As I watched the Prime Minister order mass house arrest on Monday night, I felt revulsion, anger and grief – as anyone brought up when this was a free and well-governed country would. I also felt terribly alone.
You could not have known, from anything broadcast that night or printed the following day, that anyone was unhappy with these events. But they were.
So, above all things this week, I would like to thank all the kind, perplexed people who have got in touch with me by so many means, to say they share my doubts about the Government’s handling of Covid-19.
Many will have seen the films, pictured, taken by Derbyshire police drones, of lonely walkers on the remote, empty hills, publicly pillorying them for not obeying the regulations. It is genuinely hard to see what damage these walkers have done, writes PETER HITCHENS
There are, in fact, many of us. If you feel this way, you are nothing like as solitary as you think.
Next, I would like to thank all those who disagree with me, who choose to abuse me, often with lies, personal smears and swearwords. Your childish, intolerant reaction has strengthened me in my conviction that mine is the better case. If your policy is so good, why can you not defend it like civilised adults? Do you really think that I regret needless deaths any less than you? Can you not accept that I also have good motives?
I now suspect this dark season might get still worse before we see the clear, calm light of reason again. The greater the mistake we have made, the less willing we are to admit it or correct it. This is why I greatly fear worse developments in the coming few days.
When I predicted roadblocks in my column two weeks ago, which I did, I did so out of an instinct that we were entering on the craziest period of our lives since the death of Princess Diana. And now there are such roadblocks, officious, embarrassing blots on our national reputation.
But even I would not have dared to predict the mass house arrest under which we are all now confined.
I have found the origin of this bizarre Napoleonic decree – a few clauses in the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, which I confess I had not even heard of. It just goes to show how careful you have to be with the wording of the laws you pass.
If the TV this weekend is full of pictures of people sunning themselves in city parks or escaping to the high hills, there will be plenty of zealots and politicians ready to call for yet more restrictions, subjecting all of us to collective punishment.
Perhaps we will emulate the French or Italian states, which have returned to their despotic origins and reduced their populations to a sort of cowering serfdom, barely able to step into the street.
I wonder whether there might also be restrictions on what can be said and published. I can see no necessary bar to this in the law involved.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, pictured, who has since contracted the virus himself, placed the nation on lockdown on Monday
Section 45 C (3) (c) of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 (appropriately enough) is the bit that does it. Once the Health Secretary believes there is a threat to public health, he has – or claims to have – limitless powers to do what he likes, ‘imposing or enabling the imposition of restrictions or requirements on or in relation to persons, things or premises in the event of, or in response to, a threat to public health’.
The former Supreme Court Judge Lord Sumption doubts that the Act can be used in this way and warns: ‘There is a difference between law and official instructions. It is the difference between a democracy and a police state. Liberty and the rule of law are surely worth something, even in the face of a pandemic.’
Lord Sumption is generally a liberal hero, and he was invited to deliver last year’s BBC Reith Lectures. But the Human Rights crowd have all melted away in the face of this outrage. So his warning was buried on Page 54 of The Times on Thursday, and Parliament, already supine, has slunk away after its craven acceptance of new attacks on liberty on Monday.
If it ever meets again, it will be as a poor, neutralised thing. One day it may come to be called the Dummy Parliament. Where is the Supreme Court when you really need it, come to that?
So do not be surprised by anything. After last week, can we rule anything out? This new Stasi society has a horrifying level of support. Humberside police are already advertising a ‘portal’ for citizens to inform on their neighbours for breaking the ‘social distancing’ rules.
If you think they won’t get any takers, think again. Northamptonshire police have revealed that their control room has had ‘dozens and dozens’ of calls about people ignoring the order.
They said: ‘We are getting calls from people who say, “I think my neighbour is going out on a second run – I want you to come and arrest them.” ’
Officers approach sunbathers on Shepherd’s Bush Green in London, energetically stamping out the foul crime of lying on the grass (would they have paid so much attention, two weeks ago, to a gaggle of louts making an unpleasant noise, or to marijuana smokers?).
