Current Affairs

Cambridge Union passes motion saying ‘lockdown was a mistake’

After a lively online debate in the Cambridge Union on Wednesday, those watching the debate voted by 362 to 309 in support of the motion ‘This House believes lockdown was a mistake’.

The motion was supported by the Chair of the Conservative Party’s 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady MP, Chairman of Reform UK (previously know as the Brexit Party), Richard Tice, and journalist and social media commentator Toby Young.

Speaking in opposition to the motion were journalist and writer Laura Spinney, novelist and physician Phil Whitaker and Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon and chair of the All-Party Group on coronavirus, Layla Moran.

Sir Graham Brady opened the debate, arguing that “there was clear evidence that infections peaked in England before the first lockdown” and this was “probably due to handwashing and distancing”. He then quoted the medical journal The Lancet, which reported on 23rd December that “it remains unclear how effective the tier restrictions were in reducing transmission”.

The chairman of the 1922 Committee went on to raise concern over “not just the 800,000 people who have been thrown out of work” but also the “hideous toll on children and young people”, with “half of 16-25 year olds reporting a deterioration of mental health”, “a three-fold increase in eating disorders” and a “43% increase in referrals for child abuse” according to the NPCC.

In response, Laura Spinner argued that with regards to pandemics there have been “roughly three per century on average” over the last 500 years and that the response to these has always been “a form of lockdown” as “we have learnt since time immemorial that it works”. She conceded that blunt, blanket lockdowns were “very expensive and therefore very painful” but that “they still achieved their temporary goal which was to bring infection rates down”.

Richard Tice, in support of the motion, argued that the lockdowns in the UK have been ineffective, with Britain having a death rate per capita “25% worse than Sweden” even though Sweden “hasn’t had a lockdown”. He also argued that amongst US states “Texas and Florida have had softer restrictions and their death rates have been some 40% lower than Massachusetts and New York, who had hard lockdowns”. He also criticised the government for ignoring the World Health Organisation special envoy on coronavirus, who said that WHO “do not advocate lockdowns as a primary means of control of the virus”.

Phil Whittaker presented the case that COVID-19’s hospitalisation rate of “about 4%” was a serious risk to the NHS, and argued that the issue of long COVID was “not age-dependent at all” and has been “very under-documented and never features in the discussions about death rates and hospitalisation rates”. He also argued that lockdowns were necessary due to the “exponential” growth of COVID infections.

Toby Young argued against lockdowns, saying that “if the government is to suspend our civil liberties, it must demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that it is necessary”. He also criticised the government on the basis that it “never carried out a cost-benefit analysis” before suspending civil liberties on a scale “they haven’t ever been before in Britain’s history”. He then argued that there is “overwhelming evidence” that lockdowns haven’t “prevented more harm than they caused”.

In defence of lockdowns, Oxford West and Abingdon’s own MP, Layla Moran made an appeal to the “over 100,00 people who have so far died in this pandemic in this country” and the “over 300,000 estimated to be living with long COVID”. She also emphasised her experience as a “physics graduate” who “taught science for over a decade”, saying that the pandemic is “an advert for why scientific literacy and numeracy are so important”. She went on to argue that no locking down would have resulted in “many more deaths”.

Following the 362-309 vote is favour of the motion, Graham Brady said he was “delighted to be part of the winning team at the Cambridge Union” and Toby Young commented that “the lockdown sceptics won the debate”.

Given the Cambridge Union’s prestige, and the University’s role in educating Britain’s future leading figures, debates at the Union can take on national significance. Oxford’s counterpart, the Oxford Union, at which the King and Country debate was famously credited with setting the stage for Britain’s policy in the run up to the Second World War, is yet to consider a similar motion.

Since the debate, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has signalled that England’s strict lockdown will continue for at least another five weeks, with schools and many businesses remaining closed.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Caleb van Ryneveld is the Senior Editor for Current Affairs at The Oxford Blue. He is a student at Christ Church reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics and is currently serving as Returning Officer of the Oxford Student Union.