In a previous post, I looked at where ‘The Science’ of community masking came from. Here I’ll do the same thing for lockdowns.
As many lockdown sceptics (including myself) have noted, lockdowns represent a radical departure from conventional forms of pandemic management. There is no evidence that, before 2020, they were considered an effective way to deal with influenza pandemics.
In a 2006 paper, four leading scientists (including Donald Henderson, who led the effort to eradicate smallpox) examined measures for controlling pandemic influenza. Regarding “large-scale quarantine”, they wrote, “The negative consequences… are so extreme” that this measure “should be eliminated from serious consideration”.
Likewise, a WHO report published mere months before the COVID-19 pandemic classified “quarantine of exposed individuals” as “not recommended under any circumstances”. The report noted that “there is no obvious rationale for this measure”.
And we all know what the U.K.’s own ‘Pandemic Preparedness Strategy’ said, namely: “It will not be possible to halt the spread of a new pandemic influenza virus, and it would be a waste of public health resources and capacity to attempt to do so.”
As an additional exercise, I searched the pandemic preparedness plans of all the English-speaking Western countries (U.K., Ireland, U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand) for mentions of ‘lockdown’, ‘lock-down’ ‘lock down’ or ‘curfew’.
Only ‘curfew’ was mentioned, and only once – in Ireland’s plan. The relevant sentence was: “Mandatory quarantine and curfews are not considered necessary.” None of the lockdown strings was mentioned in any of the countries’ plans.
So where did ‘The Science’ of controlling Covid using lockdowns come from? As everyone knows, China implemented the first lockdown (of Hubei province) in January of 2020. Yet it wasn’t until March that lockdowns became part of ‘The Science’.
As this chart taken from the paper by David Rozado shows, major Western media outlets did not start mentioning ‘lockdown’ frequently until March:
And this chart confirms that worldwide Google search interest for ‘lockdown’ was essentially nil until March 8th, 2020:
So what happened in early March? Well, Italy was the first Western country to lock down – on March 9th last year. And as Michael Senger argues, its decision appears to have been prompted by the WHO’s report of February 24th, which gave a glowing evaluation of China’s lockdown. (Senger’s piece is well worth reading.)
Other Western countries then followed suit. The next most important event, following Italy’s decision to lock down, was the publication of a report by Neil Ferguson’s team on March 16th.
This report has been described as the “catalyst for policy reversal”. Up until then, the U.K. had been more or less following its pandemic preparedness plan. As late as March 5th, Chris Whitty told the Health and Social Care Committee that “what we’re very keen to do is minimise social and economic disruption”.
Although other, similar reports had already been published, the analysis by Neil Ferguson’s team was seen as particularly authoritative. According to the New York Times, the report “also influenced the White House to strengthen its measures”.
On March 17th, Neil Ferguson and his colleagues held a press conference after returning from Downing Street. They confirmed that Britain would be adopting a new strategy. “The aim is not to slow the rate of growth of cases but actually pull the epidemic into reverse,” Ferguson said.
As to why the U.K. was changing tack, Ferguson noted, “We have had bad news from Italy and from early experience in UK hospitals”. However, subsequent revelations suggest that “bad news” was less important than the shifting of the Overton window.
In an interview with the Times published in December last year, Ferguson noted that “people’s sense of what is possible in terms of control changed quite dramatically between January and March”. Referring to China’s lockdown, he elaborated, “We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought… And then Italy did it. And we realised we could”.
After China’s initial response in Hubei, it took two months for lockdowns to go from ‘unprecedented’ to ‘unavoidable’. They received two major doses of intellectual credibility: first from the WHO, and then from Neil Ferguson’s team. Italy set the all-important precedent for Western countries.
As to whether one should trust ‘The Science’ on lockdowns, a reasonable answer to that question would be, “Do you mean the pre- or the post-Covid science?”