Most people will, by now, have viewed the online film of Metropolitan police officers bellowing officiously at sunbathers on Shepherd’s Bush Green in London, energetically stamping out the foul crime of lying on the grass (would they have paid so much attention, two weeks ago, to a gaggle of louts making an unpleasant noise, or to marijuana smokers?).
Others will have seen the films, taken by Derbyshire police drones, of lonely walkers on the remote, empty hills, publicly pillorying them for not obeying the regulations. It is genuinely hard to see what damage these walkers have done.
But as a former resident of the USSR, I can tell you that this sort of endless meddling by petty authority in the details of life, reinforced by narks, is normal in unfree societies – such as we have now become for an indefinite period. It is, by the way, also a seedbed for corruption.
Meanwhile, our economy is still crippled, and the overpraised Chancellor Rishi Sunak, like some beaming Dr Feelgood with a case full of dodgy stimulants, seeks to soothe the pain by huge injections of funny money.
He will get this back from us as soon as we are allowed out again. Just you wait till you get the bill, in increased taxes, inflation and devastated savings.
It ought not to be so. In fact, several powerful pieces of evidence have come to light, suggesting that the Great Panic is foolish and wrong.
I shall come to these, to underline the fact that it is not I, alone, who have these doubts. I do not claim to be an expert. But I refer to those who definitely are experts, who doubt the wisdom of what we are doing.
It is sad that far too little of this is being reported as prominently as it should be by our supposedly diverse and free media, especially the BBC, which has largely closed its mind and its airwaves to dissent. It is quite funny that a statue of George Orwell stands by the entrance to the BBC, bearing the inscription: ‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’
Obviously, they should take it down, as nobody inside the building appears to believe that.
Crucially, those who began by claiming that we faced half a million deaths from the coronavirus in this country have now greatly lowered their estimate. Professor Neil Ferguson was one of those largely responsible for the original panic. He or others from Imperial college have twice revised his terrifying prophecy, first to fewer than 20,000 and then on Friday to 5,700.
He says intensive care units will probably cope. And he conceded a point made by critics of the panic policy – that two-thirds of people who die from coronavirus in the next nine months would most likely have died this year from other causes.
He tried to claim that the shutdown of the country had led to this violent backtrack, claiming that it was ‘social distancing strategies’ which had brought about his amazing climbdown. How could he possibly know either that this had happened, or that it would happen, or that there was any connection between the two?
It is very hard to see by what means he could know any of these things. Could he have softened his stance because of the publication early last week of a rival view, from distinguished scientists at Oxford University, led by Sunetra Gupta, Professor of theoretical epidemiology? It suggests that fewer than one in a thousand of those infected with Covid-19 become ill enough to need hospital treatment.
The vast majority develop very mild symptoms or none at all. Millions may already have had it.
This report is being unfairly sneered at by Government toadies, but we shall see. It seems unlikely that Oxford University would have bungled their work.
And it is obvious that a few days of raggedly enforced house arrest could not have made so much real difference. Even those who believe in these shutdowns think they take two weeks to have any effect.
Cyclists, even children, pictured today in London’s Richmond Park, have been spoken to by police officers amid the coronavirus lockdown
It is fascinating, looking at all the different countries which have adopted different methods of dealing with the virus, to see just how little of a pattern there is.
It is very hard to link outcome clearly with policy. Even Hong Kong and Singapore, similar city states which had a similar outcome, adopted different policies. We might do well not to assume that things work, just because we favour them.
It is more likely that the panic-mongers, having got their way by spreading alarm and frightening the Prime Minister, are now trying to get us to forget how ludicrous their original claims were. But first let me issue another warning. If the Government do decide to release us from mass arrest, they will say, as Prof Ferguson is doing, that this is because their repressive economy-wrecking measures worked.
We must demand proof, after a thorough independent inquiry, that this is true. For, if it is not, as I very much suspect, then we are in endless danger.
