On March 23, 2020, the UK was plunged into its first national lockdown, after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the British people they they “must stay at home“ in order to curb the growing pandemic crisis.
But there are a number of experts who now say that the lockdowns did not prevent covid deaths and that they ended up being worse than the disease.
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Following weeks of surging Covid infections, and horrified by the staggering scale of hospitalisations the UK Government concluded there was no option but to issue an unprecedented order to curb the growing pandemic crisis.
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The government was following the science, after all and the doom-laden epidemiological models had pointed to a possible UK death toll of 250,000 within five months.
Advisors said that efforts to ‘flatten the curve’ – to drive down infection numbers and protect the NHS – had not been enough.
The Mail Online reports: Just a week earlier, on March 16, Boris Johnson had advised Britons to stop going to pubs and restaurants, to avoid non-essential travel and to work from home if they could.
Within days, schools were shut and those considered most vulnerable to the virus – pregnant women, the over-70s and people with serious health conditions – were advised not to go outside.
By March 20, all pubs, restaurants and cafes were ordered to close, along with cinemas, gyms and leisure centres.
‘We are going to defeat this disease with a huge national effort to slow the spread by reducing unnecessary social contact,’ the PM told the nation.
That was Friday. By Monday, the Government had issued its most draconian stay-at-home order, a legal mandate that permitted people to leave their homes only for specific purposes: to shop for basic supplies, for medical purposes, for exercise or for work.
This lasted seven weeks, and led to some of the most heartbreaking and damaging moments of the pandemic.
Dying patients said goodbye to loved ones via a video call. Women gave birth without their partners.
Mental health issues, particularly in the young, began to take root. Reports of domestic violence rose dramatically as women were trapped with their abusers.
And it wasn’t the last. In November 2020 there was a second national lockdown, lasting four weeks.
And then, in January 2021 came the big one: a lockdown that lasted almost three months.
The true toll won’t be known for some time.
However the general scientific consensus, rarely challenged, is that these measures were a necessary evil that saved lives. But just how true is that?
While there is no doubt that robust measures were necessary against a new and devastating virus, was lockdown truly the only route through those dark days of the pandemic, or the right one?
For the past few weeks, in a series of reports probing the science that has underpinned key pandemic decisions, The Mail on Sunday has investigated the accuracy of PCR tests and the chaotic way Covid-related deaths were recorded.
Today, in the final part, we talk to the growing number of experts who say that lockdowns had little benefit – a cure that was worse than the disease.
One of them is Professor Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, who has recently published a book, The Year The World Went Mad, about the UK’s pandemic policy failures.
Speaking this week on The Mail on Sunday’s Medical Minefield podcast, Prof Woolhouse said: ‘I think that lockdown will be viewed by history as a monumental mistake on a global scale, for a number of reasons.
‘The obvious one is the immense harm the lockdown, more than any other measure, did in terms of the economy, mental health and on the wellbeing of society.
‘Clearly things needed to be done to bring waves of infection under control.
‘But many analyses suggest that lockdown itself didn’t have a huge impact on reducing the health burden. That was achieved in other ways.’
Analysing the effect of any single Covid measure is difficult, and researchers have managed it with varying degrees of success.
In the UK, ‘lockdown’ refers specifically to the stay-at-home order. But some studies also include school and border closures, business closures and curfews in their definition of lockdown.
And when all these measures are looked at together, they do indeed have an impact – reducing infection rates by up to 80 per cent.
One paper that did attempt to tease out the benefits of individual measures, published last month, found stay-at-home orders reduced global Covid deaths by just 2.9 per cent.
By comparison, business closures cut deaths by ten per cent and school closures by nearly five per cent.
The authors, economists linked to Johns Hopkins University in the US, have been accused of bias – one has repeatedly equated lockdown measures with fascism – and ‘cherry-picking’ papers to suit their hypothesis.
‘If you start with a premise and select studies which are likely to back that premise, you don’t come to an objective answer,’ says epidemiologist and Government adviser Dr Raghib Ali, at the University of Cambridge.
But intriguingly, Dr Ali and others also admit the researchers have a point.
In a critique of the paper, Australian epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz describes it as an ‘extremely poor quality study’.
But he also points out that, while the figures quoted are ‘pretty meaningless, the general idea is not totally wild’.
He wrote: ‘If we define lockdown as ‘the marginal benefit of stay-at-home orders on top of many other restrictions’ it’s probably fair to argue that the benefit might be quite small.
‘Indeed, that’s been shown before, and is quite a reasonable position based on the evidence.’
Another study that backs this, published in Science in February last year, found ‘stay at home’ measures reduced Covid transmission by an average of 13 per cent on top of other measures such as closing schools and non-essential shops, and banning small gatherings.
The study, which looked at evidence from 41 countries around the world, concluded this was a ‘small effect’ and meant ‘some countries could control the epidemic while avoiding stay-at-home orders’.
It also found something intriguing: lockdowns could, in a worst-case scenario, actually increase transmission of the virus by up to five per cent.
This may be an effect of allowing it to spread within households, experts say.
Prof Woolhouse has argued that, if the aim was partially to protect society’s most vulnerable, lockdowns failed.
‘We focused on this idea that if we stopped the virus transmitting among everybody, that this would somehow be sufficient to protect those who were at risk,’ he says. ‘And it wasn’t.’
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