What have we learnt from a year of Covid?

15th April, 2021

We are now about a year into the ohmygosh-this-is-for-real stage of the pandemic. A time, perhaps, for taking stock of the big decisions — and whether they were wise.

To my mind, there were two big calls to be made. The first: was this virus a deadly enough threat to merit extraordinary changes to life as we know it? The second: should those changes be voluntary or a matter for politicians, the courts and the police?

The UK wavered over the first decision — long enough to ensure that the country suffered one of the deadliest first-wave outbreaks in the world. But in the end, the decision was made: this wasn’t just like a bad flu, which we should take on the chin. It was simply too dangerous to keep calm and carry on.

I have always suspected that this realisation was sparked by the terrifying footage from overwhelmed Italian hospitals, but modelling also played a part. An infamous working paper, “Report 9”, published just over a year ago by the Covid-19 Response Team at Imperial College, predicted: “In the (unlikely) absence of any control measures or spontaneous changes in individual behaviour . . . 81% of the GB and US populations would be infected.” If so, more than 500,000 people would die in the UK alone.

I have read several explanations of why this report was so badly mistaken. That is odd — I re-read it this week and it doesn’t seem mistaken at all. The researchers got the big picture right: Covid-19 was highly infectious, killed about 1 per cent of the people infected in the UK and thus could kill a huge number of people if not stopped. Most of those who died would be elderly.

We have not, thank goodness, seen 500,000 deaths. But we might well reach 150,000. Most of those deaths were caused by two terrifyingly rapid waves of infection. Had we shrugged our collective shoulders and done nothing but make more coffins, 500,000 deaths would surely have been the result.

The Imperial report also correctly suggested that lockdowns might have to be repeated almost indefinitely until a vaccine became available. I didn’t want to believe it at the time, but it gave us a glimpse of the future: rolling lockdowns for more than a year.

The report’s mention of “control measures or spontaneous changes in individual behaviour” raises the second big choice we collectively made — with the media, politicians, public health officials and police all playing a role. The question was how much to trust ordinary citizens to make sensible decisions. Our answer: not much.

Read the newspaper headlines and you’d conclude that we were all panicky, selfish fools: too scared of a virus in a faraway country (those “don’t overreact” articles from early 2020 have not aged well); hoarding all the masks and loo paper; and performing acts of outrageous selfishness such as going to the beach or the park.

This narrative was unhelpful in several ways. First, people are influenced by each other — an idea sometimes termed “social proof”. If you show us images of selfish covidiots, we are more likely to be selfish; show us noble altruists and we aspire to be like them. Second, because the shaming focused on publicly visible behaviour, people were blamed for doing something quite safe — going outside. Third, if we believe people are foolish and selfish, we have to rely on writing and then enforcing strict rules about what is and is not allowed.

Such rules are inevitably blunt. They implicitly endorse much that they should not (such as sitting 2.1 metres apart from someone in a poorly ventilated office or pub), while banning all sorts of things that should be permitted. Last spring, I saw the police admonishing a lady sitting alone in the middle of a meadow. Had she been doing sit-ups, her behaviour would have been allowable as daily exercise — but she was reading a book and was thus a lawbreaker. Absurd.

I suspect — but cannot prove — that a lighter touch would have prevented more Covid with less collateral damage. Pure voluntarism might not have been enough, but you can get a long way with altruism, social pressure and clear guidance.

Japan’s advice — to avoid the “Three Cs” of closed spaces, crowded places and close contact — is far more memorable to me than whatever strange combination of households, settings and exemptions the authorities in my own country are currently allowing. (Let’s not even start on the excuses made for the behaviour of Dominic Cummings.)

Nowhere was this clearer than in the government’s catastrophic handling of Christmas. It issued an incomprehensible tangle of rules allowing a three-household “Christmas bubble”, basked in headlines such as “Boris Johnson battles experts to save Christmas” and finally backpedalled at the last moment. The result was that many families made dangerous plans to spend Christmas with elderly relatives on the assumption that they must be safe because they were legal, then felt resentment at the change. Much of the damage was already done; most days in January had more than 1,000 deaths.

There is every reason to believe that vaccination is making short work of the pandemic in the UK, but it is always worth learning lessons. I’ll remember to trust the competence of the government a little less, to trust mathematical models a little more and to have some respect for the decency of ordinary people.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 19 March 2021.

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