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Is the lockdown doing more harm than good? Yes, coronavirus can be deadly, but trapping us in our homes is also costly to lives and livelihoods

It's not about the economy versus human life. Credit: John Keeble/Getty Images

It's not about the economy versus human life. Credit: John Keeble/Getty Images


May 5, 2020   5 mins

We’ve been trapped in our houses for six weeks now. The economy is suffering; so are we. It’s (possibly) affecting our mental health. And people aren’t visiting the NHS for routine – or not so routine – appointments. Lockdown is coming at a cost.

Yes, the coronavirus is deadly. But so is the lockdown — it will undoubtedly kill people. The restrictions are also having a very real effect on our happiness, health and wellbeing, from joblessness, loneliness and all the myriad knock-on effects. So which is worse?

About 50 years ago, Gordon Smith, then dean of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “The essential prerequisite of all good public health measures is that careful estimates should be made of the advantages and disadvantages for both the individual and the community.” 1

That is, you should be sure that you’re not doing more harm than good. I recently made a Radio 4 documentary that attempted to work out whether, with Covid-19, the cure is worse than the disease.

I’ll cut to the chase: I concluded that yes, there’s a lot of uncertainty, but even (or perhaps especially) under that uncertainty, the lockdown is probably worth it. There is one aspect of it, in particular, that was discussed in the documentary and which I wanted to flesh out a bit more: the economic impacts, and the loss of life (or rather years of life: impacts are measured in “quality-adjusted life years”, QALYs) we can expect from that, and how we compare it to the cost of the virus.

In short, we need to work out what the cost of the virus would be, if left unchecked; then we have to work out what the cost of our response to it would be; and then use those two factors to decide whether the lockdown is worth the cost. The trouble is, we don’t know either of those things

First, the impact of the lockdown. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the Office of Budget Responsibility suggest that we’re facing a really major blow to the economy. It’s really important, by the way, that we don’t get wrapped up in the idea that it is “the economy” vs “human life”. The economy consists of people’s lives, in a very direct way: if you stop people working, you make their lives worse; their businesses go under, they fall behind on rent or mortgages, they can’t afford to buy the things they want or need. 

More than that, a growing economy seems to keep people alive. The correlation between GDP per capita and life expectancy isn’t exactly 1:1, but it’s pretty strong, by the standards of most social-science findings. 

It’s worth noting a caveat. Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics at Kings College London and an adviser to the Brown government during the 2008 crash, pointed out in interviews for the documentary that it might not be a straightforward causal relationship – longer life expectancies could improve productivity, very plausibly; or some third factor might cause both. But he felt it very likely that much of the increase was indeed due to economic growth.

You might, therefore, conclude that a recession will kill people. Somewhat weirdly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. As Portes has written, the counterintuitive but apparently well-established finding of health economics is that in recessions, the death rate goes down and people usually live longer. There are more suicides, but those extra deaths are swamped by a decrease in accidents at work and on the roads, cardiovascular diseases, cirrhosis of the liver, and various other factors.

Long-term economic decline, though, does correlate with shortened life expectancy, according to Portes.  So the impact of the lockdown on our life expectancy will depend on how long the lockdown is, and how rapid the recovery afterward. The OBR says that the dip will be significant but the recovery will be swift. Portes and Sam Bowman, an economist at the International Centre for Law and Economics (to whom I also spoke for the documentary), tend to agree – as long as proper measures are taken to deep-freeze and then reanimate the economy. 

Philip Thomas, a professor of risk management at the University of Bristol who works with economic modelling and has modelled the impacts of the lockdown, was more wary. But they all agree the length of the lockdown is key, so unless we know how quickly the economy recovers, we can’t be sure how many lives will be lost to it.

But there’s another point. The economic damage caused by the lockdown — and therefore the time required to recover from it — does not scale linearly with the length of that lockdown; or, as Portes put it, “a four-month lockdown is not twice as bad as a two-month lockdown”. Instead, it’s probably many times as bad. The economist Tim Harford says that, like the virus, the economic damage is an exponential process; the OBR’s assessment relies on a lockdown of no more than three months.

All this seems to imply that we ought to come out of lockdown as soon as possible, in order to prevent the sort of long-term damage to the economy that would cost more QALYs than would the virus itself.

The trouble is that so far we haven’t yet looked at the costs of the virus itself – and it’s really, really hard to know what they are. We don’t know how many people have had it; we don’t know how easily it spreads; we don’t know how likely it is to kill any given person. (For the record: we can make increasingly good estimates as more data comes in! It’s not that we don’t know anything. But so much is still hugely uncertain.)

So comparing the QALYs lost to the lockdown (which you don’t know) to the QALYs lost to the virus (which you also don’t know) is extremely difficult.

