Lockdown Isn’t Killing Us – But It Might Kill Neoliberalism

Chris Thomas discusses the impact of lockdown on society.

Lockdown scepticism is the new black, the must have accessory for right wing outriders. Toby Young, self-appointed director of the Free Speech Union, is amongst the fiercest, preaching a motto of ‘Stay sceptical. End the Lockdown. End Lives’. Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens calls lockdown a ‘stumbling retreat from reason into fear’.

Imagine their glee at recent studies implying lockdown has harmed our health. The scariest numbers come from a cross-government report, which estimated that 200,000 people could die as a result of ‘lockdown and Covid’s impact on the NHS’. The Telegraph rushed to splash ‘lockdown may cause 200,000 extra deaths’ across their front page.

It is one example of a growing trend. Prominent voices are laying the blame for our health and economic woes at the door of lockdown, rather than the virus itself.  

Such a move is far from evidence based. The vast majority of the 200,000 deaths in the government report were due to capacity issues caused by Covid-19, and only very few to specific consequences of lockdown. Besides, it’s strange to present lockdown as anything but inevitable once Covid-19 did emerge. We should not forget that Imperial University modelling estimated that 500,000 people could have died without any lockdown policy. Neil Ferguson notes that locking down a week earlier could have halved total mortality.

So why is there a concerted assault on lockdown as a public health policy?

The motivation behind undermining lockdown’s legacy is not evidence, but politics. Lockdown challenges the socio-economic status quo of libertarian social policy and neoliberal economics. Specifically, it sits as testament that there are alternatives to running the country through narrow definitions of civil liberty and growth.

Already, it has reinvigorated the case for the “nanny state”. Behind Boris Johnson’s new obesity strategy - full of junk food marketing bans, calorie labelling and supermarket regulation – is the idea proportionate intervention on the basis of health is justified. It is the logic of lockdown, espoused by a Prime Minister who won his position running on a libertarian ticket.

Perhaps more severely, lockdown challenges the notion of gross domestic product (GDP) as an accurate measure of growth, prosperity and happiness.

The status quo view is that GDP is the ordinate measure of the health of the country. Social policy should only be pursued, it taught, to the extent is does not deflate growth. Despite clear evidence that GDP falls must be combined with austerity to impact health in a country like the UK, this idea continues to masquerade as common sense.

But lockdown provides a natural experiment that forcefully puts forward a different conclusion. It posits that we can justifiably ignore growth, on the basis of other priorities – like health and wellbeing.

In this way, lockdown supports a radical movement pushing back against how we define growth. Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics; the wellbeing budget, recently implemented in New Zealand; or even Wales’ Future Generations Act propose redefining prosperity around what is good for the planet, for public health and for people’s wellbeing.

These are ideas that threaten to overthrow the way neoliberal economies are run. They imply a bigger role for the state; significant investment in human capacity; and a prioritisation of people over markets. Following Covid-19, these are ideas that have never been stronger and establishment voices are scared. It is not the failure of lockdown that worries the right – but its success. It is one of the most successful, popular policies in modern history. And the right fear that legacy could change the world.

The implication for progressive thinkers and voices should be clear. It means the battle for lockdown’s legacy will be a critical one. It will symbolise the kind of world and the kind of priorities we want. It is an argument we must now win.

Chris Thomas is a senior fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research. He is a public health specialist and passionate about health, the NHS and wellbeing. He writes in a personal capacity. 

He tweets @cthomashealth.

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