WINNIPEG -- A Stanford University medicine professor and health economist who has been a vocal critic of pandemic lockdown measures is defending his stance in a Manitoba courtroom.

Jay Bhattacharya, one of the three authors behind the Great Barrington Declaration, was called as an expert witness for 10 applicants who have filed a constitutional challenge against Manitoba’s public health orders.

The court case, led by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, was brought forward by seven Manitoba churches and three individuals. They’re arguing the province’s measures infringe on their charter rights to hold religious and public gatherings and gather at people’s private homes.

Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal is hearing arguments and testimony from witnesses in the case.

While under cross-examination by Manitoba government lawyer Heather Leonoff, Bhattacharya testified that people are suffering from mental anguish due to lockdowns.

“The lockdowns cause enormous mental stress on the population,” Bhattacharya told the court. “The lockdowns are not normal, they’re an extraordinary measure.”

The Great Barrington Declaration made a case for the global adoption of a herd immunity-style approach to the COVID-19 pandemic that can be assisted by vaccines. It argued lockdowns lead to devastating public health effects including worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings, and deteriorating mental health. The approach drew opposition from scientists and public health experts who argued the principles are dangerous to national and global public health.

“The Great Barrington approach isn’t an intervention in the same sense as a lockdown,” Bhattacharya told the court. “A lockdown involves an extraordinary set of measures to prevent human interactions from taking place on a grand scale.”

“The Great Barrington approach calls for the protection of the vulnerable.”

Leonoff questioned Bhattacharya about whether the Great Barrington Declaration approach does enough to protect “the so-called not-vulnerable.”

“The issue at hand is whether lockdowns actually protect the not-vulnerable,” Bhattacharya testified. He told the court that harms caused by pandemic measures have to be taken into account.

Bhattacharya told the court governments set the tone on panic and he testified lockdowns are preventing people from seeking routine checkups and have people turning to opioids and alcohol to cope.

Leonoff suggested it is possible people may be staying home instead of seeking certain health care services because they’re concerned about catching COVID-19 and disputed suggestions that lockdowns are leading to people being denied addiction treatment services in clinics.

Bhattacharya told the court the medical system has an obligation to continue providing those services.

Bhattacharya testified lockdowns can reduce the peak number of infections.

“If you can delay infections, you can wait for the vaccine to be widely available to go into people’s arms, can you not?” Leonoff asked Bhattacharya.

“I mean that’s one strategy,” Bhattacharya testified. “Whether it’s a good strategy or bad strategy – different question.”

Bhattacharya testified that if you implement lockdowns where you minimize human interactions and separate people from each other, you could stop a disease.

“You can actually stop a disease from spreading,” he told the court. “That is true.”

The constitutional case is scheduled to take place over two weeks.