Many people still struggle to accept the idea that lockdowns don’t have any appreciable impact on Covid cases and deaths. After all, it’s obvious, isn’t it, that keeping people apart will stop the virus spreading?
Tom Harwood, formerly of Guido Fawkes now of GB News, tweeted a typically incredulous response to the idea: “Cannot understand how some can claim ‘lockdowns don’t work’ with a straight face. As if stopping people from mixing wouldn’t hit transmission? Sure argue the cost is too high, imposition on liberty too extreme, just don’t invent a fairytale denying the basics of germ theory.”
Even some die-hard lockdown sceptics will say that lockdowns work, in the sense of suppressing transmission for a time, but they just delay the inevitable so are pointlessly costly.
The models churned out by university academics and relied on by the Government to set policy all assume lockdown restrictions work, and even claim to quantify how much impact each intervention makes.
But what does the data say? What do the studies show that actually look at the evidence rather than just making a priori assumptions about how things “must surely” be?
There have been at least seven peer-reviewed studies which look at the question of lockdowns from a data point of view, and all of them come to the same basic conclusion: lockdowns do not have a statistically significant relationship with Covid cases or deaths. Here is a list of them with a key quote for ease of reference.
- “Comparing weekly mortality in 24 European countries, the findings in this paper suggest that more severe lockdown policies have not been associated with lower mortality. In other words, the lockdowns have not worked as intended.” “Did Lockdown Work? An Economist’s Cross-Country Comparison” by Christian Bjørnskov. CESifo Economic Studies March 29th, 2021.
- “Stringency of the measures settled to fight pandemia, including lockdown, did not appear to be linked with death rate.” “Covid-19 Mortality: A Matter of Vulnerability Among Nations Facing Limited Margins of Adaptation” by Quentin De Larochelambert, Andy Marc, Juliana Antero, Eric Le Bourg, and Jean-François Toussaint. Frontiers in Public Health, November 19th, 2020.
- “Lockdowns do not reduce COVID-19 deaths.” “Government mandated lockdowns do not reduce Covid-19 deaths: implications for evaluating the stringent New Zealand response” by John Gibson. New Zealand Economic Papers, August 25th, 2020.
- “While small benefits cannot be excluded, we do not find significant benefits on case growth of more restrictive NPIs.” “Assessing Mandatory Stay‐at‐Home and Business Closure Effects on the Spread of COVID‐19” by Eran Bendavid, Christopher Oh, Jay Bhattacharya, John P.A. Ioannidis. European Journal of Clinical Investigation, January 5th, 2021.
- “Previous studies have claimed that shelter-in-place orders saved thousands of lives, but we reassess these analyses and show that they are not reliable. We find that shelter-in-place orders had no detectable health benefits, only modest effects on behaviour, and small but adverse effects on the economy.” “Evaluating the effects of shelter-in-place policies during the COVID-19 pandemic” by Christopher R. Berry, Anthony Fowler, Tamara Glazer, Samantha Handel-Meyer, and Alec MacMillen, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA, April 13th, 2021.
- “We were not able to explain the variation of deaths per million in different regions in the world by social isolation, herein analysed as differences in staying at home, compared to baseline. In the restrictive and global comparisons, only 3% and 1.6% of the comparisons were significantly different, respectively.” “Stay-at-home policy is a case of exception fallacy: an internet-based ecological study,” by R. F. Savaris, G. Pumi, J. Dalzochio & R. Kunst. Scientific Reports (Nature), March 5th, 2021.
- “Full lockdowns and wide-spread COVID-19 testing were not associated with reductions in the number of critical cases or overall mortality.” “A country level analysis measuring the impact of government actions, country preparedness and socioeconomic factors on COVID-19 mortality and related health outcomes” by Rabail Chaudhry, George Dranitsaris, Talha Mubashir, Justyna Bartoszko, Sheila Riazi. EClinicalMedicine (The Lancet) 25 (2020) 100464, July 21st, 2020.
Many of these studies attribute a large part of the drop in infections and deaths to the voluntary measures introduced prior to the legally-enforced restrictions. However, this is typically introduced as an assumption with no robust evidence provided in support of it, and with no consideration of the other possible reasons that infections might have fallen, such as seasonality or growing population immunity. On the rare occasion that rigorous analysis is applied to this question as well, as with Savaris et al in their article in Nature looking at whether people staying at home (measured using mobility data) is associated with Covid deaths, the finding is similarly negative. Voluntary measures make little difference either.
This may seem to defy “the basics of germ theory”, as Mr Harwood put it. But it doesn’t, it just means we need to understand better how the virus is getting round.
First of all, much of the spread, particularly that which leads to serious disease and death, occurs in hospitals and care homes. Forty per cent of Covid deaths in England and Wales in the spring were care home residents, while Public Health Scotland found that between half and two thirds of serious infections were picked up in hospital. Between these and transmission in private homes, this accounts for much of it.
In terms of community transmission, even during a stringent lockdown such as in the UK this winter, around half the workforce are travelling to work, while only around a third work exclusively from home. Add to that that many people still use supermarkets and other shops, and many children still attend school (even where the schools are only open for key workers’ children), and that’s a lot of social interaction. We also know from a major UK survey that less than half of people with Covid symptoms fully self-isolate, giving reasons such as going to work, going to the shops or regarding the symptoms as mild. This means we don’t need to resort to unsubstantiated ideas of asymptomatic infection being a major driver of transmission (which is unsupported by evidence, since, as with other similar viruses, asymptomatic infection is barely infectious and contributes very little to spread) to explain ongoing community transmission.
The idea that locking down and keeping people apart will stop a virus spreading may be seductively intuitive. But intuitive ideas can be wrong. The job of science is to examine ideas and test them with evidence to see if they are more than just speculation. And the science here is clear. Lockdowns do not control the coronavirus.