The government has taken a twin track approach to Covid - finding the medicines and cures as fast as possible and reducing infection spread while this work goes on. The current lockdown is until 31 March. The vaccine seems so tantalisingly close, but even by the end of February we will not have vaccinated every vulnerable group fully. Full vaccination for all, and we are all susceptible, should be in place by the summer.
Why therefore did I not support the vote for a lockdown? Because I wanted to protect everyone from what I saw as an increased risk of ill health - and death, from all causes. That sounds bizarre until you understand the total impact of a lockdown. It is a very blunt instrument. The upside is clearly infection rates should reduce. But if the downsides are greater, or there is a less damaging approach, we should avoid lockdown and look to that.
What are the downsides of lockdown? The government has not, despite repeated requests, undertaken a full risk assessment of the impact on the health and wellbeing of our country as a whole. It has modelled what it thinks will happen regarding the spread of Covid - but nothing else. It has collected data on Covid - but nothing else, and some of that data is suspect - which is not intended as a criticism, but a fact given the challenges of doing so.
So, assessing the downsides is something we can only assess indirectly with no official data or statistics. This is what I understand to be the case based on reported experience of lockdowns 1 and 2:
- Mental illness is increasing by some 20% nationally - and that can be as much of a killer as physical illness. Men are worst affected - because losing your job is like losing your identity and purpose.
- Mental health cases in young people are doubling. Keeping children from school not only impacts their education and life chances but takes away their sense of purpose and self- worth.
- Domestic abuse is substantially on the rise both physical and emotional - currently a hidden crime but one which becomes evident after every lockdown. Knife crime (related to mental health) is also on the rise.
- More people are dying from cancer, stroke and heart problems than would be the norm, fewer people are presenting with cancer and other health concerns. Fewer people are having operations other than emergency operations.
- More businesses are shutting, and more people are losing their jobs, some with government help and some not. The impact on these individuals mentally, never mind financially, is serious.
The risk and rate of infection is not universal across the country. The pressure on the NHS is not universal across the country. If we made a supreme effort to supercharge our processes cutting the brick wall of red tape to bring in and retrain the many medically trained volunteers waiting, removed NHS staff from track and trace and tested them daily (as we are piloting in Devon) instead of sending them off to self-isolate, aggressively separated out the infected from the non-infected and stopped the rise in hospital acquired infections, and opened up the Nightingales where we have better oxygen distribution systems, which our old hospitals can’t deliver – the NHS wouldn’t fall over.
The tiering system, whatever its failings, was at least more proportionate and aligned to the risks. In Devon for example, our infection rate has always been well below the national average while it has nudged up and down. Our Nightingale is open for Covid patients and we are able to take patients from the South East – it is after all – a national health service. In a full lockdown Devon fares worse because of our economic dependence on leisure and tourism, a sector which is closed in lockdown unlike construction, or manufacturing. It fares worse on all the lockdown disadvantages, particularly mental health. Lockdown is not the answer – and not just for Devon.