22 March 2021
by George Dance via lockdownsceptics
The Great Barrington Declaration (GBD),1 under which thousands of scientists and medical practitioners have called for a end to lockdown policies, was drawn up last October 1st-4th, was announced on October 5th, and was already being denounced on October 6th. Over the next month, the GBD and its message were virtually buried beneath an “avalanche of scathing criticism condemning it as ‘very dangerous, unscientific, unethical, total nonsense, dangerously flawed, conspiratorial and grotesque’. Among the critics were prominent role-players such as World Health Organization director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, British chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, and US infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci”.2 Defenders of the lockdown consensus released a counter-manifesto, the John Snow Memorandum,3 ironically named for epidemiology’s most famous dissenter from a scientific consensus.
At the time I read everything I could on the topic and made copious notes, hoping to write my own perspective on the GBD. Long before I was in a position to do that, though, the debate had moved on, and I never had an opportunity to revisit the subject.
Fortunately, there is a new FAQ in town: Anti-Virus: The COVID-19 FAQ.4 This new FAQ may not be the best place to go for scientific advice about the disease; the ‘doctors’ behind it seem to mainly have doctorates in economics and psychology (though I have read that there is an anonymous scientist involved), and some of their claims, such as “Covid still has a high fatality rate among younger people”, seem supported more by semantics than by science. (“Younger” in context turns out to be “younger than 65”).5 But at least the FAQ has revived the Declaration and assembled a ‘best of’ the criticisms levelled against it, making it worthwhile to revisit the debate.
Before getting to that, it is helpful to look at background context. A major player in the Anti-virus FAQ is a Member of the UK Parliament, Neil O’Brien, introduced (by the Times) in November as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “new policy guru”.6 Johnson has faced a backbench rebellion from a group of lockdown sceptics within his Conservative Party, the Covid Recovery Group (CRG); concerns have been expressed that the CRG could defeat the Government in Parliament, should the opposition Labour party vote with them (unlikely as that seems, with Labour leader Keir Starmer reading the same polls as Johnson).7 At least one cabinet minister has privately lashed out at both the CRG and the GBD.7 Johnson’s new policy guru has now taken the fight against lockdown sceptics and scepticism to the public, apparently with Government backing;8 and the COVID-19 FAQ seems an integral part of his messaging.
Strangely, though, there is little talk of lockdowns or lockdown sceptics on the FAQ at all. Its first paragraph does briefly mention those who say “that governments shouldn’t try to contain the virus with lockdowns”, but only to lump them in with those who believe that “Covid isn’t particularly dangerous”, and rebrand the lot as “Covid Sceptics”. These Covid Sceptics, we are then told, share and profess a number of absurd beliefs, including but not limited to:
- “the number of infections is much lower than it really has been”
- “health systems were under less strain than they really were”
- “the fatality rate and number of deaths were lower than they have been in reality”.3
That stated, the FAQsters turn their full attention to the alleged Covid Sceptics and their alleged claims. The underlying strategy seems to be not to defend lockdowns directly, but to avoid mentioning or discussing them, to keep readers from thinking about them as much as possible; changing the subject to “Covid Sceptics” and their “absurd claims”; it also gives lockdown zealots lots of bullet points to easily repeat and cite, while making the lockdown sceptics spend their time and energy rebutting same, thus both (1) discrediting opposition to lockdowns and (2) suppressing any real discussion of them.
The FAQs page on the GBD follows the same script. Although it is ostensibly deals with the claim that “The Great Barrington Declaration gives a good alternative to lockdown”, the page mentions the word ‘lockdown’ (and says anything about lockdowns) only once, and that in its epigraph (which is a quote from the GBD):
Lockdowns are a very bad idea – they cause economic havoc, stop people getting medical attention for non-COVID problems, and increase loneliness, isolation, and mental health problems. Instead, we should be shielding the vulnerable, and allowing younger, healthier people to live their lives, building natural herd immunity when they catch the virus.9
The FAQsters oppose that claim with seven counter-claims of their own, meant to add up to a comprehensive refutation. It is best to take those in turn:
1) We have vaccines now. The Great Barrington Declaration was misconceived right from the beginning, for reasons we’ll discuss below. But now that we have very effective vaccines, the case for “natural herd immunity” – that is, letting the virus burn through certain parts of the population – is weaker than ever. There is now an end in sight, and a great many people now have the possibility to *never get the virus* in the first place.
I am glad the FAQsters have an end “in sight”, but it would be more helpful to know what particular end they are visualising. Is it when the most at-risk are vaccinated? When enough are vaccinated to reach the herd immunity threshold (the point at which enough people are immune that the virus no longer spreads epidemically)? When the virus is eliminated in the UK? When it is eradicated world-wide? Many countries are nowhere near even that first “end”, while achieving the last could take decades. (Eradicating smallpox took almost 200 years from the first vaccine.) In any case, it will take some time before the end gets here, and either option – let people live their lives, or keep them locked down – is still very much a live one.
At first glance, it seems to me that the coming of safe and effective vaccines not only weakens, but demolishes, the best argument for lockdowns: that they are the only way to stop the disease from spreading. Nor do vaccines weaken the argument for “herd immunity” (or achieving the herd immunity threshold)) – safe and effective vaccines make it possible to reach the threshold much faster than without. So the FAQsters seem to be arguing only against the word “natural”, which sounds like a strawman argument (the major premise of which is that the GBD authors and signatories are anti-vaxxers).
