- Alastair Cavendish
Why I am Not a Lockdown Sceptic
In times of stress, which occur with increasing frequency these days, I find myself turning to Toby Young’s Lockdown Sceptics website almost as a guilty pleasure. One ought, of course, to challenge oneself with news sources that do not simply reflect one’s own views. The echo chamber and the hall of mirrors have become characteristic metaphors to describe the news media, which produce sounds and images as distorted as they are familiar. On Lockdown Sceptics, however, I can at least be certain of finding sanity, courtesy, and commitment to evidence, qualities which are in short supply elsewhere. The alternatives are to retreat even further from human society, or to listen to a smug voice on the BBC wondering out-loud how people like Toby Young can sleep at night with all the blood on their hands, a query which suggests that they may have confused Mr. Young with Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
All the same, I am not a lockdown sceptic myself, any more than I am a racism sceptic or a rape sceptic. Lockdown, like racism and rape, is an evil thing, and I am unequivocally against it. If this seems like an extremist position, consider the question as a variant of the trolley problem, which has been a staple of philosophy classrooms since Judith Jarvis Thompson and Philippa Foot wrote about it in the 1970s. The student is asked to imagine that s/he is a bystander who is watching a trolley speeding along a track, on which there are five people tied up ahead. There is no way to stop the trolley, but it is possible to pull a lever which will divert it onto another track, on which there is one person tied up.
Many people say that they would pull the lever and murder the person on the other track. However, they are apt to change their mind when presented with an alternative problem in which the bystander is on a bridge, standing beside a large, heavy man. The trolley is about to run under the bridge, but the man is large enough to stop the trolley if he is pushed onto the track, though it will kill him in the process. Very few people say that they would push the man onto the track, killing him in order to save the five people tied up ahead.
The parallel with lockdown is clear. Lockdowns kill people, and the people who will suffer most from them are reasonably foreseeable. Those who live alone, and whose mental health is fragile, are clearly suicide risks. So are people who have lost their businesses and livelihoods, or jobs that gave their life meaning. Many others are at risk from untreated conditions less fashionable than Covid 19. To be in favour of lockdown is to say that these people are less valuable than others, the type of people one might as well shove off a bridge to stop a speeding trolley.
To get into a discussion about numbers is to miss the point. Viruses kill some people, and this is very sad. We should try to prevent it from happening as much as we can, by shielding the vulnerable and providing the best medical care possible. What we should not do is decide that other people are less valuable and sacrifice their lives. The virus kills, but you don’t have to. Scientists may argue about whether these sacrifices are futile in any case. People like Professor Carl Heneghan and Professor Sunetra Gupta can make that case, and be relentlessly smeared for it by sanctimonious murder enthusiasts. Most of us do not have their expertise, but this does not mean that we cannot make a principled stand against pushing people off bridges.
Over the course of the pandemic, a bizarre and simplistic dichotomy has arisen on the question of expertise, with the views of experts either being dismissed altogether or slavishly obeyed. In normal life, if anyone remembers what that was like, you used to take advice from experts on their area of expertise, before making up your own mind in the basis of all the factors involved. I am not a virologist or an epidemiologist. I am, however, the world’s leading expert on whether I can leave my house and go for a walk along the beach today, and on how far I can walk when I get there. If the experts wish me to take their advice into consideration, I am happy to do so, but they must be courteous and confine themselves to the facts. The sickening and thoroughly ill-mannered propaganda this government churns out every day will be firmly ignored. Yes, I can look those actors in the eye and say that I haven’t been spreading the coronavirus by walking along the sea front on my own. Not one single solitary whelk has sacrificed its life for my pursuit of pleasure. The same cannot be said of a Prime Minister so desperate for photo opportunities that he blunders round hospitals shaking hands with people.
The best, as Yeats observed, lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. There has now been a year-long propaganda campaign to make those who refuse to worship at the shrine of the virus god appear to be, and think themselves, wicked, heartless people. The propaganda has been remarkably successful, it is the only thing this government does effectively. Still, it seems to me that those of us who are on principle opposed to mass murder, to the destruction of civil liberties, to robbing children of their education and their future, and to plunging the country into poverty and misery need not be quite so shy about our opposition to government policy. You do not have to be an expert of any kind to oppose evil when you encounter it, and this means not only being sceptical about the efficacy of lockdown, but opposing it on principle.