The current rationale for the lockdown is incoherent. The old rationale was: ‘you must spread the infections over a longer period so as to allow the NHS to catch up’. So that was why there was the slogan ‘Save the NHS’. Well, they’ve dropped that part of the slogan – and for good reasons. Currently, the NHS has more than doubled its intensive care capacity. It’s an impressive achievement by the government. But they need to follow the logic of it. The crucial fact is that [the government’s] paper accepts that Covid-19 is going to be with us long term. That is the likely outcome. And it’s consistent with the science. Once the a virus has taken hold in a population, it doesn’t just go away until enough people have been exposed to the disease to acquire immunity or a vaccine turns up. So when the lockdown ends, whenever that is, the virus will still be there waiting for us.
More than nine tenths of the deaths are cases in which the death certificate shows that there were multiple causes of death: Coronavirus was only one of them. This is a virus that attacks people with really serious pre-existing vulnerabilities. Almost all of these people are very old and suffering from conditions serious enough to be mentioned as a cause of death on the certificate. The overwhelming majority would have died. A bit later, but not much later.
What I’m advocating now is that the lockdown should become entirely voluntary. It is up to us, not the state, to decide what risks we are going to take with our own bodies. Now, the traditional answer is that by getting out in the streets and in shops, you are infecting other people. But you don’t have to take that risk. You can voluntarily self-isolate. You don’t have to go into the streets. You don’t have to go to the shops. People who feel vulnerable can self-isolate and the rest of us can then get on with our lives. We have never lived in a risk-free world. We’re never going to live in a risk-free world. We are going to have to live with Covid-19 because it’s going to be around for a long time unless somebody successfully invents and trials a vaccine.
My choice would be that I would live a perfectly normal life. If the pubs were open now, I would go to a crowded pub with no hesitation. If the theatres were open, I would go to the theatre with no hesitation because this is – for the overwhelming majority of people with no serious underlying conditions – a very mild epidemic. In the in the Cabinet Office papers published with the National Risk Assessment they listed all the pandemics since 1918. The mortality rate of this one is right down the bottom, lower than any of the others. And I would happily take that risk.
Undoubtedly, there will be a few people who do not make sensible decisions. But you cannot imprison the entire population simply because a small minority is not being very sensible with their own safety.
This lockdown is destroying livelihoods on a massive scale. It is doing enormous damage. And in my view, it has never been a price worth paying for the not-very-impressive results that can be directly attributed to the lockdown assumption. We are entitled to take risks with our own lives, especially when basically life is only worth living if you are prepared to engage in social activities which inevitably involve risk. That is part of life.
This is an edited transcript of an interview that Lord Sumption gave to the BBC earlier today.
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