Lockdowns have not had a big impact on coronavirus death rates around the world, scientists have claimed.
Dozens of countries have been forced to tell people to stay home and close shops in a bid to stop the Covid-19 pandemic since it broke out in January.
But now a study has claimed the drastic measures don’t even work. They found whether a country was locked down or not was ‘not associated’ with death rate.
Instead the health of each nation before the pandemic largely played a role, including obesity rates and age.
It could explain why countries such as Britain – with some of Europe’s worst obesity rates – have had such a high death toll.
The early closure of international borders seemed to lower cases, but did not translate to real lives saved.
Lockdowns have not had a big impact on coronavirus death rates around the world, scientists have claimed. Pictured, a closed shop in Britain
The study compared mortality rates and cases in 50 different countries worst hit by the pandemic up until May 1.
Experts from the University of Toronto and the University of Texas calculated that among these badly-hit nations, only 33 out of every million people had been killed by the virus.
That rate, however, has since increased markedly, and is now at 80 per million globally, and still rising. Britain has seen 670 deaths per million.
The researchers constructed a mathematical model to measure the impact of each country’s response on coronavirus cases and deaths.
They then compared this to demographic factors such as age, smoking and obesity.
Dr Sheila Riazi and colleagues found imposition of lockdown measures succeeded in stopping health systems becoming overwhelmed by a surge in patients.
This was the UK Government’s primary aim when it imposed restrictions back in March – to protect the NHS and ultimately save lives.
But although this raised the chance that someone with Covid would recover from the virus, it did not actually translate into a significant reduction in death rates.
Restricting movements and closing borders also had no significant impact on Covid-19 fatalities, even if early border closures appeared to significantly lower cases and lessen the peak of transmission, preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed.
Countries with widespread mass testing did not appear to have fewer critical cases, or deaths per million, the study claimed.
‘Government actions such as border closures, full lockdowns, and a high rate of COVID-19 testing were not associated with statistically significant reductions in the number of critical cases or overall mortality.
‘The number of days to any border closure was associated with the number of cases per million.
‘This suggests that full lockdowns and early border closures may lessen the peak of transmission, and thus prevent health system overcapacity, which would facilitate increased recovery rates.’
But the scientists didn’t find any evidence that this actually saved lives.
It was population demographics and underlying health – particularly obesity rates – which has determined which countries have been worst-hit by the virus, the researchers found.
Nations with above-average obesity rates were 12 per cent more likely to have significantly higher death rates than those without.
It’s relevant for Britain – which has one of the biggest obesity problems in Europe – with two thirds of adults and a third of children overweight.
The authors wrote: ‘Consistent with reported COVID-19 outcome data from Europe, the United States, and China, higher caseloads and overall mortality were associated with comorbidities such as obesity.’
Countries with a higher median population age were 10 per cent more like;y to have a large caseload.
A surprising finding was that nations with higher smoking rates had fewer deaths.
It adds weight to the emerging argument that tobacco use may protect against coronavirus, with a slew of studies finding bizarrely low levels of smokers among hospital patients.
The researchers, however, warned the findings may just be because countries with high smoking prevalence tend to be those with younger populations.
Young people are less likely to get severely ill from the coronavirus, and therefore countries with a younger population have tended to be less badly hit by the pandemic.
The team also found wealthier nations had fared worse, probably because international travel meant more cases were imported at the beginning of the crisis.
This, they believe, is due to ‘accessibility to air travel and international holidays’, as ‘travel was identified as an important factor contributing to international viral spread’.
The team, writing in the Lancet online journal EClinicalMedicine, said: ‘Government actions such as border closures, full lockdowns, and a high rate of Covid-19 testing were not associated with statistically significant reductions in the number of critical cases or overall mortality.’
Some experts are skeptical of the findings, however, suggesting the findings have been exaggerated.
Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter of the University of Cambridge, said: ‘A large number of possible predictors are put into a model with only 50 observations, and then the resulting formulae are over-interpreted.’
Dr Louise Dyson of the University of Warwick, said: ‘While population demographics such as median age and obesity prevalence were found to be associated with increased mortality, this should not be interpreted as implying that these were more important than government interventions such as lockdowns.’
It comes amid mounting concern that the full-scale shutdown on Britain’s movement will have devastating consequences.
The resulting economic impact is expected to drive up physical and mental health problems both in the short and long term.
Professor Mark Woolhouse, an infectious diseases expert at Edinburgh University and a member of the UK Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies, warned earlier this month: ‘When the reckoning comes we may well find that the cure turned out to be far worse than the disease.’
But other British scientists have been adamant the lockdown was necessary, and was so important it should have been enforced weeks before it was, on March 23.
Professor Neil Ferguson – the academic whose work led to Britain’s lockdown – says the lockdown likely saved almost half a million lives in the UK alone.
His team at Imperial University in London found coronavirus lockdowns across Europe probably prevented up to three million Covid-related deaths.
‘Professor Lockdown’ has also conceded that, in hindsight, tens of thousands of lives could have been saved if the lockdown had come a week earlier.
A separate study also published in June suggested around 500million Covid-19 cases were prevented by lockdowns in six countries, including the US.