IN a grim caricature of Christian penance, these are the months we are meant to be taking our punishment in the aftermath of a Christmas feast gifted to us by our rulers. Except there was no Christmas feast. And now Easter too is to be drastically curtailed, with Boris Johnson ‘privately sharing an aspiration to see restrictions begin to ease by Good Friday to allow families some small contact again’.
Ah, but fret ye not at this cancellation of all that we hold most sacred. This latest lockdown, unlike those that went before it, is morally justified apparently. Yes, the first one might have killed two people for every three saved, and the combined effects of the ‘long drawn-out flat slump’ caused by Covid measures might eventually lead to the loss of the equivalent of 560,000 lives in this country, according to Professor Philip Thomas of Bristol University. But haven’t the vaccines, to use Lionel Shriver’s phrase in the Spectator, ‘redeemed lockdowns’? Shriver may have used this phrase with hefty caveats, but Alistair Haimes, who had until that point been a prominent lockdown sceptic, went the full hog when he wrote, also in the Spectator, in early January that whilst ‘it is perfectly justifiable to be against open-ended restrictions in a world with no vaccine . . . a brief period of restrictions while vaccines are rolled out is sensible’.
Alistair is a gentleman and his piece was sincere. The problem with his analysis, and indeed the entire narrative around vaccines as the ‘scientific cavalry’ which will rescue us all, is that there are profound immunological reasons why we have never seen a vaccine for a coronavirus before. Previous attempts, for example with SARS, have encountered the problem of ‘vaccine induced enhancement’ whereby recipients of a vaccine can get a much more serious version of such a disease should they later become infected. Pre-eminent German microbiologist Sucharit Bhakdi has made the very simple mathematical point that a virus from which 99 per cent of infected people recover does not need a vaccine which, by the very nature of vaccines, could never be more than 90 per cent effective.
Haimes’s volte-face brought in its wake other pieces which descended to crude ad hominem attacks on sceptics such as Toby Young and immunology expert Mike Yeadon. In a grotesque rewriting of history, it is not the neo-Cromwellian British State which has the blood of thousands of innocents on its hands, it’s Toby Young and all those who have followed the ‘spurious authority’ of scientists such as Sunetra Gupta.
Quite a start to the New Year, then. Christmas and Easter cancelled but the vaccines are here and if you’re still a lockdown sceptic, you’d better keep your head down. Germany after all is bringing in detention camps. Even with such an unprecedented stifling of dissent, our rulers have revealed themselves to be curiously impotent in their self-declared ‘war’ against a virus: they still cannot promise any definitive ending to ‘the restrictions’ (a chilling euphemism on a par with ‘the Troubles’ in Ulster). And the deus ex machina of the vaccine(s) is being revealed as a bit of a confidence trick, not the exit strategy people were led to believe. The government’s scientists now telling us that, even if (and especially after) we are vaccinated, we must not think that we can hug anyone or do anything except carry on masked and distanced from any semblance of normal life.
Barely had Britain celebrated its Brexit vaccine achievement than we were bombarded with the grim forecast from Nervtag that the so-called Kent variant is almost certainly ‘30 per cent more lethal‘ and may take the country ‘back to square one’, with more scare stories following about a South African variant. Meanwhile Matt Hancock dashed any last hopes for our escape to freedom with his most draconian travel bans and punishments ever, described by Simon Jenkins as well as Lord Sumption as an abuse of office.
Fear continues to be ramped up, and yet again the goalposts are shifting. A sub-group of Sage called SPI-M, the Sunday Telegraph reports, has commissioned modelling claiming that unless the vaccines are able to decrease transmission of the virus by 85 per cent, social distancing may have to stay in place till the end of this year, or indeed for a considerable time thereafter. As ‘most experts expect a best-case scenario of vaccines being 60 per cent effective at stopping transmission‘, this is a recipe for a permanent cycle of lockdowns. The deus ex machina has now been officially pronounced useless.
A while back Chris Whitty said that eventually we will need to make a societal decision about how much risk and death we are prepared to put up with in the context of living with the virus and an end to ‘the restrictions’. This idea of living with the virus, accepting it is endemic, and making adult trade-offs now appears to have been comprehensively dispensed with; at least nothing further been heard from him on the subject. It was precisely for advancing his thoughts on this that Lord Sumption found himself relegated to the status of an unperson a couple of weeks ago. How far we should be killing off the prospects of one generation to extend the lives of another is a debate we are not allowed to have.