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The validity of lockdown debated at the Cambridge Union

Cambridge students voted by 362 votes to 309 to approve the motion, “this House believes lockdown was a mistake” yesterday (Thursday, January 28).

Oscar Wilde and George Orwell debate at the Cambridge Union on January 23, 2020
Oscar Wilde and George Orwell debate at the Cambridge Union on January 23, 2020

In the online Cambridge Union debate, which questioned the government's strategy for tackling the pandemic, those supporting the motion were Conservative MP Sir Graham Brady, chairman of Reform UK, Richard Tice, and social commentator, journalist and author, Toby Young.

Opposing it were writer, novelist and journalist Laura Spinney, novelist and physician Phil Whitaker and Liberal Democrat MP, Layla Moran.

The debate was chaired by the president for Lent 2020, Freddie Fisk, a third year history undergraduate at Robinson College.

Getting the proceedings under way was Sir Graham Brady, who said that The Lancet medical journal reported on December 23 that, looking at the second lockdown, "it remains unclear how effective tier restrictions were in reducing transmission and what additional reduction in transmission might have been accomplished by the second lockdown."

"We can see the efficacy of lockdowns is unclear," suggested Sir Graham, "certainly rates had started to fall before schools were closed earlier this month, or indeed last March."

He said: "We know that rates of transmission can fall without lockdown and can rise whilst restrictions are in place," adding: "While some degree of restriction does, I'm sure, impact transmission, it remains, as The Lancet report says, unclear whether lockdown has any particular beneficial impact."

Sir Graham mentioned, among other things, the 800,000 people who have lost their jobs since March, those who may have no job to return to when furlough comes to an end, and "the growing number" of people who are taking their own lives.

Sir Graham also spoke of the "hideous toll" on children and young people, the "three-fold increase" in the reporting of eating disorders, and the NSPCC reporting a 43 per cent increase in referrals for child abuse.

The Cambridge Union (28023805)
The Cambridge Union (28023805)

The MP for Altrincham and Sale West concluded by saying: "We should be responsible, we should recognise our responsibility to look after our own health and to protect other people, but we also have to recognise the critical importance of these fundamental rights - and if we say that government has the right to take them away, we should then ask, 'but for how long?'

"For three weeks might have been one thing, for a year is quite another. We should do what we can to fight this terrible virus, but if we have lost our freedoms and all that makes life worth living, then lockdown has been a mistake - not just once but three times."

Next up, opposing the motion, was Laura Spinney, author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, who began by talking about lockdown from a "global and historical point of view".

She noted that there have been a lot more pandemics throughout history than people tend to think.

"There have been an estimated 15 pandemics in the last 500 years," she said, "which works out as roughly three per century, on average, and our response to pandemics has always been a version of lockdown (this point was later questioned by Toby Young), by which I mean that suite of measures we refer to as social or physical distancing, and it keeps the sick and the healthy apart.

"It's a pretty short shopping list: isolation of the sick, quarantine of suspected cases, the banning of mass gatherings, masks, occasionally sanitary cordons - those are fairly brutal - and lastly, since we understood the rules of hygiene, things like hand-washing.

"We've picked and chosen from that shopping list and we've done that because we've learnt, since time immemorial, that it works - and it's pretty much the only thing that works."

Laura spoke about how lockdown meant something different last year to what it means now, as back then we didn't know anything about the disease, and highlighted the importance of contact tracing for early detection of an outbreak, saying that the UK hasn't got its contact tracing "up to speed" - so "lockdown has also meant different things in different countries at different times."

She added: "In general, Asian countries - Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam and others - have done much better on doing contact tracing, compared to Europe. Britain is pretty much at the bottom of that ranking."

She said that in Britain, lockdowns have been put in place too late and lifted too early, but noted: "They're still better than nothing; they still achieved their temporary goal, which was to bring infection rates down."

One of the main criticisms of lockdown has been its effect on the economy, but Laura said there is "no trade off between health and the economy - that is a falsehood. If you protect more lives, you protect the economy - and that also, by the way, was seen in 1918."

Laura concluded by asking: "What do we mean by 'freedom' in the context of a pandemic? One year in, the streets of Wuhan are as busy, pretty much, as they were pre-pandemic, and China's economy is the only major economy to have grown last year.

