No, Locking Down a Week Earlier Would Not Have Saved Tens of Thousands of Lives

Toby has already gone through in detail the new report from the Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee of the House of Commons on the Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and taken it apart.

One point worth underlining further is that one of its central conclusions – that “if the national lockdown had been instituted even a week earlier ‘we would have reduced the final death toll by at least a half'” (the report quoting Professor Neil Ferguson here) – is demonstrably false on all the data available. That’s because it assumes that the epidemic was continuing to grow exponentially in the week before lockdown was brought into effect on March 24th, a growth which supposedly only the lockdown brought to an end.

That this is not the case is evident from all the data we have, as has been shown on numerous occasions.

For example, already in April 2020 Oxford’s Professor Carl Heneghan had noted that by projecting back from the peak of deaths on April 8th it could be inferred that the peak of infections occurred around a week before the lockdown was imposed. This early deduction was subsequently backed up by Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty himself, who told MPs in July 2020 that the R rate went “below one well before, or to some extent before, March 23rd”, indicating a declining epidemic.

Further support arrived in March 2021, when Imperial College London’s REACT study published a graph showing SARS-CoV-2 incidence in England as inferred from antibody testing and interviews with those who tested positive to ascertain date of symptom onset. It clearly showed new infections peaking in the week before March 24th (see below), as well as a similar peaking of infections ahead of the subsequent two national lockdowns.

SARS-CoV-2 incidence in England as inferred from antibody testing by the REACT study. Red and blue lines indicate the start and end respectively of national lockdowns.

Analysis by mathematician Professor Simon Wood, also published in March 2021, came to the same conclusion, confirming that Covid infections peaked in the week before March 24th (as they also did ahead of the two later lockdowns).

This being the unmistakable state of the data, as confirmed by multiple sources including Professor Chris Whitty and Neil Ferguson’s Imperial College London, any assertion to the contrary, even if deriving from sophisticated modelling or embedded within a parliamentary report, must be considered to be misinformation unless backed up with clear new evidence to counter the available data.

Since, then, the epidemic was peaking and declining in the week before lockdown, it isn’t possible to argue on the evidence that locking down a week earlier would have saved tens of thousands of lives, as clearly the lockdown could not have been the cause of the epidemic peaking and entering decline, which it was doing anyway. We also know that Sweden, which did not impose a lockdown, likewise peaked and declined at around the same time and the same prevalence, showing that there is no basis for thinking the rise would subsequently have resumed.

Note that this argument does not depend on accepting that lockdowns or social distancing have no significant impact on infections. Those are separate arguments which can be left on one side, as regardless of what effect lockdowns might have on infection rates, given that infection incidence was already peaking and declining in the week before lockdown, locking down a week earlier was not necessary to curb a growing epidemic and thus claims it would have prevented tens of thousands of deaths are fanciful.

A further point is that, even if you ignore this evidence and suppose that bringing the lockdown forward a week would have prevented a large number of deaths at that time, given there was subsequently a large winter surge with a further tens of thousands of deaths, how many of the lives ‘saved’ would have been spared for more than a few months, particularly as viruses are often more deadly in the winter? Even lockdown proponents accept that lockdowns can only defer infections and deaths, they can’t prevent them. So how many lives would really have been saved over the course of the year by locking down a week earlier?

Time to put this one to bed.

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