Before the vaccines arrived, lockdown proponents argued that the only way to prevent large numbers of Covid deaths was by completely suppressing viral transmission. A focused protection strategy, they maintained, was just not workable.
The basic argument is as follows. Because the virus is so transmissible, and society is so interconnected, it would have been impossible to protect vulnerable people if we’d allowed community transmission to proceed unchecked. Without a lockdown, the virus would inevitably have found its way into hospitals and care homes, leading to lots of deaths.
It’s not an unreasonable argument, but I don’t buy it. (And let’s put aside the fact that even if lockdown does prevent more Covid deaths than focused protection, the total costs almost certainly outweigh the benefits.)
We already know that places like Utah, Sweden and South Dakota, which refused to lock down last year, did not do substantially worse than places that did lock down. We can argue about exactly how to do the comparison; the fact is that none of the dire predictions made for these locations actually came to pass.
But is there an example of a country that achieved focused protection? Denmark might well be the closest. If we zoom-in on the second wave, and compare the country’s infection rate to that of the U.K., it isn’t dramatically lower:
Assuming the numbers are indeed comparable (which I’ll admit is a big assumption), Denmark saw 30% fewer infections between August of 2020 and May of 2021. Denmark did do more testing over this time period, but the U.K. had a higher share of positive tests.
If the lockdowners’ argument against focused protection is right, we’d expect Denmark to have had only 30% fewer deaths than the U.K. during the second wave; or at most, perhaps 50% fewer. After all, the country’s infection rate peaked at over 600 per million.
But this isn’t what we find. According to Karlinsky and Kobak, Denmark has had only 1% excess mortality since the pandemic began; the U.K.’s figure, by contrast, is 20%.
Now, more than half of Britain’s excess mortality was sustained in the first wave (which Denmark managed to avoid). But suppose that eight percentage points of the 20% were sustained in the second wave.
This would mean that Denmark’s deaths were not 30% or 50% lower than the U.K.’s, but almost 90% lower. Despite experiencing a moderately high infection rate in the winter, Denmark managed to keep deaths to a minimum.
Note: I’m not suggesting the country didn’t lock down; it did. (Though there was never a stay-at-home order, and the average stringency index was much lower than in Britain). My point is that some degree of focused protection apparently is achievable. There’s no necessary relationship between the infection rate and the death toll.
It doesn’t follow that Britain could have done as well as Denmark, which tends to finish at the top of every international league table. But with a bit of ingenuity, we could have done better than we did – in terms of both lives saved and collateral damage avoided.
The recent House of Commons report described the U.K.’s initial approach as “fatalistic”. But what was really fatalistic was assuming the only way to stop people dying of Covid was shuttering the economy and throwing civil liberties out the window.