Day: 25 January 2022

Have Lockdown Sceptics Won the Argument?

Now that Covid restrictions are being rolled back, various commentators are declaring victory over the miserable virus. Lockdowns, we are told, worked. Only a fool could argue otherwise.

Devi Sridhar, the Chair of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University, who was formerly an exponent of the Zero Covid strategy of completely eradicating the virus, has recently announced in the Guardian that “delaying and preventing infection as much as possible through this pandemic was a worthwhile strategy. In early 2020, there were few treatments, limited testing and no vaccines. The costs of those lockdowns were big, but the effort to buy time paid off”.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Tom Harwood of GB News says much the same. Lockdown sceptics, he writes in CapX, are “bizarrely claiming victory now that restrictions are coming to an end”. The sceptics, Harwood asserts, ignore the success of vaccines. “There is a blindingly obvious distinction between the need for non-pharmaceutical interventions amongst a non-immune population, verses [sic] one with incredibly high levels of immunity.” He points to a lower death toll from the Omicron variant which appeared after the “stupendously successful vaccine rollout”. In conclusion, Harwood writes that to “deny lockdowns worked to reduce spread is to deny logic”.

Let’s examine the logic. If lockdowns bought time for the rollout of vaccines, then we would expect fewer Covid deaths in places that locked down early and fast. That is the case in Australia and New Zealand, which early in the pandemic sealed their borders against the virus. But the trouble with this policy, as our Antipodean friends are discovering, is the difficulty of exiting. Their policy of national self-isolation has lasted nearly two years, and continues in large measure even after most of their population has been vaccinated.

By contrast, in Europe there is no evidence that lockdowns significantly reduced Covid deaths. Sweden, which never locked down, has the same number of deaths per million as Austria, which did (see chart below). It’s true that Swedish deaths ran higher somewhat earlier than Austria, but this ‘bought-time’ doesn’t appear to have changed the final tally.

Why Are Deaths in Europe Soaring When Covid Isn’t to Blame?

Deaths are running high across Europe this winter, particularly before Omicron came along. But it’s not Covid, at least, half of it isn’t. Between the start of July and mid-December, in nine European countries, around 86,000 more people than usual died. However, Covid deaths numbered around 42,000, leaving around 44,000 above-average deaths from other causes – more than doubling the excess mortality. To put this in context, in the previous winter there were no excess deaths from other causes across these countries – in fact, there were around 5,600 more Covid deaths than excess deaths – meaning the alarming trend is new this season. The question is, why? Why is winter 2021-22 seeing high non-Covid excess mortality when winter 2020-21 didn’t see any at all?

The chart below depicts the trends in Covid mortality and excess mortality (top graph) and the difference between them i.e., non-Covid excess mortality (bottom graph) in the nine countries. The data comes from Our World in Data, and the nine countries – Austria, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and U.K. – are the nine Western European countries which report excess deaths data weekly and had data available up to mid-December. Between them they have a population of 218,646,258. To ensure the comparison is as accurate as possible the two curves are aligned using the peak of winter deaths in 2020-21, which allows for additional reporting delays in excess mortality. (This is why the excess mortality line is a week shorter than the Covid mortality line, and also why the figures quoted above are rounded as the estimates are not precise.)

The lack of non-Covid excess mortality in winter 2020-21 is clear here, as is its striking rise since July 2021. Other notable features include the high non-Covid excess mortality in spring 2020, which may be a mix of misclassified Covid deaths at a time of minimal testing and lockdown deaths of the frail, and the smallish hump in summer 2020, which may be heat deaths. The mortality displacement (‘dry tinder’) effect is also clear in spring 2021, when non-Covid excess mortality drops very low, which makes the subsequent rise all the more notable.

What could be behind the recent wave of non-Covid excess mortality? It doesn’t appear to be lockdown deaths, as its appearance in autumn 2021 doesn’t coincide with when strict restrictions were in place, while when there were strong restrictions in place in most countries in early 2021, non-Covid excess mortality was low and falling.

Could it be vaccine injuries? Not it seems in a straightforward way, as when the vaccine rollout was in full swing, targeting the oldest cohorts (which dominate all-cause and Covid mortality) during the early months of 2021, excess deaths were falling sharply.

Significantly, however, it does coincide with the Delta Covid wave. The simplest explanation would therefore seem to be that they are misclassified Covid deaths, somehow missed by testing and doctors. However, doubt is cast on that hypothesis by the fact that it didn’t happen in winter 2020-21 (as noted above, there were more Covid deaths than excess deaths that winter), and by the fact that there was more testing in late 2021, not less, making it even less likely that large numbers of Covid deaths were being missed.

Deaths Trending 6% Below Average in Mid-January – Time to Accept It’s Over

Winter deaths are usually running high at this point in January, but this year is different. According to the latest figures from the ONS, released today, in the week ending January 14th there were 6.1% fewer deaths than the five-year average in England and Wales (872 fewer deaths). Note that the five-year average the ONS uses doesn’t include 2020, but 2016-19 (which has historically low mortality) and 2021.

In the previous week there were 7.8% fewer deaths than the five-year average (1,036 fewer deaths).

