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Basket-case Britain is the definitive proof lockdown was an epic mistake

The strikes, inflation, decay and incompetence: all are direct costs of the decision to shut down society

Boris Johnson at a press conference in February 2021, announcing a phased exit from lockdown measures Credit: Gett/Leon Neal

😗😭😐 Why is anybody surprised? You can’t lock down an economy and a society, pay millions of people to do nothing, spend and borrow and print tens of billions of pounds, and expect there to be no consequences, no day of reckoning, no bill to pay.

Britain’s inflationary tsunami, the rail strikes, the chaos at the airports, the incompetence, decay and decline, can all be directly traced to Covid and lockdowns. Even before Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, inflation had already surged uncontrollably, with the consumer price index hitting 6.2 per cent by February.

Do you remember when Boris Johnson promised to put his “arms around every single worker” by financing 80 per cent of their wages? Or when Rishi Sunak subsidised our lunches during that absurd summer? We are now paying for it via a vicious stealth pay cut worth 5-10 per cent in real terms, and a multi-year 15-20 per cent decline in the value of cash.

What would have happened to support for lockdowns had voters been aware that payback would be so prompt, that Johnson’s handouts were a loan with an extortionate rate of interest, not a gift?

The World Health Organisation’s seminal study on excess death rates shows that Britain performed far better than previously thought, beating Germany, Italy and America. Our rate of 109 per 100,000 would have put us 15th out of 28 EU member states had we still been part of that dreadful body.

Yet Sweden, which imposed drastically fewer restrictions, suffered just 56 excess deaths per 100,000, a bit worse than its Nordic neighbours but much better than us. For the vast majority of the world, one would be hard-pressed to find a correlation between the speed and harshness of lockdowns and the excess death rate. (Australia, New Zealand, Japan and China are separate, but in at least three out of four cases their lockdowns came at obscene costs).

Lockdowns did have some benefits but were, on net, a calamity of historic proportions. Some lives were saved, thanks especially to the speed at which the vaccines were rolled-out. But this came at a disproportionate price that was neither acceptable nor moral. A voluntarist Swedish approach would have been immensely preferable, even had more people died. It is a stain on our national polity that we never conducted a proper cost-benefit analysis of lockdowns at the time, and that the establishment refuses to reassess the question honestly today.

Yet those of us who warned of the economic costs of lockdown were dismissed as naive ideologues at best, and mass murderers at worst. Why couldn’t we grasp that the exact same reduction in GDP would have been incurred in the absence of compulsory restrictions on activity, we were asked. The only economic impact from lockdowns and the accompanying economic support would be an increase in the national debt of some 10-15 per cent of GDP, establishment economists would insist. We could easily absorb that, they maintained: interest rates were low and we would pay back the debt over many decades and wouldn’t even notice.

The lockdowners even claimed that Covid had allowed a breakthrough in economic engineering: officials had worked out how to put free market economies into hibernation, to pause activity at will. It was the economics of Sleeping Beauty: the private sector would rebound as soon as Dishy Rishi chose to kiss it back to life again. Hayekians who believed capitalism was a complex, fragile spontaneous order that couldn’t be disrupted with impunity had finally been proved wrong. Even if the economy did find it difficult to continue exactly where it left off, we could simply unleash more QE or Joe-Biden style public spending to fix everything.

It was dangerous, delusional nonsense. Everything that could go wrong went wrong, starting with surging inflation and myriad other unintended consequences. The insane amounts of cash pumped into the economy by zero rates, money printing, furlough, test and trace and subsidised loans chased too few goods, services, homes, shares and cryptocurrencies, pushing prices drastically higher and annihilating central bankers’ credibility.

Supply chains have still not recovered worldwide, the supply of labour has collapsed in many countries, numerous industries, such as airlines, remain dysfunctional, there has been a massive cultural shift in favour of working from home even when bosses believe it to be unsuitable, customer service has regressed 20 years, and all of the hard work to reduce the numbers of those on out-of-work benefits has been set back decades. To add insult to injury, lockdowns were designed to protect the very old at the expense of the young – and now wages are being slashed in real terms, while pensions are rising by some 10 per cent.

Covid and lockdown destroyed this Government, erasing the centre-Right’s greatest opportunity in 40 years to remake Britain. The energy that could have gone into reforming the public sector, or fixing the housing crisis, or making the country more competitive after Brexit went into trying to survive a pandemic. Johnson fell badly ill. The No 10 operation tore itself apart, and the heart of government lost its moral compass, partying while the country was socially isolating. Sunak, a brilliant technician, rebuilt the entire welfare system in just a few weeks to deliver furlough, instead of turning his mind to tax reform or many of the other great free-market ideas he used to relish discussing. The Tories embraced big government, statism and paternalism.

In the absence of a complete Tory relaunch, Labour is now on course to take power. This would count as another grievous cost of lockdown, especially given that the party has also been thoroughly discredited by its approach to Covid. A bogus, destructive ideology had captured much of the Left: they believed in Modern Monetary Theory, which posits that budget deficits don’t matter and that the state should simply print money to pay for whatever it wants. Well, we tried that during Covid, and we now have inflation that is set to hit 11 per cent.

Labour, if it wins, will either trigger a sterling crisis and require an IMF bailout, or will have to rediscover austerity, high interest rates and prudence. Given how fanatically Sir Keir Starmer and his acolytes defended extreme lockdowns, that would at least add an ironic twist to an otherwise nightmarish prospect.