It is difficult not to feel despondent when considering the enormous loss of liberty that has been inflicted by government lockdown policies in response to COVID-19. This despair has been compounded for many on the right by the final failure of Donald Trump’s attempt to challenge November’s presidential election result, together with the sudden, panicked attempt to remove him from office just days before his term expires, as well as the purging of him and prominent cheerleaders from social media. In this vein, the following quotations – all from prominent libertarians or conservative-libertarians – are not unrepresentative:
“2021 is going to be worse than 2020. Sorry”
“You ain’t seen nothing yet: the worst is yet to come”
“The lockdown is permanent, get used to it. It is all about political control. NOBODY HEALTHY IS DYING.”
It is true that any opponents of lockdown policies need to have a realistic grasp of why these draconian policies have been resorted to and how the situation is likely to pan out. Indeed, enough is now known about COVID-19 for us to be well past the point of lending the state the benefit of the doubt in its decision to continue with those policies. Thus, explanations other than the protection of health must be sought.
Nevertheless, the amount of time spent despairing is beginning to come at the expense of time that could be spent working out how to fight back. Happily, Sean Gabb has helped to buck the trend by offering some reasons as to why the past year has not been all that bad. While Gabb acknowledges that his personal circumstances have contributed much to his relatively sanguine view, it is, nevertheless, a refreshing counterbalance to the torrent of doomerism that seems to be erupting from the right. Continue reading →
This is an update to my paper of December 3rd on tracking the COVID-19 epidemic in fourteen Western European countries. It uses the data up to and including December 31st 2020. The data sources are the same as before: Our World in Data and the Blavatnik School of Government, both at Oxford University.
The main news this month, apart from seemingly never-ending lockdowns and the ghost of Christmas passed, has been the new, supposedly more easily transmissible strain of the virus, discovered in the UK. Initially, I was a bit skeptical. But as you can see in the graph at the top, the UK (pink line) does indeed have a climbing trend in new daily cases, which over the whole of December is very different from the trends in the other countries. So, I think we can fairly say that there is indeed a new, more transmissible strain, in the UK and perhaps some other countries.
A month ago, I compared the histories of the COVID-19 epidemic in fourteen Western European countries. At that point, the “second wave” of the virus, which had been building throughout the region for three or four months, was giving governments an excuse to start re-introducing lockdowns. So, I said that I would review the situation in a month or so. That month has now elapsed, so here’s the review. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll now have enough data to form some idea of which lockdown measures have been effective, and which haven’t.
Although I have written on the topic of how libertarian property rights can be applied to the situation of viruses in two, previous essays, it is useful to summarise this again for a clearer picture. Such an endeavour seems necessary now more than ever, for in spite of increased opposition compared to the first round of lockdowns earlier this year, the various nations of the UK are again heading into some from of lockdown mode as the winter draws near.
Most sceptics of lockdown and restrictive policies designed to “curb” the onset of COVID-19 approach the matter from a utilitarian or technocractic angle – i.e. whether the measures that states are pursuing are an effective and/or proportionate response to the spread of the virus. While this is an invaluable exercise, it does not challenge the principle that the state has the prerogative to obliterate rights and freedoms in the manner that it has. In other words, the notion that, ultimately, our rights could be infringed on a future occasion when someone deems that it is “effective” and “proportionate” to do so is left untouched. Equally intact, therefore, is the notion that our rights are not immovably tied to our status as individual human beings, but are little more than privileges enjoyed at the sufferance of the state. This is not to imply that the principle of liberty has been ignored – former Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption has been a notable high profile critic of the government in this regard. But the general opposition to lockdowns and other restrictions seems to assume that their only problem is that COVID-19 is simply not a big enough crisis to justify the present level of state intrusion. Thus, there is still a need to emphasise the fact that our rights exist not only in fair weather but in storms and hurricanes also – in fact, it is precisely in exceptional circumstances when rights need the most protection for it is always on these occasions that the state exploits fear and anxiety of unknown dangers so as to achieve greater incursions upon our liberty. Continue reading →
In this article I’ll compare the history to date of the COVID-19 epidemic in fourteen European countries, including the UK. I chose the countries with an aim of making them representative of Western Europe as a whole. I excluded island countries other than the UK and Ireland; and I excluded very small countries such as San Marino, Andorra, Liechtenstein and Monaco. Here are the countries I picked, in alphabetical order:
In hindsight, I might perhaps have added Norway as well; but fourteen should be enough.