A reflection of the mildness of Omicron and the level of immunity in the population, this makes 2021-22 a mild flu season, and further underlines how unjustified any measures to combat coronavirus now are. The state of emergency and all laws and guidance – including the vaccine mandates – must be removed without delay so that healthy normality can be restored.

This article has been corrected for a mistake in the information about which years are included in the ONS five-year average.

No Evidence Tougher Restrictions in Wales and Scotland Have Done Very Much, Scientists Say

The tougher Covid restrictions in Scotland and Wales over winter and throughout the pandemic may not have been worth it as there is no evidence they have “really done very much”, scientists have said. MailOnline has more.

Nicola Sturgeon is still yet to commit to a date for ending work from home guidance, despite England dumping the advice last week, while Mark Drakeford is refusing to lift the highly-controversial ‘rule of six’ for another four days.

Both nations resorted to tougher Covid curbs than England early on in the pandemic, and kept people living under economically-crippling curbs for longer.

But experts told MailOnline they could not see a “huge amount of difference” in the cumulative death rates between England and the rest of the U.K.

And they argued Omicron waves panned out similarly across the home nations, even though Downing St slipped through on relatively few rules. 

This is despite Scotland cancelling New Year’s Eve celebrations and Mr Drakeford accusing England of being a “global outlier” for Boris Johnson’s gamble to adopt no extra measures. Ms Sturgeon said yesterday Scotland’s tougher festive curbs were “worth it”, arguing they kept infection rates below levels south of the border. 

Latest statistics from the Department of Health show England saw the lowest Covid infection rate over the Christmas period, even though it was leading the way until December 23rd.

This is despite No 10 refusing to cave in to demands for lockdown. Instead only ‘Plan B’ was introduced, which saw work from home guidance reimposed, face masks in public places and controversial vaccine passports required for nightclubs and other large indoor venues.

SAGE advisers say the Omicron wave fizzled out on its own because of behavioural changes that led to people being more cautious, as opposed to natural immunity causing the outbreak to peak. …

Scotland was quick to impose tighter curbs in December as the nation reeled over the arrival of the Omicron variant, which policymakers feared would spark a big wave in hospitalisations.

About a week after the first case was confirmed, Scottish health chiefs started advising the public not to attend Christmas parties – unlike their counterparts in England.

And as concern over its spread ramped up, Scots were then told not to gather with more than three households and supermarkets asked to impose a one-way system in an echo of the worst of the pandemic.

Imposing ever harsher curbs, Ms Sturgeon then ordered night clubs to close for three weeks and called off public gatherings for New Year’s Eve.

Wales trod a similar path, bringing in a raft of restrictions on Boxing Day that saw sporting events played behind closed doors, the ‘rule of six’ return in pubs, cinemas and restaurants, and nightclubs shuttered.

Mr Drakeford also brought back the two-metre social distancing rule in public places and offices.

Northern Ireland closed nightclubs from December 26th and even prohibited dancing in pubs and restaurants. They also reimposed table service. 

For comparison, England only went as far as ‘Plan B’ – which included making face masks compulsory in indoor public places and bringing in vaccine passports for larger venues. No10 also pivoted back to advising people to work from home wherever possible.

But ministers never went as far as calling off New Year’s Eve celebrations, or bringing back tighter Covid curbs such as the ‘rule of six’, despite calls from some quarters. 

Despite evidence that the curbs had made little difference on the trajectory of the Omicron wave, some scientists said they still appeared to be worth it.

Professor Gary McLean, an immunologist at London Metropolitan University, said: “I do think it was worth it, based on the unknown factor of Omicron. It’s too easy to look back with hindsight and say England got it right.

“There was too much unknown about Omicron at the time the measures were put in place… I think England got lucky.”

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, said: “It is difficult to see any evidence that tougher restrictions in Scotland actually had an impact over and above what we were seeing in England.”

In another sign tougher restrictions were not needed, England’s cumulative Covid death rate – the total number of fatalities per 100,000 people – still trails behind that of Wales.

This is despite Wales for instance imposing a circuit-breaker lockdown in late October and bringing in the five-mile rule asking people not to travel further than this distance from their home.

Scotland has also been tougher with its Covid restrictions, keeping face masks in place on public transport for weeks longer than England, while Northern Ireland took the longest to start easing the third lockdown.

Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at Reading University, said: “The different restrictions between the nations have not made a huge amount of difference (in terms of Covid deaths). 

“They are all in the same ball park of deaths per capita. It does not suggest that tougher restrictions that Wales or Scotland have put in place have really done very much.”

Disappointing that SAGE is still refusing to recognise that surges naturally peak and decline owing to the development of (variant and season specific) herd immunity, rather than “behaviour change”. This is why their modelling is always wrong: they make poor assumptions and don’t learn from what actually happens. As for Professor McLean’s “England got lucky” – what is that supposed to mean, and would Prof. McLean care to point to the area of immunology this hypothesis falls under?

Worth reading in full.

And Finally…

In this week’s episode of London Calling, James and I talk about who’s to blame for the crisis in Ukraine, why they can’t bring themselves to spell Kiev K-Y-I-V, whether in Boris’s case it would be better to cling to nurse for fear of something worse, the late-to-the-party lockdown sceptics, my falling off the wagon during Dry January and, in Culture Corner, The Undoing, The Brothers Karamazov and Martin Chuzzlewit.

You can listen to the episode here and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

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