For too long now, it’s been assumed that all right-thinking, respectable people supported lockdown as a response to rising virus cases.
According to Government surveys, even when we were freezing our butts off outside restaurants in limited numbers of 15, the majority of the nation wanted even tighter restrictions.
Those opposing it were a “vocal minority”: easily dismissed as capitalists, contrarians or kooks and often wilfully mischaracterised as promoting herd immunity.
Turns out they were correct in their main argument: lockdowns don’t work. They are not the magic solution it might be comforting to believe.
A month into the longest six weeks in history and there’s been a perceptible shift in mood. Progress has plateaued – decline in infection numbers has stalled. The daily case rate has settled between 350 and 450.
The Department of Health attitudes survey this week shows the numbers of those who want us to “go further” with restrictions has dropped by half since October, as reality sets in.
A major study in a scientific journal showed that the virus can be controlled successfully with good ventilation and restricted numbers – bolstering the case for reopening retail and hospitality.
Even Professor Sam McConkey conceded: “We may need another approach.” Infectious disease expert Dr Paddy Mallon agreed that locking down would be hard to justify if the impact is not worth the benefit.
Most significantly of all, a group of 67 doctors and 100 scientists signed a white paper questioning Nphet’s “outdated” strategy of tackling Covid and called for the country’s leaders to “rethink its approach”.
The group – Covid-19 Ireland: A Scientific Approach – stated: “A solution must be found that does not focus exclusively on the virus at the expense of everything else.”
It advised: “Back off lockdowns and begin intensive protection of the vulnerable” as an alternative strategy.
Personally, I am anti-lockdown: our attempt to control the virus means it is controlling us. I believe in finding solutions other than the draconian shutdown of society and economy, which causes other harms that we are not quantifying. We need to learn to live safely with restrictions, not stop living entirely.
Obviously if you forbid everything and remove all freedoms, cases will go down – for a while. If you close all the roads, there would be no car crashes either, as long as it lasted.
But you can’t beat a pandemic: if you shutter all, it will find a place to hide. Recent figures show that the overwhelming number of infections are happening in private homes.
It is difficult now not to view the “circuit-breaker” as a national experiment that simply didn’t work, yet wreaked havoc on our lives and livelihoods, with the vulnerable in society – as always – the worst affected.
Government puts itself in a weak position by pressing the nuke button, so fast, for so long: maybe it removed incentives to change behaviour, or perhaps many decided they would rely on their own moral judgment. People who have nothing left to lose are the hardest to control.
Why are we so wedded to the idea of lockdowns? Is it the modern culture of safetyism? Or has all critical thinking become anti-establishment?
Perhaps it is a panicked reflex towards what we think keeps us “safe” – considering it worked so well when it was needed back in March. As philosopher Bernard Levy said: “Humanity has had to deal with many pandemics. There seems to be an intention, a collective desire to panic.”
By what we are seeing now, it is evident: rolling lockdowns are not the simple answer.
Locking down and opening up is not a sustainable strategy. It is clear a full conversation on how best we can live with this virus is well overdue.
It is not enough anymore to hear lectures from Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan on how we must “redouble our efforts” and reduce contacts, when we are stuck in purgatory, slowly going out of our minds.
Thankfully, it is beginning to happen – and these challenging voices can no longer be ignored.
Surgeon Martin Feeley was the first high-profile doctor to raise the alarm in September, losing his position as a HSE clinical director for speaking out as a medic on the sincere dangers and harmful folly of this as national policy. He highlighted the definition of public health: “A state of physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease.”
Dr Feeley was ridiculed and sneered at by those who sought to undermine him. But his powerful message – “The mood of the country is depressed” – resonated with many, as did his rallying call for youth: “For God’s sake, let these people live their lives.”
Chair of the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid, Independent TD Michael McNamara, was a strong critic of locking down “again and again”, saying “people feel oppressed – they will snap”, and expressing fears Ireland was going into a dark place.
They have now been joined by the signatories of a group named ‘Covid Recovery - A Scientific Approach’ , led by Jack Lambert, infectious diseases consultant at the Mater hospital, and an increasing number of public doctors, from Dr Ciara Kelly to Professor Paul Moynagh.
The dissenting voices are growing louder than the current consensus. Will the Government listen?