The debate convened outside the Union Building for the first timelouis ashworth

The Cambridge Union’s first ever fully digital debate convened last week (23/04), bringing together epidemiologists, governmental scientific advisors and political commentators to discuss the merits and flaws of global lockdown strategies during the coronavirus pandemic.

The debate took place exactly a month after the UK’s own formal lockdown process began, and was live streamed globally as an ‘open to all’ event. The current President of the Union, Adam Davies, introduced each of the eight speakers with four proposing the motion ‘This House Backs Global Governments’ Lockdowns’ while four opposed it.

Speaking in proposition, oncologist Dr Karol Sikora argued that the lockdown, despite its negative implications for the economy and mental health, was essential to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed.

Dr John Edmunds, Professor of Disease Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, agreed that the lockdown was a “necessary evil” required to combat “the gravest threat to the health of our nation for a hundred years”.

He warned that an unmitigated coronavirus epidemic in the UK would cause 50-100 times the number of deaths typically caused by flu in a year, and cited the fall in the reproductive index of Covid-19 in the UK from 2.5 to 0.6 as evidence of the lockdown’s effectiveness.

Dr Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at the University of East Anglia, speaking for the proposition, described the lockdown as “inevitable, appropriate” and yet “unsustainable”. He conceded that it might not ever be possible to know whether the lockdown was the right course of action, but proposed that rather than debating its merits we should instead be debating how best to get out of it.

He advocated working closely with other European countries on lockdown strategies, and adopting a more “rigorous” approach like that seen in Germany and Austria amongst others.

Dr Christl Donnelly, Professor of Statistical Epidemiology at Imperial College London, also agreed, insisting that until there are viable drugs or a vaccine available to treat Covid-19 lockdowns in some form are a necessary measure.

Opposing the motion, Dr Mushfiq Mobarak, a developmental economist and Professor at Yale University, who is currently working with the governments of Bangladesh and Nepal to develop strategies to combat Covid-19, focused on the ‘global’ aspect of the question. He argued that different approaches must be taken in different countries, and that a stringent lockdown like the UK’s could not be effectively imposed in poorer countries.

Dr Edmunds and Dr Hunter both agreed about the necessity of finding a feasible solution appropriate to each individual country, which might not necessarily be a total lockdown.

Dr Leonid Eidelman, the former President of the World Medical Association, warned of the adverse psychological and physical effects of prolonged lockdowns, particularly on the elderly and very young. He also described a “high health price” that would be paid due to future austerity in healthcare as a consequence of an economic crisis.

As an alternative to lockdowns, Dr Eidelman pointed to the tracking measures taken by Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, and urged governments to “test, test, test” and use “cordons sanitaires” to contain individual clusters of cases and prevent further outbreaks.

Journalist and commentator Peter Hitchens, who described the digital debate as the “first” in the UK to critically explore lockdown measures, also opposed the motion. Hitchens criticised the UK’s lockdown in claiming that it was not a “wise and proportionate response” and had been instituted due to “dubious statistics”.

He went on to label the term “lockdown” itself as a “hideous and ugly word”, but also emphasised his belief that everyone in this debate had “good motives”, regardless of the position they were arguing.


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Dr Anders Tegnell, State Epidemiologist of the Swedish Public Health Agency, who currently leads Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, was the last to speak. He emphasised that humanity will have to “live with” the coronavirus in the short term at least, and imposing a lockdown only delays the decision of how best to do this.

He also described Sweden’s more lenient and much discussed lockdown strategies, arguing that they were particularly effective because of the “great trust between the public and the state healthcare system” and a greater responsibility on the individual in Swedish law.

In an online poll conducted shortly after the debate concluded, the proposition narrowly won with 46% for and 40% against amongst a turnout of “around 30 voters”.

The Union’s Easter Term programme continues online, and this week (30/04) hosts discussion entitled “does coronavirus show humanity at its best?”, featuring speakers including former Archbishop of Canterbury and Master of Magdalene College Rowan Williams, human rights activist Peter Tatchell and Professor of Global History Peter Frankopan.

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