Any government, using the same pretext, can repeatedly put us through this misery, impoverishment and confinement. In the end, like the peoples of other despotisms, we will be grateful to be allowed out at all.
As things stand, the Johnson Government is like a doctor, confronted with a patient suffering from pneumonia. ‘This is serious,’ says the doctor. ‘I have never seen anything like this. Unless I act radically, you will die terribly.’
He then proposes to treat the pneumonia by amputating the patient’s left leg, saying this method has been used successfully in China. The trusting patient agrees. The patient eventually recovers from pneumonia, as he would have done anyway. The doctor proclaims that his treatment, though undoubtedly painful and radical, was a great success. But the patient now has only one leg, and a very large hospital bill which he cannot afford to pay.
When I argue against this folly, I am accused of not caring about the deaths of the old. I am old. It is false. I care as much about the deaths of others as anybody. But as a result of taking my stand, I have received private support from people inside the NHS seriously disturbed by what is going on.
Now, if you want a scientist who does not support Government policy, the most impressive of these is Prof Sucharit Bhakdi. If you desire experts, he is one.
He is an infectious medicine specialist, one of the most highly cited medical research scientists in Germany. He was head of the Institute for Medical Microbiology at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, one of Germany’s most distinguished seats of learning.
In a recent interview he had many uncomplimentary things to say about the shutdown policy being pursued by so many countries (there is a link on my blog to the interview, and a transcription).
But perhaps the most powerful was his reply to the suggestion that the closedown of society would save lives. He argued the contrary, saying this policy was ‘grotesque, absurd and very dangerous’.
He warned: ‘Our elderly citizens have every right to make efforts not to belong to the 2,200 [in Germany] who daily embark on their last journey. Social contacts and social events, theatre and music, travel and holiday recreation, sports and hobbies all help to prolong their stay on Earth. The life expectancy of millions is being shortened.’
He also gave this warning: ‘The horrifying impact on the world economy threatens the existence of countless people.
‘The consequences for medical care are profound. Already services to patients who are in need are reduced, operations cancelled, practices empty, hospital personnel dwindling.
‘All this will impact profoundly on our whole society.
‘I can only say that all these measures are leading to self-destruction and collective suicide because of nothing but a spook.’
This is plainly true. Old people who are still healthy, thanks to regular exercise and busy social lives, will suffer hugely from being trapped in their homes.
But there is another major problem with the Government case. Do the figures show what they claim to show?
Many people will die with coronavirus. But this does not mean that they died of it.
This is already a major problem in judging death totals from such countries as Italy. Yet new rules in the UK mean deaths which may well be mainly from other causes are recorded as corona deaths.
John Lee, a recently retired professor of pathology and a former NHS consultant pathologist, writes in The Spectator this weekend that by making Covid-19 a notifiable disease, the authorities may have distorted the figures.
‘In the current climate, anyone with a positive test for Covid-19 will certainly be known to clinical staff looking after them: if any of these patients dies, staff will have to record the Covid-19 designation on the death certificate – contrary to usual practice for most infections of this kind.
‘There is a big difference between Covid-19 causing death, and Covid-19 being found in someone who died of other causes.
Making Covid-19 notifiable might give the appearance of it causing increasing numbers of deaths, whether this is true or not. It might appear far more of a killer than flu, simply because of the way deaths are recorded.’
This, of course, explains why such an overwhelming number of Covid deaths, here and abroad, involve so-called ‘underlying conditions’, in fact serious, often fatal, diseases.
Take this into account whenever you hear official figures of coronavirus deaths.
Dr Lee adds, equally crucially: ‘We risk being convinced that we have averted something that was never really going to be as severe as we feared.’
That is the heart of it. It was never going to be as bad as the panic-mongers said.
The hysterical measures taken may well not have done any good. Yet our freedom is still bruised and broken, and our economy limping and deeply damaged.
If we do not learn the right lessons from this grim episode, then we will, for certain, have to go through it all again.