Of all the muddled, panicky, flip-flop responses by the Government to the Covid-19 pandemic, the introduction of a so-called ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown this week would be the worst yet.
Shutting down the country for two weeks will turn a dangerous situation into a disaster.
It’s precisely the wrong thing to do, at exactly the wrong time.
Six months ago, when the coronavirus took hold in Britain, the Prime Minister imposed a draconian lockdown that forced people to stay indoors. I warned at the time that this policy would have a devastating long-term effect on general healthcare – especially mental health – and it saddens me deeply that I was proved right.
Six months ago, when the coronavirus took hold in Britain, the Prime Minister (pictured) imposed a draconian lockdown that forced people to stay indoors
What I did not foresee, back in March, was how Covid-19 would be channelled by the lockdown into the very places that sheltered Britain’s most vulnerable people: our care homes.
Segments of the population that were at minimal risk – the young and generally healthy – were the ones most protected against infection. The ones most at risk were left to bear the brunt and the results were unutterably horrific.
A lockdown that we were promised would not last more than a few weeks limped on for the whole summer. We didn’t really emerge until this month, when the schools reopened.
And what happened? Exactly what anyone could predict – the disease re-emerged too. Of course it did, because it had never gone away. It had been circulating at a low level, waiting to surge back among a population with no degree of immunity. Now we are experiencing levels of rising infection similar to what we saw in February, at the start of the crisis.
But here’s the awful difference: it’s now late September and winter is on its way. With winter come flu and pneumonia, and as every GP knows, they are killers.
We can’t wait for a vaccine, and we can’t hide from the virus. Trying to eradicate an endemic disease with a short ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown is unscientific nonsense (file image)
Already, they are taking hold. Two weeks ago, according to the Office for National Statistics, 991 deaths were attributed to flu and pneumonia, Covid-19 or both over a seven-day period.
Yet in the same period, the ONS data showed only 78 official deaths of patients who tested positive for Covid-19 within the past month (though this doesn’t mean the virus caused all the deaths).
These figures show that flu and pneumonia are currently roughly ten times as deadly… and according to the ONS, flu season hasn’t even started yet.
The peak months are regarded as October to May, hitting the worst patch after Christmas. Britain does not shut down for flu every year. In fact, we barely talk about it. Some people have vaccines, others don’t bother – in seven of the past ten years, the jab has proved less than 50 per cent effective.
Developing a reliable flu vaccine relies on predicting which particular strains of flu are most likely to appear the following winter so can be very off-target, yet this failure is almost never discussed in the media. It certainly is not the cause of national panic.
To be considering a country-wide lockdown to control Covid-19, when flu and pneumonia are currently so much more virulent, is sheer insanity. The dire effects on general and mental health which we suffered over the summer will simply be compounded.
Britain does not shut down for flu every year. In fact, we barely talk about it. Some people have vaccines, others don’t bother – in seven of the past ten years, the jab has proved less than 50 per cent effective
And in two weeks’ time, or whenever we disconnect the ‘circuit breaker’, the coronavirus will surge back. This time, we will be facing its effects during the flu season, when many more people will be compromised by flu and even less able to fight Covid-19.
The optimum time for dealing with this novel coronavirus has already passed. Since there is little feasible chance of a safe and effective vaccine any time soon, we should have been striving for mass immunity among the healthy population.
If the majority of people who are unlikely to suffer much ill effect could catch the infection, and get over it safely, they would be much less likely to transmit it to the vulnerable during the winter.
This strategy goes by the ugly name of herd immunity, an unfeeling name for the most compassionate policy.
I am certainly not belittling the severity of Covid-19. It is more contagious than common flu and it attacks the body in more varied ways. This is a scary disease. But we cannot fight it with fear.
Since there is little feasible chance of a safe and effective vaccine any time soon, we should have been striving for mass immunity among the healthy population
We also cannot fight it at the moment with a vaccine. There isn’t one, and I must admit that I would be wary of any inoculation that hasn’t been thoroughly tested. I am ardently pro-vaccine, and I’ve made certain that my toddler got every jab going. But before they can be deemed safe, all drugs need to be properly evaluated, and that takes time.
We must not rush the job just because it’s politically expedient. And yet the Government appears to be doing just that.
The only safe, humane response is to shield the vulnerable and encourage the rest of the population to build up collective immunity.
We can’t wait for a vaccine, and we can’t hide from the virus. Trying to eradicate an endemic disease with a short ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown is unscientific nonsense.
Instead, we need to look after the people at most risk, by ringfencing their jobs and paying their bills while they self-isolate.
Nobody should have to fear losing their employment or defaulting on their mortgage. The cost of this, while significant, would be minimal compared with the expense of the furlough scheme.
And while they stay safe, the rest of us need to get back into the real world and learn to live with the virus. It’s here, and it’s not going away. Our best defence is collective immunity. Accept it, and let’s get on with our lives.
Dr Hoenderkamp is an NHS GP