Leading article

What will history have to say about lockdowns?

16 October 2021

9:00 AM

16 October 2021

9:00 AM

Coronavirus may have fallen out of the news cycle but the threat of the virus has certainly not passed. Britain is once again reporting the highest level of infections of any major country. While the back-to-school surge did not materialise in England, the virus continues to spread. Thanks to vaccines, the number of infections does not present nearly the same threat it once did. But the government is nevertheless preparing for ‘Plan B’ if winter takes its toll, with vaccine passports and the reintroduction of restrictions.

This makes it essential that we learn what we can from the last 18 months — especially about the decision to lock down. Yet this week’s Commons select committee report —the first of its kind to take such a detailed look at the government’s handling of Covid — largely misses this opportunity. The report steers clear of asking the all-important question: did lockdowns work? And did the benefits of locking down outweigh the costs?

The report certainly did its bit writing the first part of our recent Covid history. Slowness to act was explained not because the government was arrogantly dismissing the advice of its own scientific advisers, but because it was following it to the letter. We learn that Covid-19 tests were developed in Britain as early as January 2020 but Sage — the scientific advisory group on emergencies — dismissed the case for establishing a testing regime in the community, saying there was no need to test people who were not showing symptoms. Sage was slow to accept the reality of asymptomatic infection.

The UK’s pandemic planning was unfit for purpose. In all of the extensive scenario planning, lockdown was never considered as a tool that could be used in a democracy, so serious discussions about the implications never took place. We now have a wealth of evidence about the effects of lockdown from across the world, but there remains a deep reluctance to learn from it.


Professor Neil Ferguson has claimed that locking down a week earlier (as per his advice) would have halved the death toll. The select committee accepted this striking figure at face value. A little bit of scrutiny, however, would have shown how Professor Ferguson arrived at this figure: the way he chose (and stretched) his figures has been examined by Professor Simon Wood, a statistician at Edinburgh University. If you swap Professor Ferguson’s assumptions for figures more in line with the consensus, his model shows something very different: the virus being forced into reverse before lockdown came into effect on 26 March 2020.

What explains this? Mobile phone data stored by Google gives us the answer. It shows that millions of people in the UK who would normally commute to work began to stay at home a fortnight before lockdown was introduced. By 26 March, when restrictions were enforced, travel to work had already fallen by 60 per cent and public transport usage by 70 per cent. These figures did not fall very much after that. So the government-mandated lockdown made a relatively small impact to the already reduced mobility.

This challenges the central premise: that only an enforced lockdown would persuade the British public to take the necessary steps to reduce the spread of the virus. As it happened, the voluntary response happened on a scale never envisaged by the modellers. This is why Sweden twice succeeded in suppressing the virus without lockdowns: its people were socially distancing and staying at home without being ordered to. This was true the world over. When infections rise, social distancing measures increase: people can see the picture changing and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

It could be that enforced lockdowns were never necessary in an information-rich advanced economy where people follow the news, follow advice and use their common sense. Similar global studies have been conducted and all show the same trend: most of the reduction in mobility was from voluntary action, rather than being mandated. Given the huge side effects of lockdown — on domestic abuse, educational damage and the economy — this changes the debate.

Public Health England did, retrospectively, publish an analysis in July 2020 of the life-years it expects to be lost as a result of Covid and the indirect effects of lockdown. Remarkably, it concluded that the latter would eventually exceed the former as the effects of poverty, unemployment and undiagnosed illnesses took their toll. It fits the account of those many oncologists and other consultants who reported a dramatic fall in their workload as the public took the government’s instructions to stay home and ‘protect the NHS’ (a message privately resented by senior NHS chiefs) too literally.

This week’s Commons report is far from the last word on Covid. There is still the public inquiry to come — sensibly delayed until the progression of the pandemic becomes clearer. Academics will be poring over this for decades to come. Of course it may well emerge that lockdowns saved enough lives to justify the damage. For now, however, the picture remains incomplete, and it is crucial that people keep an open mind to avoid mistakes being made in the future. What is not sensible is to start, as our MPs have done, from the assumption that the government’s principal failure was that it did not lock down the nation earlier.

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