But it’s even harder than that! The two aren’t independent. For one thing: you have to consider the counterfactual. The severity of the virus (and the public response to it) affects the impact of the lockdown. You’re not comparing our lockdown economy to business as usual – you’re comparing it to what the economy would have been with a deadly virus flying about.

You can see that to some extent in Sweden, which — as my colleague Freddie Sayers has written — is a sort of control group for Covid-19 policies. It hasn’t enacted a lockdown, but instead has allowed schools, bars and restaurants to remain open, with social distancing rules in place. But it, too, has seen a “historically deep” economic slump, if less severe than in other European countries.

This shouldn’t be surprising. If you know that going out, going to work, going to bars and museums etc significantly raises your risk of catching or spreading a dangerous disease, you’ll be less likely to do those things. The economy will take a severe hit even if we don’t lock down. (As Bowman has written elsewhere, that’s part of what Toby Young got wrong in his much-discussed article about the tradeoffs involved.)

And it’s even more complicated than that. Sure, it’s bad if we keep the lockdown on for too long – but, according to Portes, it would be even worse if we came out of lockdown too early. The early Imperial College model suggested that lockdown measures could be imposed, relaxed, reimposed as the virus came and went. But for Portes that would be worse, economically speaking, than a single, long lockdown: “That seems to me to be, from an economic perspective, quite simply mad 
 you cannot possibly expect the economy to return to anything like normal if people if businesses are anticipating that another lockdown might be re-imposed.”

So coming out of lockdown before we’re ready to impose other measures — contact tracing, vaccines, treatments, masks — which can keep the virus at bay, meaning that we have to go back into lockdown, would be a catastrophe.

Perhaps it will turn out that the virus is less deadly than we think, which could theoretically mean that the impact of the lockdown is worse than the disease it’s meant to combat. But right now, despite the confident claims of some sceptics, we don’t know that. So you can forgive governments and policymakers for erring on the side of caution – hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. 

After all, if the disease is in fact worse than we think – and there’s no more reason to assume we’ll be wrong in one direction than the other – then not locking down could lead to vastly greater harms. It’s better to lock down when you don’t need to, than not lock down when you do need to.

FOOTNOTES
  1.  Thanks to George Davey Smith for the Gordon Smith quote

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.

TomChivers

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Alison Houston
Alison Houston
4 years ago

The programme was disappointing and this is as bad. These arguments only make sense if you think that death is somehow not part of modern life. It is, it always will be. Dying from Covid may be nastier than dying from flu or pneumonia or MS or cancer, it may seem less fair that it is infectious, rather than a cause of death which people can be accused of bringing on themselves like heart disease or stroke or type two diabetes. But we cannot stop death, so we have to LIVE life.

We are here to live life to the full, precisely because we are finite. We are here to live, not to not die. Maybe you should find some activity that would help you realise that, rather than watching old snooker matches and painting war hammer. Read some of the great works of literature, or even some of the lesser ones. Open your mind to the wisdom that has shaped our thinking down the ages, rather than pretending the modern world needs to reinvent the wheel and find out the hard way about everything.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
4 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

What’s wrong with painting War Hammer?- just listen to Bach whe you’re doing it.

John Jones
John Jones
4 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

This is a very bad argument Alison, based on a false premise.

Yes, everyone knows that death is part of life- the very last part. But that doesn’t function as a premise of an argument somehow justifying premature death.

As an analogy imagine that I argued that we don’t need rules to govern our driving. True, there would be increased death and destruction as people drive through red lights at twice the speed limit, but hey, death is part of life, right?

We cannot eliminate death, but any rational person wants to extend life as long as possible. Ending a lockdown that may last three months to save potentially hundreds of thousands of lives is no more an infringement on our freedom that stopping at red lights.

In order to live life, as you suggest, is all well and good. But I first have to have a life to live, don’t I?

nigel roberts
nigel roberts
4 years ago
Reply to  John Jones

Your protest would hold more water if supported by facts. We already know that the median age of fatalities from CoVid19 is around 82 years and that fatalities among the young are statistically almost nil.

The issue is not a disregard for life. It is what is the best way to protect the most vulnerable. Right now we have followed a policy prescription that assumes all people are equally at risk which it total nonsense. Yet we are destroying the economy to follow a policy that makes no sense in light of the facts.

tmglobalrecruitment
tmglobalrecruitment
4 years ago
Reply to  nigel roberts

agreed, and now its all political, and face saving, after a great deal of unconnected thinking by the Govt., not least trying to scare people which seems to have worked in some quarters

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
4 years ago
Reply to  nigel roberts

Really awful to read comments like yours.

tmglobalrecruitment
tmglobalrecruitment
4 years ago
Reply to  John Jones

why do youthink it will save anyone and your number is so inflated it fails to make sense. When do you end it – when they have a vaccine? So rather than 3 months that could be 18 months, still in favour?

