When no good options remain, we may only choose the least terrible

Lockdowns are shit.

That might seem like a ridiculously obvious thing to say, but there are those out there who seem to think that people exist who think of them as an extended holiday, a little jolly where we get to sit at home in our jammies all day watching Netflix, a chance to bunk off and collect that lovely, free government money, so it bears making this very simple point clear at the outset: lockdowns are fucking shit. They amplify inequality, damage mental health, place vulnerable people at risk, decimate businesses and isolate members of minority communities from the essential support networks on which they rely. They are so perniciously harmful that no one in their right mind would be suggesting any kind of lockdown, much less the strict nationwide lockdown so many are now calling for, if it wasn’t absolutely essential.

There are, of course, ways to mitigate the harms caused by lockdowns: locking down early enough and strictly enough that the duration is kept to an absolute minimum, providing adequate financial support to individuals and businesses affected by the measures, a comprehensive plan to provide distance or blended learning in the hope of minimising the deleterious effects on those in full-time education, effective test, trace and isolate programmes, and clear, honest communication designed to bring the public along with any unavoidable disruption to their lives, rights and freedoms. Not ripping the arse out of mental health provision for a full decade prior to the commencement of any such restrictions might also be helpful, but here we are.

The sad fact is, our government has singularly failed to adopt any of these mitigation strategies since the very start of this pandemic. Both the first and second lockdowns took place weeks after scientists were calling for them to be implemented. Financial support has been deliberately – maliciously, even – inadequate, with many people cut adrift from the limited help available, and the government having to be shamed into doing the bare fucking basics like feeding hungry children, on two separate occasions, by a footballer. Eat out to help out, the rush to reopen schools and universities, the steadfast unwillingness to close them again even after it became clear that they were a significant source of community transmission, the threats to ‘get back to work or lose your jobs’, the persistence with the tier system of local restrictions that scientists warned would be ineffective before it was introduced and which was later shown to be just that, the staggering, face-melting stupidity of the Christmas super-spreader event; this government has failed at every turn to protect the public from the virus, and to minimise the need for, and duration of, further lockdowns.

The situation with schools is particularly worrying. And again, before I go any further, let me be abundantly clear: school ‘closures’ are also shit. I used the word ‘closures’ in inverted commas because the reality is that the schools have never been ‘closed’. They have always been open to the children of key workers and vulnerable children, which is as it should be. But to keep them open to all students at this stage of the pandemic is an act of criminal negligence that will serve only to increase transmission and cause thousands more deaths.

Of course no one wants schools to close (or, more accurately, to move to distance learning for an extended period of time). My son, who is very vocally Not A Fan of school, would still rather be there than separated from his friends for months on end, learning from a computer in his bedroom. During the first lockdown, he became progressively more miserable and withdrawn, despite our best efforts to prevent this, and it was heartbreaking to see. He returned to physical school attendance in September, and from a social point of view, it was obviously a huge improvement. We took him back into a remote learning environment last November when it became clear that everything was starting to go very badly sideways again, and although we took this decision with his consent, he still fucking hates it. The thing is, however, he hates it considerably less than he would hate me or his mother, who both have underlying conditions, becoming seriously ill or dying.

Closing schools and universities now is a no-brainer. It’s a shitty, horrible option that is still considerably better than the shittier, even more horrible alternative.

We now stand at a precipice. A variant of Covid somewhere between 50 and 70% more transmissible than the original strain is now tearing across the country unchecked. The graph of confirmed infections is more or less a straight, vertical line and hospital admissions have already exceeded the level of the last peak in April. Due to a better understanding of the disease and greater awareness of how to treat it, the number of daily deaths hasn’t quite caught up to the horrendous levels of the first wave, but they’re not far off, and they will get there, whatever we do next. A full, strict, UK-wide lockdown will almost certainly be insufficient to prevent a recurrence of the horrors of last spring, and we could still reach the stage where the NHS is unable to treat some Covid patients, even with those measures in place. This will also have a knock-on effect to routine care and other critical care, causing an increase in excess ‘non-Covid’ deaths as a result.

The strain on NHS staff now is unimaginable. Many are off sick, either with Covid-19 or related exhaustion from having to work 80+ hours a week over an extended period to cover for their stricken colleagues. Some are reporting conditions akin to, or virtually identical to, PTSD, and beds, together with the human beings needed to staff those beds, are quickly running out. All of which is likely to create a domino effect that will claim tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives. This remains true even if we act now. Today.

If we do not act now, if we delay or prevaricate or dither for another moment, we risk this disease getting completely, irretrievably out of control. Every day we fail to act is another day where more than 50,000 people (that we know about) contract the virus. Given that, in most areas, you can only book a Covid test if you are displaying symptoms, the real number is almost certainly significantly higher. And with the R-rate well above 1, this 50,000 symptomatic cases will grow to 100,000 and beyond in a very short space of time. If the hospitalisations and deaths grow proportionately alongside that, we will be in a very dark place indeed.

We have a vaccine available. Two, in fact. That is the only good news to emerge out of any of this, but vaccines alone are not sufficient to prevent what undoubtedly awaits us should we fail to take the drastic action needed to reduce the unrestrained spread of this lethal new variant. The government must act now, in partnership with devolved administrations, to implement a full lockdown of the entire UK, to move schools and universities online, to ban most flights in or out of the country, to close all non-essential retail, hospitality and entertainment venues, and, crucially, to provide the support, financial or otherwise, needed for us to emerge safely at the other side when the vaccine rollout is complete.

It’s going to be shit because, as I think I mentioned, lockdowns are really, really fucking shit. But when you’re faced with an inescapable choice between a kick in the balls/minge (delete as appropriate) or a bullet in the head, all you can do is spread your legs, brace yourself, and look forward to the day when you’ve recovered from the damage in a way that would not be possible if you opted for the alternative.

2 thoughts on “When no good options remain, we may only choose the least terrible

  1. I live in the US and our situation is almost exactly the same. The main difference is we have protests against mask wearing. Many are refusing vaccinations. It will continue on and on… until common sense returns. When that will be, I wish I knew.

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  2. My experience of the tiers was that almost nobody took even the slightest bit of notice of them. Many people did not wear masks where they were mandatory and almost nobody wore them anywhere except where they were mandatory. Half of mask wearers seemed to think they were chin warmers and not face coverings. Often, when I was out with a mask and gloves on, people would glare at me like I was the weirdo. At best, half of mask wearers wore them properly. Almost nobody even tried to enforce anything. (The one exception I noted was Primark, oddly.) Stations and trains were genuinely scary places.

    This raises the question of whether the tiers truly failed or whether it is better to say that they were never really tried at all? Did the tiers even really exist outside of the government’s rhetoric? Might they have worked if people had been required to actually take them seriously? Might they have worked if we had required mask wearing outdoors? Might encouraging glove wearing have made a difference? Might a one way system on pavements have made a difference? Would having kept the 2m rule have made a difference? Of course, there is no way to know and it’s too late for that information to do us any good now anyway.

    Even so, I think we can be fairly confident that we would be significantly better off if more people had tried to follow the rules for their tiers. I don’t say this to let the Government off the hook at all. They have been criminally negligent in making rules and then giving everybody a nod and a wink to just ignore them. The Christmas fiasco was one of the most obviously catastrophic unforced blunders I have ever seen! Nobody has any right to pretend to be surprised by how that has turned out.

    The question now is whether people will take this new lockdown any more seriously, and whether there any way to force them to do so if they don’t cooperate? If not, then we are in a very bad place indeed.

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