On January 1st, the Times published a longish essay titled ‘What if we had done nothing about Covid?’, which focuses on Britain’s first lockdown.
It’s far from the worst thing written during the pandemic, as the author does try to consider both sides of the argument (i.e., pro- and anti-lockdown). However, he ends up leaning heavily toward the pro-lockdown side.
For example, he writes things like, “If we had done literally nothing, the economic impact from loss of life alone would have been catastrophic,” and, “There would probably not be enough workers left to run the NHS, let alone deal with the backlog of cancelled operations or the tidal wave of long Covid.”
The author does admit that “even if the government did nothing, we would have adjusted our behaviour” – though apparently not by enough to avert a huge death toll.
However, he omits one very important point: infections were almost certainly falling when Britain’s first lockdown began. While lockdown may have helped them to fall slightly faster than otherwise, it didn’t cause the initial fall. How do we know this?
First, infections began falling around the same time in Sweden, which didn’t lock down (see below). Neil Ferguson’s team predicted there would be 90,000 deaths in Sweden, but in the end there were less than 6,000. This shows that their model (which the author of the Times pieces takes very seriously) was simply wrong.
Second, the statistician Simon Wood reconstructed Britain’s epidemic curve using data on daily hospital deaths and the distribution of fatal disease durations (see below). He concluded that “fatal infections were in decline before full U.K. lockdown”.
Third, researchers on Imperial College’s REACT study reconstructed Britain’s epidemic curve by asking individuals who tested positive for Covid antibodies when their symptoms began (see below). Their analysis suggests that infections were already falling when Britain entered lockdown on March 23rd.
Fourth, in July of 2020, Chris Whitty actually told the Health and Social Care Committee: “Quite a lot changed that led to R going below one well before, or to some extent before, March 23.” For example, there was a large drop in mobility, and a lot of the most gregarious people acquired immunity to Covid.
The fact that infections were falling by the time lockdown began suggests that it didn’t make a huge difference. Of course, this doesn’t mean the correct response was to do “nothing” about Covid. What should we have done? The thing Chris Whitty said we were going to do in March of 2020: focused protection.