A Response to Dominic Cummings’ Pro-Lockdown Twitter Thread

Dominic Cummings – director of the Vote Leave campaign and former chief adviser to Boris Johnson – has written a pro-lockdown Twitter thread. However, I don’t find his arguments very convincing. What follows is a point-by-point response.

1/ Covid… Summary evidence on lockdowns. For UK political pundits obsessed with spreading nonsense on Sweden/lockdowns, cf. SW econ did a bit WORSE than Denmark which locked down, AND far more deaths in Sweden:

Not all sources indicate that Sweden did worse than Denmark in terms of GDP growth last year. For example, the IMF gives Sweden’s growth as –2.8% and Denmark’s as –3.3%. In fact, according to the IMF, only a handful of European countries had higher growth than Sweden last year.

It’s true that Denmark has had fewer COVID-19 deaths. However, it’s unlikely that lockdowns account for this difference. During the first wave, Denmark had zero days of mandatory stay-at-home orders, and did not introduce mandatory business closures until March 18th. But the country did introduce border screening on March 4th, followed by a total border closure on March 14th. Hence its success during the first wave is more plausibly due to border controls.

During the second wave, Denmark had about the same level of restrictions as Sweden, and in any case saw a moderate number of deaths. 

More importantly, the argument that “we have to compare Sweden to its neighbours” isn’t very convincing. Sweden’s age-adjusted excess mortality up to week 51 of 2020 was just 1.7% – below the European average. 

The epidemic in Sweden was already more advanced by the time its neighbours locked down. And since lockdowns don’t have much impact unless case numbers are low, locking down probably wouldn’t have made a big difference. What’s more, the Baltics are similar to the Nordics in terms of climate and population density, and once you include them in the comparison, Sweden no longer stands out.

Cumming’s tweet also links to an article by the economist Noah Smith, which argues that “lockdowns were good”. However, Smith doesn’t discuss any of the evidence contradicting his thesis, of which there is plenty. See herehereherehereherehere and here.

One of the biggest misunderstandings, spread by political pundits even now, is the ‘tradeoff’ argument. Fact: evidence clear that fast hard effective action best policy for economy AND for reducing deaths/suffering

The argument that lockdowns are good for both public health and economic output – that there’s no trade-off – only works if locking down enables you to completely suppress the virus. 

Once complete suppression has been achieved, the lockdown must be combined with a well-functioning system of contact tracing, and a well-functioning system of border controls. In the absence of these measures, a new epidemic will almost certainly emerge once the lockdown is lifted.

There is strong evidence that the UK’s lockdowns were bad for the economy. Indeed, the UK had the second lowest GDP growth in 2020 out of all the major countries in Europe, and its worst recession for 300 years. 

One could argue that the UK should have locked down earlier, but this is a bit like arguing China should have acted earlier to contain the epidemic in Wuhan. In other words, that ship sailed a long time ago.

What’s more, it’s doubtful whether the UK – which is much denser and more connected than, say, Australia – would have been able to contain the virus through measures like contact tracing and border controls. 

4/ Best example: Taiwan. Also shows that if you REALLY get your act together not only is econ largely unscathed but life is ~ normal. But SW1 (Remain/Leave, Rt/Left) = totally hostile to learning from East Asia

I agree that Taiwan has handled the pandemic well, and I share Cummings’s concern that people in Whitehall are unwilling to learn from East Asia. 

5/ There’s a general western problem based on nonsense memes like ‘asians all do as they’re told it won’t work here’. This is what many behavioural science ‘experts’/charlatans argued, disastrously, in Feb2020. This nonsense is STILL influencing policy, eg our joke borders policy

It’s not clear whether a greater tendency “to do as they’re told” explains why so few people in East Asia have died from COVID-19. However, evidence suggests that lockdowns are not a plausible alternative explanation. 

For example, Japan saw an epidemic burgeon in the winter of 2020–21. Yet this epidemic retreated without any real lockdown measures being imposed, which indicates that some other cultural or biological factor accounts for the country’s success.

In a recent article dealing with the global distribution of mortality from COVID-19, The Economist suggested that people in East Asia may “benefit from ‘cross-immunities’ – a level of protection against SARS-CoV-2 conferred by past infection by other viruses circulating in the region”.

6/ Another confusion re Sweden: data shows despite no official ‘lockdown’ behaviour changed enormously. The closer your measures are to ‘welding people inside homes’ (per Wuhan at peak) the >> effect on transmission. Semantics of ‘lockdown’ obscure this really simple point

Most lockdown sceptics accept that voluntary social-distancing affects the trajectory of the epidemic – I certainly do. Indeed, many people cite Sweden as an example of good pandemic management precisely because the country relied on voluntary measures (for the most part). 

However, it isn’t necessarily true that the “closer your measures are to ‘welding people inside homes’ (per Wuhan at peak) the >> effect on transmission”. We know that very little transmission happens outdoors, so there’s essentially no justification for mandatory stay-at-home orders.

What’s more, reducing overall transmission may be less important than reducing transmission among high-risk groups. Asking healthy adults to stay at home won’t have much impact on mortality if the virus still get into hospitals and care homes, as it did in the UK. 

Rather than focussing all our attention on the total number of cases, or the population “R” number, we should have done more to protect the most vulnerable. This would have involved expanding hospital capacity, improving ventilation, and requiring frequent testing of visitors.

Finally, there are some jurisdictions where the epidemic retreated without “behaviour changing enormously”. For example, case numbers in South Dakota began falling rapidly in mid November, despite almost no government restrictions and little change in people’s overall mobility. And they’ve stayed low ever since.

Because of overdispersion – i.e., the fact that a small number of individuals cause a large percentage of infections – overall mobility matters less than you might expect. 

7/ If you are going to have to do measures ≈ lockdown to avoid health system collapse then the harder/earlier the better & the sooner they can be released. Pseudo ‘lockdowns’ w/o serious enforcement are hopeless: econ hit & people die anyway, nightmare rumbles on

To begin with, none of the Western states that didn’t lock down – Sweden, South Dakota, Florida (in the winter of 2020–21) – came close to “health system collapse”, which casts serious doubt on the epidemiological models that served as the basis for lockdowns.

It’s true that, if you are going to lock down, earlier is better. However, it’s unclear whether a containment strategy was ever viable for most of the countries in Europe, which do not enjoy the same geographic advantages as countries like Australia. And I’m not sure East Asia is a useful comparison here. As noted above, Japan’s winter epidemic retreated without any real lockdown measures being imposed. 

It’s also not clear what Cummings means by, “Pseudo ‘lockdowns’ w/o serious enforcement are hopeless”. But if he’s referring to the UK’s lockdowns, then I’d agree that the costs almost certainly outweighed the benefits. Of course, the real question is what we should have done instead, and I’d argue that a focussed protection strategy is the most realistic alternative.

Cummings seems to believe that we should have attempted to contain the virus by closing our borders and locking down early. Even if this could have worked – which seems unlikely – the fact is that we did not contain the virus. The question then becomes, “Was a lockdown the right response?”, and I would argue that it wasn’t. 

It’s possible that we could have prevented a second wave by closing our borders at the end of the summer. However, this is somewhat beside the point, as the UK’s second wave was less deadly than the first. And evidence suggests that infections were already declining before the third national lockdown.

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