The COVID data I used came from Our World in Data at https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus-data, and runs up to October 31st. But many of the graphs I show will stop short of that date. For example, any graph which requires (centred) weekly averages in its calculation cannot go further than October 28th, because to calculate the centred weekly average for October 29th would require data for November 1st.
In the last few days, the article I originally planned has been overtaken by political events, as posturing European governments indulge in a game of “COVID copycat” (https://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-lockdown-returns-to-france-and-germany-heres-what-you-need-to-know-12117280). Ireland has been back in lockdown since about October 21st. The UK will, in effect, be going back into full lockdown from November 5th. Belgium and Germany, will be doing the same from the 2nd, and France is already there. The Netherlands is already in partial lockdown. Austria, Portugal, Italy and Spain, too, are locking down further; and Denmark has already done so, if relatively lightly. Switzerland already has “a range of new COVID measures” – which include making people wear masks outside! Even Sweden is now implementing local lockdowns. As far as I can tell, only Luxembourg has not yet followed the copycat trend; and even there, there is talk of a “lockdown lite.”
It’s particularly exasperating that the UK has decided to go the national lockdown route. A few weeks ago, they brought in a “tiered lockdown” system, in which individual areas could be put under restrictions appropriate to the situation in their particular area, while leaving people in less badly affected areas under far lighter restrictions. This seemed to me a very sensible way to go. After all, epidemic control is, by the nature of epidemics, a local matter. And it doesn’t make sense to confine people in Cornwall, say, to their homes because of a serious situation in Leeds, or even in Bristol. Moreover, slightly different rules in different areas would have created an opportunity to collect hard data on what works and what doesn’t.
Johnson and co could perfectly well have used the tiered system to implement full lockdowns in just those places that needed them. But instead of using common sense and adding a “tier four” to the new system, they have caved in to extremists like the SAGE committee, that seem to want to lock people down for the sake of locking people down. Now we are in danger of a situation, where even those in relatively unaffected parts of the country are likely to be forced into a period of lockdown every few months or even every few weeks. That may make the cases figures look better; but in terms of beating the virus, it’s a no-no. For, absent a vaccine, we are going to have to get to the herd immunity threshold. But to lock down people in areas where there are relatively few cases will mean it takes longer – perhaps, years longer – to get there, and beat the virus. Indeed, someone with a nasty agenda, looking to prolong the agony caused by the virus and to prevent the economy ever fully recovering, would find this strategy very attractive.
This article is about SAGE. That is, the UK’s “Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.” Its self-stated remit is that it: “provides scientific and technical advice to support government decision makers during emergencies.” And it has been front and centre in recent spats about COVID-19 [].
The list of SAGE participants can be found at []. That list, dated 17th July, shows 86 members, of whom up to about 20 may be involved in any one meeting or topic.
SAGE recently released the minutes of one of its meetings from last month. This was an immediate response to Boris Johnson’s newly announced tiered COVID lockdown system. The Guardian [] titled the release: “SAGE documents show how scientists felt sidelined by economic considerations.” The experts, they said, wanted a dramatic increase in restrictions across the country to check the alarming rise in infections. To include a “circuit-breaker” lockdown of a couple of weeks, and “closure of all bars, cafes, restaurants, indoor gyms and personal services such as hairdressers.”
In a recent essay, we suggested that one of the possible outcomes of the COVID-19 hysteria could be a greater push towards decentralisation of the British state:
[T]he provinces of the UK are beginning to assert more independence and have tailored their own responses to the COVID-19 outbreak. Both government and the mainstream media refer increasingly to “the four nations”. It would not be a bad thing if this was to drive us towards full political independence for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Moreover, the greater emphasis on tailoring responses to specific regions – such as “local lockdowns” as opposed to the London-centric uniformity that was imposed back in March – may create a demand for more regional governance over other areas of policy, particularly when the repercussions from the lockdowns are more keenly felt.
It seems that those repercussions are now starting to bite. The introduction, this past week, of the Westminster government’s “three tier” approach to COVID restrictions has led to a considerable degree of regional backlash, particularly in Liverpool and Manchester, which either are, or could be moved into, the highest tier of lockdown. Such a category is barely different from the general lockdown back in March, resulting in the closure of pubs and bars (unless they can operate as restaurants – a seemingly inconsistent exception), travel restrictions, and no household mixing either indoors or in private gardens. One amusing, but incisive response from locals was the re-branding of a forcibly closed Liverpool pub to “The Three Bellends” in honour of Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and Dominic Cummings – a case, you might say, of a picture telling a thousand words. Continue reading →