Neil O'Brien MP  pro lockdown smear campaign  covid
© Jamie LorrimanReinforcing orthodoxy: Neil O'Brien MP co-founded a site to discredit scientists and journalists challenging the consensus
Nobody bothered to model the harms it caused, and almost nobody has shown humility about the mistakes

I'm often amazed by our collective amnesia over lockdown, given the amount of time we spend discussing problems that are manifestly caused, or exacerbated, by it. Inflation, waiting lists, a crippling mental health crisis, persistently-high school absences, a growing academic attainment gap; these are just a few examples.

Is there an element of guilt involved? So many added their voices to the feverish calls for ever more stringent measures. So many delighted in dobbing in their neighbours when they snuck out for a sneaky second walk, or a kindly but illicit visit to an elderly neighbour. Yes, it was a miserable time for most of us, but that doesn't fully explain the resounding silence.

Professor Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M-O), was a rare voice of reason throughout the hysteria. It was he who rubbished the notion that elimination was ever possible, and the SNP's Anglophobic claim that Covid was "reseeded" into Scotland from the Typhoid Marys of England when the first lockdown ended. He repeatedly warned that using worst-case predictions (those "graphs of doom") to shock people into compliance could trigger a general loss of scientific credibility. All this proved prescient.

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© Channel4Epidemiologist Prof Mark Woolhouse speaks with Channel4, July 31, 2020
This week, while giving evidence to the Covid inquiry, Prof Woolhouse made a particularly damning declaration. Though lockdown was often framed as a last resort which no one wanted to impose, he begs to differ. "The harms of the social distancing measures - particularly lockdown, the economic harms, the educational harms, the harms to access to healthcare ... societal wellbeing ... mental health - were not included in any of the work that SPI-M-O did and, as far as I could tell, no one else was doing it either," he told the inquiry.

So his team was never even asked to model the harm lockdown might inflict. Nor were they asked to consider alternative ways of mitigating health risks. "The question of how to avoid lockdown was never asked of us," he added, "and I find that extraordinary." Too right. This ought to be a national scandal. Saying "hindsight is always 20/20" doesn't cut it; not only were many people warning about collateral harms at the time, expert authorities weren't even being asked to consider such warnings.

Myopic decision-making was accompanied by an equally damaging tendency to view the public as a faceless bloc, ignoring the risk levels different individuals faced. So back in March 2020, the nation was, in Woolhouse's words, "concentrating on schools when we should have been concentrating on care homes".

This led to two of the pandemic's most colossal mistakes - the neglect of vulnerable elderly patients and lengthy school closures, even though children were 10,000 times less likely to die from Covid than the elderly and the evidence for school transmission was patchy at best. We are still counting the cost, especially to less privileged pupils.

Eventually lockdown began generating its own absurdist logic, akin to the topsy-turvy world of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Conventional wisdom like "protecting the vulnerable" was cast as fringe quackery. Some condemned herd immunity as a conspiracy theory, rather than indisputable scientific reality and, indeed, the basis for vaccination.
police protest london lockdown
© GettyPolice officers frog-march a protester for not following their 'advice' that she stay at home...
Meanwhile "you can't be too careful" carried its own dangers. Overstating the (tiny) risk of outdoor transmission led to limits on even the most socially distanced forms of sport. Even solo walking in the wilds of the Peak District elicited a rapid visitation from the boys in blue. All this despite the well-documented health benefits of vitamin D and exercise.
pandemic britain lockdown
© Andrew Matthews/PA WireIncessant fear messaging has effectively controlled the population
Many commentators took great delight in smearing sceptical voices as dangerously cavalier with human life. The MP Neil O'Brien co-founded a website designed to discredit journalists and scientists who departed from the sage consensus on lockdown. I still feel aggrieved about what happened then; being accused of having "blood on your hands" is distressing and makes you fearful of weighing in. No doubt voices on both sides of the debate made mistakes, but creating an atmosphere of anxiety and intimidation - rather than open inquiry and good faith - is hardly conducive to sensible policy-making. And so it has proved.
Anders Tegnell
State epidemiologist for Sweden, Anders Tegnell
Meanwhile, in Sweden, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell stuck to the well-established principles of scientific inquiry and communicated with the public as rational adults. In hindsight, and compared with our own febrile public debate, it's amazing how heretical this now looks.

Tegnell also displayed refreshing transparency over Sweden's mistakes, such as care home outbreaks. Yet we have seen little of this humility or soul-searching in Britain. Prof Woolhouse is one of few experts to express regrets about the ravages of long lockdowns. Why have so few politicians done the same? Or members of the public, for that matter?

Perhaps because we have ultimately learnt very little. In spite of Sweden's experience and the mounting evidence of irreversible harm to children, a recent YouGov poll found that people still overwhelmingly believe school closures were the right decision; almost 60 per cent, with just 29 per cent disagreeing. As Jonathan Swift said, "falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it".
Madeline Grant is a columnist, Assistant Comment Editor and Parliamentary Sketchwriter for The Telegraph. You can find her on Twitter @Madz_Grant