‘Sunk cost error’ is a well-known source of distortion in human decision-making. A decision is made which has destructive implications. The limited benefits and the immense collateral damage are gradually becoming apparent.
It is virtually impossible for those involved in the decision to change their mind. No one wants to admit that it all could have been for nothing, even though it’s the truth. They have invested too much in the decision to break the deadlock. So they insist, more to avoid blame than to serve the public interest. This is what happened to governments across Europe and to the hollow body of specialists advising them. Their recipe is simple: if the locks haven’t worked, there’s nothing wrong with the concept. We just need more of them.
What we really need is a fresh look at the evidence from people who are not attached to their own past positions. This is what the Health Advisory and Recovery Team (HART), a group of more than 40 highly qualified scientists, psychologists, statisticians and health practitioners, provided in an “Overview of the Evidence” published last week. It is intended for non-specialists, but is scrupulously referenced to specialized research. This will not change the opinion of ministers or their advisers. But it should provoke thought among us. We can’t contribute science, but we can at least understand it. Those who do not even want to do so have no moral right to demand coercive action against their fellow citizens.
The HART overview concludes that interlocks “must never be repeated”. They “are useless and cause catastrophic societal and economic damage.” He calls for a return to the pandemic plans prepared for more than a decade for this kind of event by the UK and other governments and endorsed by the WHO. They were based on two principles. Avoid coercion and don’t go for universal measures like lockouts when risks affect different groups differently. They recommended balanced public health guidelines, no border closures and targeted action to help the most vulnerable. These principles were abruptly abandoned a year ago. They were replaced by an untried experiment, which there was no time or research to consider properly.
Not everything HART says is convincing. But proponents of the lockdown never answered three key points in this study.
First, international comparisons are now available that show no correlation between the severity of a lockdown and the level of infections or deaths. Sweden, whose conditions are broadly comparable to ours, fared better, with no lockdowns, no school closures and minimal legal restrictions. Comparable US states like North Dakota (lockdown) and South Dakota (no lockdown) show no significant difference in results.
Second, the collateral costs of lockdowns are incredibly high, but governments have stubbornly refused to face them.
Studies from our own government suggest that the long-term death toll will be around 220,000, about half of which will be due to factors ranging from undiagnosed cancer to rising poverty, which are attributable to foreclosure rather than ‘to Covid. Even that ignores the rapid rise in mental illness and dementia, itself a big killer. Regarding non-health effects, we have so far suffered a 10 percent drop in GDP while the equivalent figure for Sweden is only 2.6 percent. The consequences will be with us for decades.
Third, the burden of foreclosure falls primarily on those least at risk of serious illness or death. The extreme example is the closure of schools, which has had exceptionally severe effects on the current mental health and future prospects of young people. Yet not a single previously healthy child has died from Covid. The evidence for significant transmission of Covid from children is unusually thin.
We were shocked by the so-called precautionary principle, that if we have no proof of something, we should assume the worst. This marks the extreme point of our risk averse world. The other point of view is that you have to have good, evidence-based reasons if you want to stop people from meeting the basic human need for social contact, destroying their businesses and jobs, and destroying the lives of their children. If you don’t know, don’t.
Lord Sumption sat on the S of the UKSupreme Court between 2012-18