2 November 2023
A rational approach.
By Lynda Goetz
Shock horror! Boris Johnson, according to his former private secretary, Imran Shafi, was probably responsible for the words “Why are we destroying the economy for people who will die soon anyway?” At first hearing this may sound like a very callous statement and there are many, many people who will see it that way. However, this sentiment is, in a way, at the very crux of the Covid inquiry and deserves considering calmly and rationally when taking lessons away from the way the Covid 19 pandemic was handled.
As was pointed out at the time, no cost benefit analysis was ever undertaken and scientific viewpoints from those who deviated from the SAGE received wisdom were consistently ignored or ridiculed. This even appears to be continuing today as Lady Hallet, heading up the Covid enquiry, dismissed Professor Carl Heneghan’s* claim that his opinion was evidence, telling him, “Not in my world it doesn’t, I’m afraid. Well, not in a court of law it doesn’t.” Most of the Western world, with very few exceptions, chose to follow China’s authoritarian route of imposing lockdowns and it is hard not to see the current enquiry as an expensive exercise in self-justification by all those who were involved in the decision-making at the time (as well as a chance for members of the public to ’seek answers’ and possibly lay blame).
Jeremy Warner, an economic journalist, wrote in an article, in the early days of the pandemic, that it ‘would cascade wealth down the generations’. In his view, clearly, ‘a good thing’. Unfortunately, these views were deemed heartless and unfeeling, and Mr Warner had to grovelingly apologise for his thoughts on the benefits to the economy and to younger generations of the fact that this virus appeared to kill mainly the old and the vulnerable. One got the feeling that this appraisal nearly cost him his job. Consider what has happened instead.
Instead of wealth being passed from the old and infirm to the next generation we have, just from a financial point of view (and ignoring the build-up of NHS waiting lists and more deaths from undiagnosed cancer etc. etc): a massive government debt resulting from the Covid support measures; more companies and businesses filing for insolvency with resultant job losses amongst those of working age; increasing numbers of people living longer but in poor health and an ever greater need for those elderly themselves, their families and the state to spend more and more on supporting them. The young are not only dealing with an interrupted education and mental health issues, but a tax burden which looks unlikely to be lightened for a good while to come.
As someone who entered their eighth decade this year, I am very aware that time is no longer on my side and that health-wise things are very likely to start going wrong. I am also aware that personally I have no wish to live a long life if the quality of that life is poor and I am bedevilled by ill-health. I have a friend who recently spent her 70th birthday walking in Italy on her way from Canterbury to Rome, some 2,000 miles, which she completed well within the 90 days we are permitted to stay in the EU these days as non-EU members. On her journey she met many people of different nationalities in their 60s, 70s and even 80s doing a part of the Via Francigena, the pilgrim route to Rome. Those are the exceptional few who have had the good fortune (and it is probably fair to say, also made the effort) to maintain their good health beyond the three score and ten years of biblical life expectancy. The majority will not be striding their way through their later decades. They are far more likely to be spending time dealing with hospital appointments and visiting carers. Should the state really prioritise those at the end of their life over those who still have decades of useful, healthy life ahead of them?
This is a moral question of course with no easy answer. As the Guardian reported back in January and The Telegraph just last week, analysis by the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) shows that those over 60 are waiting for longer in A & E and that the increased wait times can cause serious problems for those who are quite possibly ‘confused and disoriented… likely taking multiple medications which will be missed’. It is suggested that one of the reasons for this is not actual discrimination against the elderly, or ‘ageism’, but because many of these patients are suffering from complex issues it is easier for NHS staff to meet their government-imposed targets by prioritising the more straightforward cases represented by those in the younger age brackets. But even if we want, as we should, to offer a reliable and dignified service to our elderly, would it be right to prioritise them above younger patients? If an 80-year-old needs a kidney transplant, would they by considered before a 30-year-old who needed the same? I would suggest that these are decisions which doctors do have to make on a fairly regular basis and whilst none of us wish to feel that our useful life is over and that we are now effectively redundant as far as society is concerned, it does of course make sense from a societal point of view to put the young before the old and the strong before the weak. A religious or moral stance may well be different.
Politicians, as we well know are, on the whole, not moralists. Should they be putting the societal or the moral view? The answer is that they are probably expected to consider both and therein lies the difficulty. Are they expected, as Boris Johnson may well have asked, to trash the economy for those ill, infirm and confused 80- and 90-year-olds and should they, in order to protect them, ruin the lives of younger generations? Were the suicides of those for whom the financial implications of Covid were the last straw, a price worth paying for nationwide lockdowns? Were the mental health issues of thousands of children and young people ever weighed in the balance during the second and third lockdowns by which time we knew that children, apart from those with vulnerabilities, were completely unlikely to suffer little more than cold symptoms from Covid? Was the education and the subsequent future life prospects of those young people ever taken into account when the draconian measures were yet again imposed on the population?
It transpires that our ill-fated PM, who himself caught Covid and was seriously ill with it (partly, as he himself admitted, because of his fondness for food and drink) was not perhaps the right leader to take his country through a pandemic. His chaotic and shambolic style of government exasperated his ministers, his advisors and his party and his dithering was not conducive to harmony and confidence. To those of us who always felt that lockdowns were authoritarian and inconsistent with a liberal democracy, the fact that he questioned their value to society as a whole (for the economy is not separate from society, of course) is actually heartening.
Boris may have got a lot wrong during his time in office, but it is a shame that his bold and eminently sensible question appears to be viewed with a sort of squeamish horror by many in the media and the public. It was a rational question to ask. Do you prioritise a demented 90-year-old over the huge numbers of 9-year-olds, 19-year-olds, 29-year-olds and so on who are the future of the country? We are all, as I wrote in a number of articles for the Shaw Sheet at the time, (in Youth vs Age, Life and Risk, Life ,Liberty and Covid, Leadership and Risk, Compromise for now, Don’t Plan Christmas Yet etc) going to die of something, preferably later rather than sooner, but it should, in a democracy, have been our choice as ‘elderly citizens’ to decide if we needed or wanted to lock ourselves away from others to avoid getting ill and possibly dying. Our grandchildren should not have been locked up away from friends and peers in order to ‘save’ us, nor should our children’s businesses have been jeopardised and their taxes subsequently hiked to pay the price for closing down society on our behalf.
It is a great shame that Boris did not have the courage of his convictions and that he was swayed too much by those fearmongers, inaccurate modellers and others. The average age of those who died of Covid was 82 and given the number who died of other things but were recorded as having died of Covid even that statistic is suspect. Covid 19 turned out to be a highly contagious, but generally non-lethal virus which actually killed a miniscule proportion of the population. We live in a time of almost complete risk aversion and the rather bizarre belief that somehow we should all be shielded by the state or ‘those in charge’ from any, or preferably all, of life’s ‘unpleasantnesses’, including death. The current costly exercise which is the Covid enquiry should not be allowed to become an exercise in finger-pointing and blame. It should address the only real reason for its existence – ‘how should we deal with the next pandemic?’
*One of the scientists who wrote to the PM and chief medical officers requesting targeted lockdowns.