Private Jokesters, Public Enemies
One year ago Canadian truckers drove into Ottawa, halted their trucks outside Parliament, and held an impromptu fiesta to protest the anti-Covid regulations that instructed them to accept vaccines in order to safeguard the world from harm as they made their lonely drives along the great North American expressways. It wasn’t the first protest against the anti-Covid lockdowns and other regulations—there had been many in Europe and North America—but it was the first such demonstration that won mass sympathy around the world. It marked a turning point.
As more and more people shared their doubts with each other, they realized that doubters like themselves were in the majority. What happened next is called a “preference cascade”: it’s the moment when everyone wakes up and says: “Hey, that man behind the curtain is an emperor, and he hasn’t got a stitch of argument on.” An orthodoxy sustained by groupthink began to crumble. How had governments worldwide been led into imposing the long lockdown nightmare? At the time I argued that it had happened like this:
- Governments had panicked, cast aside their original pandemic planning (based on protecting vulnerable groups), and decided to suppress the virus by locking down entire societies.
- The forecasts supporting this policy were false or exaggerated. Covid-19 killed people; but its infection fatality rate was low, most of its victims were elderly people with pre-existing conditions; and “excess deaths” from all causes were quite low.
- But these realities were concealed by suppressing medical information that contradicted the orthodoxy, censoring scientists who dissented from it, and by “nudging” people to accept lockdown policies at a subconscious level with campaigns rooted in fear.
There had to be a better way—and there was. While Britain had been following the lockdown orthodoxy, Sweden had adopted a less restrictive model: reliance on the personal responsibility of ordinary citizens to make sensible choices. What did a comparison show? Britain’s death rate was almost twice as high as Sweden’s; its accumulated indebtedness was twice as high; and its economic recovery much slower.
Even governments now began to crumble too. Rishi Sunak, then the U.K.’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and now its prime minister, gave an interview in which he revealed that there had never been a proper cost-benefit analysis to test the lockdown decision against other policy options; described how he had secretly gone to private sector researchers to compare official forecasts of future risks against their findings; and he discovered that the official figures were massively wrong.
This interview had less impact than it deserved. Too many people had an interest in not making a bigger fuss about it. It wasn’t only ministers and officials who had backed the wrong policies—the opposition parties, the media, the BBC, the medical journals, and the Whitehall scientists had mostly been calling for a tougher lockdown approach and more restrictions on personal liberty. They weren’t interested in exposing themselves. Something more was needed to get people's attention. And then was heard a shot from a smoking gun.
In order to write his own account of how he had helped to save Britain from Covid-19, health secretary Matthew Hancock who had been forced to resign for unrelated reasons (i.e., he was caught cuddling a senior advisor on security cameras, thus violating his own Covid regulations on personal distancing), gave his ghost writer, Isabel Oakeshott, a stack of WhatsApp messages between himself and other ministers at the center of the management of lockdown politics.
When the Hancock-Oakeshott writing team had finished their manuscript and sold it to The Times, Ms. Oakeshott coolly took the treasure trove of informal discussions between all the senior lockdown players and then she handed it to the Daily Telegraph, the Times’ main rival broadsheet. And for the last week the Telegraph has been breaking scoop after scoop revealing the foolish, unconstitutional, undemocratic, and absurd ways that the lockdown decisions were imposed by a few politicians high on their cut-price authoritarianism in full technicolor on a wide screen.
One example will suffice: In a WhatsApp conversation that included the prime minister, a Downing Street aide said: “Sorry for this, but the biggest Q of the day for our finest political journalism is: can I see my boyfriend of girlfriend if we don’t live in the same household?” Well, he at least had the grace to be embarrassed. But the government’s chief scientific advisor replied quite soberly that “the aim is to break contacts between households, so the strict answer is that they shouldn’t meet or should bunker down in the same house.” Fortunately the chief medical officer advised caution: it would be better to make this “advisory,” he thought, since a “sex ban” might invite mockery.
Good guess. Nonetheless, what to do about this acute national problem rumbled on lower down the civil service ranks for several weeks.
How could such things happen? The surprisingly simple answer is that a small subset of cabinet ministers, civil servants, and scientific advisors in key positions—prime minister Boris Johnson, Hancock, the head of the civil service, Simon Case, the chief medical officer, Chris Witty, etc., etc.—removed political decision-making from both parliamentary debate and scrutiny and from the full cabinet in order to made the management of the crisis more timely and efficient. They further concentrated power by determining that since Covid-19 was a medical crisis, they should be advised principally by a committee of doctors when they needed advice from a range of experts from different disciplines (if only to be aware of new problems and the inadequacy of some solutions).
With such a limited range of advice and without the benefit of informed scrutiny, they exaggerated their own capacities, took draconian power over peoples’ freedoms, and ran campaigns to frighten them into accepting that these extraordinary powers were necessary. Inevitably, they kept making more mistakes because, having frightened the public and themselves into a panic, they felt that they needed to keep announcing new measures to calm the public down again, thus making new mistakes, and thus refusing to correct them.
That’s how the entire descent into worldwide panic started. A British cabinet already equipped with a pandemic strategy accepted and praised by the World Health Organization was given extraordinarily high forecasts of likely Covid-19 deaths from Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College in London. But the cabinet abandoned its original strategy and embarked on a lockdown that confined people to their homes and strangled the economy.
Unfortunately, both the British government’s example and the prestige of Imperial College influenced other governments, especially those in the Anglosphere, which then imposed their own lockdowns, so Jacinda Ardern closed down New Zealand entirely, Scott Morrison made Australia a prison for its citizens, Justin Trudeau required Canadian truckers to get vaccinated for no particular reason, and . . . the whole massive stupidity started to unravel.
Shouldn’t the Canadian truckers be getting the Nobel Peace Prize about now? Maybe sharing it with Isabel Oakeshott?