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.
The evidence from the United States points to a similar conclusion: the Covid death rate (as a share of the population) in Florida, which largely avoided lockdowns, is slightly below the U.S. national average and far below that of New York, which had (and continues to impose) relatively tough restrictions.
It’s true that mass vaccination has reduced the risk of hospitalisation and death from Covid. But lockdown exponents imply that vaccines alone are responsible for the decline in the infection fatality rate. The evidence from South Africa, whose vaccination rate is around a quarter of the European average (49 doses per 100 people versus 180, or 27%), suggests otherwise.
It appears that either Covid has evolved to become less virulent, as the South African doctors suggested back in December, or South Africa’s population has built up strong natural immunity from prior infection – a possibility overlooked by most commentators. It seems likely that both factors have played a role in reducing the virulence of the disease. Even if lockdowns had succeeded in reducing Covid deaths until the vaccine rollout that wouldn’t necessarily justify their imposition. From the start, lockdown sceptics were concerned about the collateral damage caused by closing down the economy, shuttering schools, neglecting conventional health care and forcing people to isolate in their homes for months on end. They railed in vain against the cruelty of lockdowns: mothers giving birth alone, old people dying alone or left for months without visitors in nursing homes, the damage to children’s education, funerals unattended, small businesses crushed and so forth. Finally, the public appears to waking up to these cruelties. Hence, the fury at the hypocrisy of Downing Street officials who imposed harsh rules for the nation which they didn’t scrupulously follow themselves.
Then there are lockdown’s immense financial costs. At the time, these could be ignored since governments financed them with interest-free loans from central banks. But all that money-printing is now fuelling inflation that will lead to further immiseration in the coming years. The sceptics argued that lockdowns were never subject to a proper cost-benefit analysis which took social and economic costs into account. That remains the case. Thus, not only has there been no ‘victory’ in the war on Covid – on the contrary, the highly contagious Omicron variant appears to be overcoming all attempts to constrain it – but the argument over lockdowns has yet to be decisively won by either side, so that lockdowns are either accepted as a tool of sound public health policy or roundly condemned as a colossal mistake. The sceptics’ work continues.
Edward Chancellor is a financial journalist and the author of Devil Take the Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation (1998).