Should we really scream at each other about lockdowns before figuring out what the word means?

22nd October, 2020

The headlines tell the story. “Thousands in Madrid to lock down”, “New Covid-19 rules for more parts of North and Midlands”, “Can a ‘circuit break’ halt the second Covid wave?”, “‘Voluntary lockdown’ plea to university’s students” and “Further Covid-19 measures ‘likely’ in London”. That is just one website — the BBC — and all those headlines were displayed simultaneously.

But despite the numerous headlines, it is far from obvious what a “lockdown” is supposed to mean, and the lack of clarity risks making a bad situation worse. The most obvious risk is that people become too confused and irritated to follow the rules. The “rule of six”, for example, was announced on the UK government’s website, but down in paragraph 11 of the press release it says it only applies in England. Yet the same rule did apply in Scotland — sort of. Children under 12 there were exempt before things changed again and a ban on Scottish households mixing indoors was announced.

The flotilla of measures launched on Tuesday overlaps with local variants that affect more than 10 million people in the UK. These run the gamut: closing pubs entirely, or banning mixing outdoors, or indoors, or entering or leaving the area in question.

Perhaps there is some clever science behind all this fine-tuning, but I am not the only one who is starting to doubt that. And while people have made real sacrifices to look after each other in this crisis, it may be asking too much to follow instructions from leaders who can’t get to the end of a thought without interrupting themselves.

There is a subtler issue here. Despite the word “lockdown” being ambiguous, it has become yet another ideological cleavage point. Donald Trump, always eager to cheer on a political brawl, tweeted back in April: “LIBERATE MINNESOTA”, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA”. There were protests against lockdown in Berlin in April.

The argument is seeping into the culture. In August, the journalist Toby Young announced that he was creating a dating site for lockdown sceptics, after receiving an email declaring: “I could never date (let alone build a relationship with) a lockdown zealot.” The correspondent lamented to Young that the issue was “sadly divisive”; he is the living proof.

It is quite right that people argue about the pros and cons of lockdowns: they matter. Life, liberty and livelihoods are all at stake. But people are screaming at each other without really stopping to ponder what they are screaming about.

In Spain, for example, children were forbidden to leave their own homes for weeks. The UK’s rules were never so strict. Both policies, however, were termed a “lockdown”.

Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government tracks policy responses to the pandemic, noting variations such as whether restrictions are national or local, compulsory or optional, and whether they cover all or some schools, workplaces, private gatherings, public events, public transport, domestic travel and international travel. Not all lockdowns are created equal.

Sweden, famously, never had a lockdown, but mobility data from Google shows a dramatic fall in visits to shops and workplaces nonetheless. Evidence from neighbouring US states paints a similar picture: places that were not shut down by law tended to shut down anyway as people decided to avoid public spaces.

As a point of principle, there is all the difference in the world between deciding to stay at home and being ordered to do so by the government. From a pragmatic point of view, however, the difference may not be so vast that you should let it determine your love life.

There is a broader lesson here. Most of us suffer from what psychologists call the “illusion of explanatory depth”: we tell ourselves we understand the world, but when pressed for detail we realise that our understanding is rather vague. People think they understand flush lavatories, bicycles and zip fasteners — until researchers hand them a pen and paper and invite them to elaborate.

The same is true for policy questions. People brim with confidence when psychologists ask them to rate their knowledge of, say, a cap-and-trade scheme. But asking them to supply details punctures this illusion of expertise. (This finding is described by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach in their book The Knowledge Illusion.)

More interesting is that after this exercise laid bare the ignorance of experimental subjects, they would tend to become more politically moderate and less eager to condemn those who disagreed. Why rush to the barricades, after all, once you’ve realised you didn’t quite understand what the revolution was all about? Neither social media nor newspaper headlines have room for detail, and politics has rarely been a place for nuance.

Nevertheless, as we contemplate the prospect of “Lockdown 2.0”, and are tempted to roll our eyes at sceptics or zealots who disagree with us, it is worth asking, “what exactly do you mean by lockdown?” Ask the question openly and kindly, and both of you may learn something.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 25 September 2020.

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