The debate about Covid-19 has created fireworks and polemics between stay-insiders who, as commentator Christopher Snowdon has said, “consider any relaxation of lockdown as tantamount to genocide”, and lets-go-outers, who laud Bjorn Borg, Volvo, ABBA and the more relaxed Swedish approach to the virus.
The public is intelligent and understands, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, that both sides cannot be wrong.
The truth is out there somewhere, but is hidden in a fog by a lack of reliable information – and by political and tribal conflict in which heavily doctored evidence has become the norm.
A volte face by the advisory committee Sage, and the government, has added to the confusion. Sage said in March that it “was unanimous that measures seeking to completely suppress the spread of Covid-19 will cause a second peak”.
The committee and the government nevertheless u-turned and sought to suppress the virus, following the publication of disputed research by Imperial College which, according to the Swedish epidemiologist Johan Giesecke, was deeply flawed and “changed the policy of the world”, leaving the Swedes in isolation.
Professor Giesecke highlights three fault lines with Imperial’s research: it wasn’t published “which is normal scientific behaviour”, it wasn’t peer-reviewed “which is also normal behaviour”, and, most importantly, it greatly overestimated the severity of the infection by “underestimating the proportion of very mild cases.”
The UK public’s perplexity was further exacerbated by exhortations to “follow the science” – falsely implying that disputatious scientists had sunk their differences on the subject and were all promoting the same path.
As anyone running a business knows, experts and scientists promote all sorts of conflicting opinions and the true gift of leadership is to use common sense and debate to sift the wheat from the chaff. The same applies to politics: to govern is to choose, according to the political adage.
Thus many of us, supported by most world governments, followed the science and bought diesel cars – only to discover, after a few decades, that the science was cobblers.
Indeed, “following the science” has been particularly hazardous in the pseudo-medical area of dietary advice, for the last half century at least.
The main advice since the 1970s, swallowed whole by most commentators, academics and the medical profession, has been to avoid or minimise consumption of butter, cheese, eggs and full fat milk – unfortunately, it would seem, that advice has turned out to be utter cobblers too, as most people now know.
There has also been a consensus of medical advice that heavy exercise, let’s say a daily five mile run, is healthy, but that also turns out to be untrue for many people – a daily stroll may well be healthier, after all, it seems.
Risking opprobrium from what comedian Ricky Gervais calls the “outrage mobs”, many observers believe that the Swedes and let’s-go-outers are now building a winning position in this fractious debate – not through debating prowess or slogans, but because they’re right.
Sweden itself, having avoided a lockdown, is doing well, perhaps better than the UK, Spain and France – and the serious repercussions of the virus there appear to be on the wane.
Stay-insiders counter that Sweden’s relative success is due to a less dense population.
However, the US and France both locked down and both are far less densely populated than the UK, yet the severity of their experience with Covid-19 has been similar to ours.
Conversely, Singapore is far more densely populated, yet has had lower fatality rates. So an explanation based on population density makes no sense.
Swedish epidemiolists, like Johan Giesecke and Anders Tegnell, supported by an impressive cast of academics in the UK, the US and elsewhere, have argued that following the science means protecting the old and vulnerable, washing hands and social distancing – measures for which there is clear scientific evidence.
There is no evidence, they say, that lockdowns work – when you lift the lockdowns, the virus resumes its course, which is mild or asymptomatic in most cases.
Indeed this prediction may explain a resurgence of cases in Australia and New Zealand, once restrictions were lifted.
However, lockdowns invariably cause massive collateral damage, devastating economies, inducing mental illness, reducing treatments for serious conditions and interrupting education.
In addition, if you suppress the virus in one country, as New Zealand has, the Swedes say, you must keep your borders closed indefinitely, which is not a practical proposition for a successful economy.
So for many of us, it seems likely that the ice-cool Swedes, who kept their heads while others were losing theirs, are right.
However, as pragmatists, we don’t blame the government for getting it wrong in backing the Imperial College horse, under the most excruciating pressure.
Ironically, since lockdown has ended , we’ve broadly followed a course the Swedes have advocated all along.
As in medicine, business, sport, war or any other field of human endeavour, it’s easy to make the wrong move and it’s essential to zig zag to the right conclusion.
Most let’s-go-outers believe that the government zigged in the wrong direction during lockdown – so now it’s time to zag. Eventually, the fog will lift and we’ll know for sure who’s right.