It is common to find posts on social media equating GBD signatories with anti-vaxxers, some by those who signed the JSM.10 And such claims have also seeped into the professional media. For instance, Dominic Lawson of The Times has told us just that:
For those who have opposed the Government’s overall strategy of (intermittently) strict enforcement of social distancing until the arrival of a vaccine, the good news has confounded their predictions and analysis – and many of the most prominent among them have reacted with churlishness, even outright hostility. They are the same people who eulogised what they perceive to be Sweden’s approach: to go for “herd immunity” via naturally acquired infections (whatever the cost in lives) rather than clamp down with legislative force… But rather than admit that [Oxford researcher Sarah] Gilbert (and [Health Secretary Matt] Hancock) had proved their no-alternative-to-herd-immunity-through-naturally-acquired-infection strategy wrong, prominent “lockdown sceptics” have instead cast doubt on the vaccine approved by the MHRA.11
Lawson and the FAQsters are at least ideological allies, making not only the same arguments against the dissenters from lockdown orthodoxy but using identical messaging tactics, like the “Covid Sceptic” rebranding – here is Lawson on that: “I am reminded of [an old joke] by the COVID-19 sceptics (or lockdown sceptics, as some call themselves)”.12 So one needs to deal with the strawman.
The GBD arguably downplayed the importance of vaccines, understandably so, since there were none authorised for use at the time it was written. However, the authors always did acknowledge a role for vaccines in reaching the herd immunity threshold. Since then, they have increasingly emphasised that role. In the following quote, for instance, one can challenge Mr. Bhattacharya’s timeline, but not his commitment to using vaccines:
I think if we use the vaccine correctly we can get back to normal within two months. Let’s say, if we have 50 million people vaccinated, who are at the highest risk, at that point we can open society up.
the logic is that the harm from the lockdown to the rest of society is worse than the disease and the people who are vaccinated are protected. I think we can get back to normal in two months.
Bhattacharya also noted that if we continue to follow the current policy of lockdowns to mitigate the spread of the virus, “we will be doing this for another year or two”.13
Which makes a good segue into the FAQsters’ next argument:
2) Nobody really knows how to “shield” vulnerable people. It sounds very simple: keep the older and more vulnerable people safe, and let everyone else go about their business. But it’s really not that straightforward. Practically, *how* do you keep those vulnerable people safe?
The first thing to occur to a GBD signatory like myself is: “Offer them the vaccine first.” As noted, that is what the GBD authors have been championing, and it has actually become Government policy in some places. Granted, though, that vaccines are not magic; they will not prevent 100% of all Covid-related diseases or deaths; and in some places and for some people for they will not be available for a while. So what else can be done?
Take, for instance, multi-generational households. A great many students and other adult children live with their parents (according to one report, this is around a third of all homes in the UK). In some communities, grandparents often live in the same home as grandchildren. Sharing a home with an infected person is one of the most common ways of catching the coronavirus – one study from South Korea found that home contacts of an infected person were more than six times more likely to have the disease than other contacts. So the question is: where are all the high-risk people supposed to go to “shield” while their younger family members go out and about, merrily catching the virus? The authors of the Great Barrington Declaration have never given anything approaching an adequate answer.
The best answer to that question is to note the questionable assumptions in it. One is that seniors in multi-generational households will have to be removed, perhaps by Government-enforced orders, to quarantine camps or hotels (when GBD in fact advocates no such thing). The other is that, in the absence of lockdowns, everyone would rush out to quickly catch the virus (when it is actually to each person’s advantage to hang back and let others build herd immunity by catching it instead).
Stripping those assumptions out, though, the problem of multi-generational households remains; and one can compare alternative solutions. The lockdown one is simple: prevent Mom from going to work, and her daughter from going to school, and Granny will have nothing to worry about. Yet even a champion of lockdowns like New York governor Andrew Cuomo has questioned how well that worked out: “I don’t even know that that was the best public health policy. Young people then quarantined with older people, [it] was probably not the best public health strategy… The younger people could have been exposing the older people to an infection.” 14
The GBD solution, on the other hand, would be to let these people “live their lives”, which includes managing their own risks. Some common sense suggestions are: the daughter and mother should limit close contact with Granny; they should all give each other maximum space; they should let plenty of fresh air into the house; they should take Vitamins C and D and zinc, and drink tea, to build up their natural immunity. They could all be home-tested or temperature-checked regularly; anyone who felt even mildly ill could wear a mask. Perhaps Mom and Granny could take Ivermectin. Granny could even get a vaccine. (Yes, we have those now.) None of the above requires Government supervision. Not only are most families in situations like these able to manage such risks; as Hayek pointed out, their knowledge of local conditions, which the Government lacks, makes them able to better manage their risks than it would be able to.
If the daughter does catch Covid, she may have to leave home for a couple of weeks, going perhaps to a relative, perhaps to a hospital. After two weeks, though, when she is no longer contagious, she can not only return home but resume a closer relationship with Mom and Granny. Because she now has little to no chance of catching Covid, she has next to no chance of passing it on. By gaining immunity, she is no longer a threat to them but rather a shield; she can be an intermediary contact between Mom, Granny, and others who come to the door.
I realise that two of my own underlying premises – that individuals knowing their own local conditions may manage their own risks better than politicians writing general rules for everyone; and that infections that lead to full recovery and immunity are good things, not bad, because they can protect the more at-risk from infections – may be controversial with some. But I will skip arguing for them here, as this section is already too long.