As they have done little testing they have no idea of the spread of the virus, so at best this no strategy is based on wishful thinking.

A virus that spead around the world in record time and you dont think the vast majority have already been exposed? The kill rate is low, it is not going away, lets get back to work, before there is none.

Feel free to lock yourself away for as long as you like of course, and the same goes for anyone else, you can make your own choices.

Phil Carsley
Phil Carsley
4 years ago

A very well reasoned and sensible argument, thank you. We have to venture out some time, may as well be now. The government have often used language likening this issue to times of war, its appropriate then to use the following analogy, there comes a time when we must place our heads above the parapet and advance toward the enemy.
We can’t stay holed up indefinitely.

Joe Smith
Joe Smith
4 years ago
Reply to  John Jones

And lockdown may cause thousands of early deaths, except those won’t be as visible due to not being tagged against Covid. We always have to accept trade-offs in life because we can’t extend everyone’s life as long as possible, and nor should we if others have to experience misery to do that.

Until this year our society was quite happy to let thousands a year die from a virus without lockdown.

ccblackburn
ccblackburn
4 years ago
Reply to  John Jones

John, I believe your analogy to be even weaker than Alison’s generally accepted (in my opinion, somewhat fatuous) ideology that “Life is for living”.

Our driving IS governed.
We buy into it.
We even have a highway code.
We are examined against it.
There are even places where the general public have no belief in the limit set, and continually break it – resulting in a great source of revenue.
I won’t bore you with those examples here – although, trust me, I have them at hand.

Not so the Coronovirus Act.
People are confused, uncertain.
Police hand out fines at will. Once again, I will not bore you & I am able to supply you even with names & remote locations where this has proven to happen.

There is public, COMMON land that has been blocked off from COMMON use.
The excuse? “Government directives… Ma’am”

I am certainly not alone in seeing this gross misappropriation of common land under the banner of “Save Lives!”

I don’t buy into it.
If this is a new speed limit, I certainly haven’t seen it in my community handbook.

I rebel against it.
I will accept the fine and, very gladly, will be seen in court for it.

Send me to gaol for exercising my free will, by all means. Most especially when I don’t have a copy of your rule book.
I was not ever privy to your exam.

If “living my life”, with physical distancing and respect for other’s space threatens YOUR life, I would ask YOU to take more responsibility.
Stay at home John.
Protect YOUR life.

I have far wider responsibilities to consider.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
4 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Well said. And that assumes that it really is this virus that’s killing people, rather than whatever else they were suffering from.

Jean Redpath
Jean Redpath
4 years ago

Nowhere is there any discussion in these kinds of debates of the fundamental principle that a state seeking to deprive people of their rights must justify that deprivation as being rationally connected to the purpose, proportionate to the harm being addressed, and the least restrictive to achieve the purpose. It is not those who wish to exercise their rights who must justify their position; it is those who seek to deprive people of their rights who must justify their position.

David Barnett
David Barnett
4 years ago
Reply to  Jean Redpath

No. Both sides need to justify their position and let the rest of us decide which side is right (Or less wrong).

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
4 years ago
Reply to  Jean Redpath

Most people are not as fussed about absolute rights as you suppose. Rights are important but only in the context of a well run society that can support and protect. That’s what’s going wrong in the US – rights there are seen as self-standing and near absolute. Give me the NHS, and a decent sick pay, rather than a bunch of abstract rights anyday – bet most in this country agree.

Paul Dobbs
Paul Dobbs
4 years ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

And most in the US would agree too (although lacking the NHS they have the hodgepodge of sometimes excellent sometimes poor private health care providers and insurers.) The rights protesters are a tiny sliver of the population being pulled via puppet strings by oligarchs like the DeVose family.

John Jones
John Jones
4 years ago
Reply to  Jean Redpath

You make a good argument. Those wishing to deprive us of our rights should be able to make that case clearly.

Shutting down society is based on the premise that it is worth the sacrifice of some freedoms to prevent potentially hundreds of thousands of deaths. It’s hard to imagine a better reason.

Based on your own argument, I conclude that shutting down society was worth the economic cost. Human beings are the reason the economy was created, not the other way around.

Douglas Macready
Douglas Macready
4 years ago

There are two flaws in this argument. Firstly – SAR-CoV-2 is NOT a DEADLY virus. In healthy people under the age of 60 (ie most of the working population) it seems to cause a minor or even asymptomatic illness. Secondly – There is no scientific evidence at all that lockdowns are effective. If you want be safe rather than sorry – follow the evidence!

Paul Dobbs
Paul Dobbs
4 years ago

First, there is a small but statistically significant number of deaths among healthy people under the age of 60. Second, perhaps you need a peer-reviewed study, but for me it is enough to glance a the charts in the New York Times that depict the rise and fall of hospitalizations and deaths in countries that are and are not locking down: the positive effect of lockdown is hard to quantify but absolutely undeniable.

