Draconian lockdown measures taken to stop the spread of Covid in early 2020 may have saved just 1,700 lives, analysis suggests.
Economists today claimed their findings were ‘clear’, arguing that policies adopted by the likes of Britain and the US were a ‘failure of gigantic proportions’ and stating the deaths saved were ‘a drop in the bucket compared to the staggering collateral costs imposed’.
Yet the ‘gold-standard’ report is disputed. Critics claim the authors are longstanding and public critics of lockdowns, and a previous version of their work was accused of ‘cherry-picking’ studies.
Unprecedented stay-at-home orders — which included blanket WFH mandates and closing schools — were among the main virus-controlling policies introduced at the start of the pandemic.
Ministers had little choice but to shelter society once the virus reached the UK, after being dealt grim warnings that hundreds of thousands of Brits would potentially die without immediate action.
A new report suggests specific initiatives to control the spread of Covid had mixed effectiveness in reducing mortality with mask mandates having the biggest impact while measures like limiting gathering paradoxically raised death rates
Vaccines — considered the only safe route out of the pandemic — were still months away from being deployed.
Health chiefs have repeatedly acknowledged there would be huge consequences , including knock-on delays which have ravaged the NHS and left it battling a record waiting list.
Oncologists also warned of a ‘cancer timebomb’ due to Brits being scared of coming forward with symptoms during the pandemic over fear of the virus and wanting to protect the NHS.
Three researchers from John Hopkins University in the US and Lund University in Sweden, assessed the ‘negligible impact’ of such policies on Covid mortality rates.
The trio’s work deriding the impacts of lockdowns has been criticised in the past, however.
Twenty-two studies from around the world — assessing the impact of lockdown-style health interventions — were included in the analysis.
Their results, published in a new book by the conservative thinktank The Institute of Economic Affairs, claimed to reveal the harshest lockdowns only had a relatively minor impact on the total death toll.
Stricter lockdown measures, similar to those imposed in the UK, only reduced Covid mortality by 3.2 per cent, when compared to softer, voluntary, policies such as those enacted in Sweden.
The Scandinavian nation was an international outcast when it defied scientific advice and decided against shutting down, instead relying on people’s common sense and light social restrictions.
Lockdown critics have repeatedly pointed to Sweden’s low overall Covid death toll as evidence that Britain’s approach was flawed.
Others have, however, argued that it is impossible to compare the two and that Sweden fared worse than its Scandinavian neighbours.
Considering the Covid death toll by June 2020, when lockdown rules started to be eased, stood at about 55,000 this translates to lockdowns saving 1,700 lives in England and Wales.
This graph shows the Covid deaths per million people recorded in the UK and Sweden over the course of the pandemic. Sweden never saw the same mortality peaks as Britain despite never going into a harsh lockdown
And this chart shows the total cumulative death toll in both countries, some experts and commentators have pointed to Sweden’s lower overall mortality rate as proof the UK’s draconic lockdown was unnecessary
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) and then Health Secretary Matt Hancock (right) were central figures in managing the UK’s response to Covid and the original lockdown
A similar calculation for the US, suggest harsh policies there only saved 4,000 lives.
There are about 10,000 deaths in England and Wales and 46,000 fatalities in the US on average each week, for comparison.
Study co-author Dr Lars Jonung, an economic expert from Lund, said their research was the first of its kind to evaluate the effectiveness’ of lockdowns.
‘It demonstrates that lockdowns were a failed promise,’ he said.
‘They had negligible health effects but disastrous economic, social and political costs to society.
The timeline of England’s lockdowns
March 16, 2020
At the beginning on the month, the first UK Covid death is confirmed. Government advises against non-essential travel and socialising, and suggests working from home. Four days later schools close, along with pubs and restaurants.
First lockdown begins. Non-essential shops are closed and Britons are ordered to stay at home. Days later, this is made a legal requirement. Deaths peak at 1,076 on April 8th.
First lockdown begins to ease. Schools begin to reopen as do non-essential shops, two weeks later. On June 23rd the PM announces that the UKs ‘national hibernation’ is coming to and end.
Pubs, restaurants, hairdressers reopen except in Leicester, which is subject to the first local lockdown, with non-essential shops remaining closed.
Rising cases led to the introduction of ‘rule of six’ indoors and outdoors. By the end of the month, the work from home begins again and a 10pm curfew came into force for pubs, bars and restaurants
Three tier system of Covid-19 restrictions begins in England. In the highest tier hospitality venues are closed. People are not permitted to mix with other households at home, but can meet in groups of up to six outdoors.
Second national lockdown in England, but schools stay open. At the end of the month, the Prime Minister announces that three households will be able to meet for five days over Christmas.
The second lockdown ends, and England returns to a three-tier system. On 21st December London and South East are put into new Tier 4 restrictions, with a stay-at-home order and mixing permitted with just one other person in an public outdoor space.
