IS Western democracy primarily concerned with liberty or with health?
When put in these terms, few would disagree that Western democracy is built on the concept of individual liberty. But in practice, judging from the overwhelming approval of the lockdown restrictions, freedom from Covid-19 is the only freedom we care about preserving these days. Civil liberties are a mere luxury by comparison, easy to take for granted.
But it was not for health that two world wars were fought.
On an individual basis it may be true that health is more valuable than liberty. It’s more immediate. We feel a threat to our health much more acutely than a threat to our liberty, which might seem a more abstract and theoretical concept. But even if one’s health might be paramount in one’s personal constitution as a human being, it’s no basis for the democratic constitution of a country. The British constitution is centred on the preservation of individual liberty – the government’s job is to facilitate maximal liberty, not to facilitate health.
It follows that the burden of proof for lockdown is on those who seek to suspend liberty for the sake of health, not the other way round. Certainly war and pestilence are possible grounds for restricting or suspending that liberty, but the threshold of justification ought to be extremely high. If it were the other way round — that is, if society were built on the concept of individual health, then the onus would fall to the lockdown sceptics to prove that lockdown was ineffective at preserving maximal health.
Has the government proved the case for lockdown? Not if that case is based on Professor Neil Ferguson’s modelling out of Imperial College London, which was based on pretty wild assumptions, according to some scientists. The code used has been criticised and the predictions have proved largely false. According to Ferguson’s modelling, Sweden, which pursued a mitigation strategy rather than lockdown, should have seen 60,000 deaths by now, whereas in reality, they are at just over 3,000 and have passed the peak.
But even if the government could prove that Covid-19 is as bad as the worst fearmongers claim, it still wouldn’t be able to prove that the lockdown is having the desired effect. We were told the lockdown was to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed. The evidence shows that Covid-19 deaths in the UK peaked on April 8, which means that infections peaked before the lockdown was imposed, and the NHS coped just fine. The Nightingale hospitals which were so swiftly constructed went almost unused before shutting. The conclusion is unavoidable: the lockdown has been ineffectual. It may actually prove harmful to health through its consequences. Suicides are up. Domestic abuse is up. Cancer and cardiology deaths are up. If our society’s top priority is, in fact, individual health, the government is doing a poor job. We’ll find out soon enough what the courts have to say, as there are judicial challenges under way, arguing the restrictions are ultra vires the legislation from which they are derived, and that they violate the Human Rights Act on multiple counts.
On the other side of the issue – the one that doesn’t bear the burden of proof – the case against lockdown is looking pretty solid. Yet on Sunday evening the Prime Minister extended it. And why wouldn’t he? Because for the government, it’s neither health nor liberty that is the primary consideration: it’s popularity. As long as trust in the government remains as high as it’s been during this pandemic, changing course is unlikely. Perhaps, if representative democracy means anything, this is exactly as it should be. Our representatives truly are representing us, for better or for worse.
Health cannot be guaranteed top-down. The attempt can do no more than take one particular aspect of health – one coronavirus, for instance – and pursue that single strand to the exclusion of the countless other factors that make up health. Resources are allocated towards this one affliction and away from others, resulting in a kind of offsetting of disease and death rather than any real improvement. We’ve mixed up our priorities. If the government works to guarantee our liberties, we get both liberty and health. We can be trusted to use our liberty individually and collectively – but voluntarily – to pursue health. On the other hand, authoritarian healthcare ultimately provides neither health nor liberty.
Seventy-five years ago the sacrifice of life for liberty was deemed worthy. Today the government has removed that liberty, and told us it’s for our own good. What’s worse, we approve. And now abideth health, liberty, and popularity, these three; but the greatest of these is popularity, evidently.