I can’t be alone in noticing that the public mood has quite radically shifted. There are still, I am sure, plenty of people who are scared, and still plenty of people who think that restrictions ‘work’ and should continue to be used. But in conversations with dozens of friends, family members and colleagues over the past month or so, I have noticed a particular phrase coming up over and over again, with slight variations: “We have to learn to live with it now.” There is a benign resignation (“We’re all going to catch it eventually so we might as well get on with it”) where once there was anxiety. It is profoundly irritating, of course, to have to grit one’s teeth and resist pointing out that some of us were of the view that we had to learn to live with the virus in February 2020. But it is also heartening – there will, after all, be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance. I could of course be wrong – God knows I’ve consistently underestimated the capacity of the population to stoically go along with the mainstream narrative from the very beginning of the Covid era. But I hope I don’t jinx things to say that I think it is now politically impossible for the government to do much in the way of strict lockdowns.
What explains this? The reasons are not, I think, very complicated. First, a critical mass of people are not scared anymore. They’ve had three jabs, they know omicron causes mostly mild symptoms, and many of them have actually had Covid and discovered it’s not the end of the world. Fear was a powerful motivating factor in support for lockdowns; now it’s on the retreat. Second, war weariness has set in. Young people especially are just sick of all of this, and want to live their lives. On shopping excursions on December the 27th and 28th I was surprised at just how many people in the bustling shops were not wearing masks. I’d say in the region of 30% at least, and among young people the proportion was even higher. They’ve simply had enough. And third, there is a real feeling abroad these days that the SAGE modellers are just a glorified boy crying wolf – we’ve been told too many times now that we’re on the brink of catastrophe and found out that we’re faced with nothing of the sort. Their warnings are no longer taken very seriously.
What is perhaps a little galling about all of this to lockdown sceptics is that these reasons are all emotional, not rational. It’s not that anybody has been persuaded by our wonderful knockdown arguments. It’s that a different narrative – “the virus is never going away, so let’s just get on with our lives” – has set in.
This ought not to be very surprising. It is almost exactly a year ago that I wrote a post on Lockdown Sceptics, making the claim that the most important reason why we sceptics were being ignored (or pilloried) was that the points that we were making simply did not accord with a particular ‘moral truth’. There was a prevailing social narrative which said, in essence, that lockdowns stop people dying. Our arguments, in going against this moral truth, were by definition immoral in the eyes of the vast majority of our compatriots, and highly unlikely to win popular support as a result. In other words, it doesn’t matter how well-reasoned one’s critique is, if what one is critiquing is perceived almost universally as being The Right Thing To Do.
This is in fact in keeping with what psychologists tell us about the way human reason works. We don’t generally look dispassionately at the evidence and then make up our minds what to believe. Rather, we believe something to begin with, and then we go out and look for evidence to support it. In March 2020 people were scared, and wanted to hide from the nasty virus, and went and found a great deal of data that explained why they were right to do so. Fast forward to January 2022: people are sick of thinking about Covid and want to get back to normal, and it would not be at all surprising if all of a sudden they suddenly begin to find a lot of evidence to justify them doing so. Reason follows emotion – not the other way round. It is ultimately how people feel that dictates everything that follows.
Since it’s mostly just about feelings, does this mean that the efforts of Toby, Lord Sumption, Peter Hitchens, Neil Oliver, Brendan O’Neill and the like have had no effect at all? Would the madness all have ended in the fullness of time anyway?
I’m not so sure. Milton Friedman once said that he thought his basic function was to “develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.” In other words, yes, public opinion is led by emotion, but this makes it fickle. It can shift, and shift quickly. The trick is to make sure that, when this happens, it is your ideas that are the ones “lying around” (to use Milton’s phrase) for them to seize up.
People in other words, will increasingly start to feel that this lockdown nonsense has to stop. As they do, they will start to look for evidence and arguments to support that view. Thanks to the efforts of Toby and those like him, they will find a huge wealth of this in the public domain. Lockdown sceptics, in other words, probably haven’t been very persuasive or influential when it comes to the broad swathe of the population. But that hasn’t been the point. We’ve been keeping the alternative view alive, so that when eventually public opinion shifts, it is our ideas that they will pick up, and which will increasingly therefore begin to drive the agenda.
David McGrogan is a Professor at Northumbria Law School.