"Vietnam's economy grew too but it was small. Singapore's restaurants are open, in Auckland, New Zealand, they gathered on the beaches maskless, for the most part, to celebrate new year.

"That doesn't mean that they've let down their guard in any of these places - they haven't; they're still doing contact tracing, they're rolling out vaccines, they're extremely vigilant for new outbreaks...

"But they have, with all those caveats, got back to something close to normality. Meanwhile, in Europe, we are either in - or staring at - a new lockdown, and our economies and our societies have been scarred for years, or perhaps decades, to come."

She added: "It's not the lockdown that robs you of your freedom, it's the disease."

Other points raised by the panel in this good-natured debate included Richard Tice saying that Britain's death rate per capita is the "worst in the world, about 25 per cent worse than Sweden," which, he noted, hasn't had a full lockdown.

He also said that there was "no real logic" as far as the death rates are concerned, citing the fact that Texas and Florida implemented "soft restrictions" but that their death rates have been "some 40 per cent lower than Massachusetts and New York who had harder lockdowns."

Richard suggested that the British government was using the lockdown "to cover up its multiple mistakes" and the success countries such as New Zealand and Japan have had in controlling the virus has mainly come from the fact that they immediately shut their international borders and "properly quarantined" those who were infected.

Phil Whitaker said that for every 100 people who get Covid, four of them are going to need hospital care and also spoke of the effects of 'long Covid' and how fast-rising rates can quickly lead to hospitals "becoming overwhelmed".

He said that in the summer, there were confident predictions that there would be no second wave. "The problem with this kind of magical thinking is it comes a cropper when it runs into reality, which it did in September, when we started our second wave."

Phil added: "Actually, courtesy of Her Majesty's government, we've now got the best demonstration that you could possibly want that lockdowns work because we've not got three lockdowns, sadly, that we've endured, and with every one you can see a beautiful correlation - dropping case numbers, dropping hospital admissions and finally dropping death rates.

"So lockdowns work, but nobody on this side of the argument is suggesting that they're a good thing. They are like chemotherapy: they cause a huge amount of harm in trying to achieve good."

Also in the debate Toby Young talked of the "catastrophic harm" caused by lockdowns - saying that we should focus on protecting the vulnerable - and stated that the British government has never carried out a cost-benefit analysis of them.

"Civil liberties haven't been suspended on this scale ever before in Britain's history, including during wartime," he noted, adding: "No one wants to 'let it rip', no one denies this is a deadly disease, but the truth is if you're under 65 and you have no underlying comorbidities, you're more likely to die in a road traffic accident than you are from Covid-19."

Layla Moran MP, who also currently chairs the All-Party Group on Coronavirus, began with a sobering thought: "What is freedom and liberty to those over 100,000 people who have so far died in this pandemic in this country alone - where is their freedom?

"Or indeed the over 300,000 now estimated to be living with long Covid, who find themselves wondering if they're permanently disabled?"

She continued: "I too do not want to curtail anyone's liberty; I want small businesses to thrive, I want children, as a former teacher, to go to school.

"I'm also a physics graduate - I taught science for over a decade before entering Parliament - and if this pandemic is anything, it's an advert for why scientific literacy and numeracy are so important.

"One hypothesis by a commentator is not an expert opinion, one expert opinion is not a peer-reviewed paper, and one peer-reviewed paper is not a body of evidence - and that body of evidence is what is growing."

The Member of Parliament for Oxford West and Abingdon said that Covid is "far, far deadlier" than other viruses in history, such is Swine Flu, adding: "The fact is, by the time many realised that the virus was a problem, it was already too late.

"The fact that lockdown wasn't applied early enough has caused anger in those parts of the world that understand this."

Layla suggested that not locking down would have resulted in "many more deaths" but also said that lockdown "should only have happened once."

"We must listen to that body of evidence," she observed, "learn from history and learn from other countries, putting lives and livelihoods top of that agenda."

The full result of the debate was 362 ayes, 309 noes and five abstention.

To find out more about upcoming events at the Cambridge Union, visit cus.org.

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