When did lockdown really start (or “Is Matt Hancock re-writing history?”)

When did the lockdown really start?

Does it really matter? Well, potentially yes. You see there’s been some heated discussion in the last week or two about whether or not the Government delayed entering lockdown and whether or not this cost lives?

There seem to be two potential answers to this. The common answer is that lockdown was advised by SAGE on the 16th March and that it happened a whole week later when the Prime Minister made his big statement to the nation. The question then would be whether the delay was costly in terms of number of lives cost.  The second suggested answer is offered by Matt Hancock in response to a question about the alleged delay. he argues that the country did in fact enter lockdown from the 16th.

There may however be a third option, that Lockdown never happened. This is making things sound a bit like discussions about the Millennium and The Rapture isn’t it? However, bare with me and this may help us clear up another mystery.

You see, the SAGE minutes from the 16th March are available to read online and guess what, they make no mention of an impending lockdown. In fact, critics of the government from the other (libertarian) side have been arguing that the Boris Johnson took us into lockdown without SAGE recommending it.

So, how do we make sense of that? I would suggest that it is by looking at what SAGE actually do they. In the minutes they talk about “additional intervention” and the need for “additional social distancing measures be introduced as soon as possible.”[1] The word “lockdown” is never actually used.  This may at first sight seem to support the suggestion that the Government implemented a lockdown that the scientific advisors were not asking for.  Some might push it further to suggest that the lockdown actually went against the scientific advice.

However, I suspect that this understanding of events misses the point.  You see, what we have not done at this stage is ask “and what were those additional interventions?”  Not being a member of the Government or SAGE, I can only guess at what was suggested apart from that SAGE were, on the 16th, inching towards the closing of schools.

“While SAGE’s view remains that school closures constitutes one of the less effective single measure to reduce the epidemic peak, it may nevertheless become necessary to introduce school closures in order to push demand for critical care below NHS capacity.”[2]

I suspect therefore, that the other additional measures included would have been:

  • Closure of pubs and shops
  • Minimising use of public transport
  • Banning large public gatherings.

And those things started to happen over the next few days. What we also saw was that there was a ramp up both in the number of measures and that there was a move from “guidance” to “instruction” with legal force just as we have seen a de-escalation at the other end so that measures have been relaxed and are now in the main, advice again rather than regulation.

It is more helpful to talk in terms of specific measures because the word lockdown is itself one of those umbrella terms. Some countries imposed far stricter lockdowns than the UK and even here within the UK the restrictions differed between Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Indeed, there are so many images that the word “lockdown” conjures up that simply did not happen in the UK. For me at least, a lockdown would imply at a minimum a curfew and a complete ban on travelling from home and/or between communities, towns and cities.  I would also expect it be be tightly policed with patrols, road-blocks etc. When put that way, you can see why such a level of lockdown may not have been warmly received here.

The nub of the issue is this. “Lockdown” is for those reasons, not the technical term to describe the measures that the UK (or most Western governments introduced).  Rather, it is a word used by the media to quickly and powerfully communicate what was happening. It is an expressive and emotive word and so it fulfils the needs of the press to get across its message. However, it may not offer accuracy and clarity.

I think there are two important lessons for us as we try to think Christianly about things and they are both to do with communication.

The first is that as we look back at events and attempt to understand them and come to moral judgements, it is essential that we are careful in our communication. This means that we need to put together all the facts and not be distracted by emotive words or stories.  We should seek to make truthful evaluations.

Secondly, the Health Secretary has been accused this week of seeking to “re-write history.” Now, I don’t know if he has been doing that (this implies motive).  However, I don’t believe that he actually needs to re-write history. You see, the way that politicians, journalists and even the scientists communicate at times seems to be designed to avoid that need by using language open to interpretation so that everyone can hold to their own view of events, even when different views are contradictory. This is perhaps understandable in a world of litigation and the gotcha story. However, it does not provide for clarity or certainty.

As Christians we should seek to speak the truth clearly. Our aims should be to avoid leaving things open to interpretation. We should not seek to re-write history.  

Another way of saying this is:

“Let your yes be yes and your no be no” (Matthew 5:37).


[1] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/888784/S0384_Sixteenth_SAGE_meeting_on_Wuhan_Coronavirus__Covid-19__.pdf

[2] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/888784/S0384_Sixteenth_SAGE_meeting_on_Wuhan_Coronavirus__Covid-19__.pdf

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