambridge published papers in May and June of 2020 carrying out cost-benefit analyses of lockdown.
This methodology is routinely applied to all other aspects of government policy – except lockdowns. Rishi Sunak, then Chancellor, was one of the few proponents of reinstating a run-of-the-mill way of evaluating the effectiveness of policies. He was overruled.
What the post mortem by The Telegraph has demonstrated is not simply that, as we now know, costs exceeded the benefits, but that ministers knew this. Children’s prospects, mental health, deaths from delayed treatments, all these things were known at the very top of government.
And yet lockdown persisted. It is abundantly clear that the government’s own diktat of “following the science” was ignored. Science means looking at a vast array of different factors, not listening to a very small group of people. When evidence emerged which contradicted the “theory” that lockdowns were essential, they simply disregarded it.
Many have called lockdowns proof that ministers are unable to deal with uncertainty and make decisions based on risk. This is overly generous: they had a good idea of what would happen, and they did it anyway.