The third national lockdown begins. Schools close a day after they went back following the Christmas break. In February, the PM publishes roadmap for lifting lockdown, and hotel quarantine for arrivals from 33 countries begins.
Stay at home order ends but Britons can only mix with six people, or two households, outdoors. Earlier in the month the roadmap’s Step 1 saw schools in England reopen.
Roadmap Step 2 sees non-essential retail, hairdressers, pubs and restaurants reopen. Step 3, starting May 17th, allows six people or two households to meet indoors. Theatres and stadiums reopen. In June, restrictions on funerals and weddings end.
Freedom day. All legal limits on social contact except for those with Covid symptoms are removed. This wasn’t the end in September, Plan B measures included work-from-home advice and mask mandates. But no more lockdowns.
‘Most likely lockdowns represent the biggest policy mistake in modern times.’
Fellow co-author Professor Steve Hanke, an expert in economics at Johns Hopkins, added: ‘When it comes to Covid, epidemiological models have many things in common: dubious assumptions, hair-raising predictions of disaster that miss the mark, and few lessons learned.
‘The science of lockdowns is clear; the data are in: the lives saved were a drop in the bucket compared to the staggering collateral costs imposed.’
Even when a more generous analysis which broadened the definition of lockdown to incorporate more initiatives such as mask wearing found such measures only reduced mortality by 10.7 per cent.
The scientists also examined the impact of particular measures in reducing Covid mortality.
Mask mandates were found to be the biggest overall preventative factor, reducing deaths from the virus by 18.7 per cent.
Ministers have been accused of mixed-messaging on wearing masks during the pandemic in Britain.
The authors of the new report, while acknowledging the potential impact of mask mandates, said further research on the effectiveness was needed.
Whilst some lockdown style measures, like closing businesses, were linked to a 7.5 per cent fall in virus mortality, others like ‘gathering limits’ were found to actually increase Covid death rates.
Such restrictions, like the ‘rule of six’ in England, were associated with a 5.9 per cent rise in mortality.
The authors couldn’t pin down exactly why this was the case — but suggested that other lockdown measures, like the closure of outdoor spaces, could have pushed people to meet in risker indoor spaces where they were more likely to be infected.
The report also highlights how their estimate of 1,700 deaths being prevented by lockdown pales in comparison to the between 18,500 and 24,800 deaths that occur during a typical flu season without any national restrictions.
They said, on the balance, the benefits of lockdowns were dwarfed by its cost to the economy, education, and damage to physical and mental health from other non-Covid ailments.
It concludes that, unless substantial alternative evidence emerges, lockdowns should be ‘rejected out of hand’ to control future pandemics.
The new analysis is the latest to highlight the detrimental impacts of the original Covid lockdown.
Ex-PM Boris Johnson was spooked into imposing lockdown by modelling from a team including Professor Neil Ferguson, later dubbed ‘Professor Lockdown’, which predicted there could be 500,000 Covid deaths if no action was taken to curb the spread of the virus.
The modelling was based on data taken from the early days of the pandemic, when scientists were still grappling with the new pathogen with no vaccines in sight.
The wave ended up being much less severe than Professor Ferguson predicted, with only some 150,000 deaths recorded in the first year of the pandemic, leading some to call the modelling ‘totally unreliable’.
But other experts insist that lockdown is why cases didn’t reach the levels set out in models.
Professor Fergusson has previously taken aim at the same three authors during an initial publication of their analysis.
In February last year, he claimed the team’s work ‘does not significantly advance’ understanding of non-pharmaceutical measures, like lockdowns, to control the spread of Covid.
Professor Fergusson said it was difficult to group different countries lockdowns together, as the report had done, as they varied ‘dramatically’, making a comparative analysis ‘problematic’
Professor Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College London epidemiologist whose modelling led the UK Government to impose the first lockdown, previously criticised an earlier version of the new report, stating it ‘does not significantly advance’ understandings of how effective the draconian measure was
The Johns Hopkins University and Lund University report was published by the British thinktank the Institute of Economic Affairs.
How the Government reacted during the early days of the Covid pandemic is set to be examined by the ongoing Covid Inquiry.
But a row has erupted over if WhatsApp messages from Mr Johnson — who set up the Covid inquiry — should be included.
Access to Mr Johnson’s unredacted messages was requested by the inquiry’s chair, retired judge Baroness Hallett.
The peer, who has the power to summon evidence and question witnesses under oath, wanted to judge documents spanning a two-year period between January 2020 and February 2022.
The Cabinet Office originally asked for a delay in supplying the documents, and eventually only provided an incomplete version of Mr Johnson’s documents.
At the time it said it had cut personal and private information that was ‘unambiguously irrelevant’ to the investigation and would challenge Baroness Hallett’s order to reveal all of the details in court.
Mr Johnson himself then waded into the row saying the Government’s decision was its own, not on his behalf, and revealed he would be handing over the uncensored documents directly to the inquiry, circumventing ministers.