Glyn Jones
Glyn Jones
4 years ago
Reply to  Paul Dobbs

I think you need to be careful of just looking at the charts. The whole idea of not locking down is to accept more infections (and deaths) in the short term in order to build up immunity in the population and hopefully have less deaths overall.

So, almost by deinition, any charts now will look “better” in those countries with very strick lockdowns.
I have my opinions but we won’t know which is the best approach for quite a while.

John Jones
John Jones
4 years ago
Reply to  Glyn Jones

China had 80,000 infections and just over 3,000 deaths. The virus is under control because of the extreme lockdown of Wu Han.

In the States, there are over a million cases with over 60,000 deaths because they didn’t lock down soon enough.

We do know which is the best approach.

Phil Carsley
Phil Carsley
4 years ago
Reply to  John Jones

I don’t agree. Japan, Belarus, S. Korea, Sweden (to name but a few) all had little or no lockdown, yet death rates are comparatively low, S. Korea is often cited as a model for the fight against Covid-19. Yet other countries, Belgium along with much of continental Europe have had strict lockdowns but still had high death rates.
One can choose whichever suits there own point due to the inconsistency of statistics, however this merely serves to prove that there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that lockdown has had any effect on controlling the virus at all.

John McFadyen
John McFadyen
4 years ago
Reply to  Paul Dobbs

Not according to some epidemiologists and virologists who suggest that under either scenario the end result would be a total death tally of similar proportions but without the unintended consequences of many other deaths from suicide, diagnostic and treatment absence and an economic catastrophe.

John Jones
John Jones
4 years ago
Reply to  John McFadyen

You are forgetting the impact of overwhelming hospitals. The end result is not the same in those two scenarios, because people who could have been saved because respirators were available, will die if they are not.

Douglas Macready
Douglas Macready
4 years ago
Reply to  Paul Dobbs

I agree, I should have said “In healthy people under the age of 60 (ie most of the working population) in nearly all cases it seems to cause a minor or even asymptomatic illness.
The point is that is that SAR-CoV-2 not a DEADLY virus in this age group! The author claims we require a lockdown of the whole population, which is untrue.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
4 years ago

Doug,

So why has a 56 year old work colleague of mine, who had no co-morbitities died? He was only a few years from a well earned retirement he will now no longer get to enjoy.

Secondly there is stacks of evidence that social distancing reduces the spread. There can be debate over how severe those measures need to be. Sweden has practised social distancing, just in a less severe way, thanks to a more compliant population.

There is also some evidence from super spreading events in Germany that the size of the initial virus hit you get on first infection has a bearling on how badly or otherwise the disease progresses and its ultimate outcome.

ccblackburn
ccblackburn
4 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

As a work colleague would you have any idea of his health?
My 81 year old mum recovered here at home.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
4 years ago
Reply to  ccblackburn

He was a bit overweight and drank a bit too much, but was not diabetic, no heart condition or respiratory problems and passed a routine medical at 55, though he had had a hernia op about 6 months before he died.

I am glad your mum recovered. Whilst the virus does hit older people harder, the proportions of people who die from it are roughly the same as the proportions who die from all other causes. There have been elderly people in care homes who have tested positive but been asymptomatic.

My own view is when your time is up your time is up. You can look at the % to get an idea of how likely it might be that it will be you that is the 1 in however many, but there is no way of knowing. I think over time about 70-80% of people are going to be infected at some stage or another. We just need to manage our own risk as best we can, think about others around us and be socially responsible.

Hopefully soon the 2m rule will be relaxed to the WHO 1m rule, which in a new normal can become “don’t unnecessarily invade the personal space of people you don’t know” Hmm would that not be better than the old normal where people jostled and barged to save themselves a few seconds?

Phil Carsley
Phil Carsley
4 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

The fact of the matter is that because there is no robust testing program and that all deaths in hospitals are automatically recorded as COVID-19 we simply do not and cannot know the exact Covid-19 death toll. My neighbour was alcoholic and died several weeks ago due to liver failure. The death was attributed to COVID-19.
All of us can produce anecdotes to suit our argument, like the 90 year old chain smoker who has never had lung cancer or any other smoking attributed illness, the shipyard worker who despite working with asbestos, never had pleural plaques or mesothelioma etc etc.

Clive Pinder
Clive Pinder
4 years ago

While balanced in its rhetoric, this ‘pro-lockdown’ thesis suffers from the same fundamental flaws of all its like minded brethren. It is written by someone who is fortunate enough to have a job where they can work from home and live in a country with a welfare state, almost unlimited access to credit (more on that in the next paragraph) and whose elite all have assured salaries, gold plated pensions and healthcare benefits. Meanwhile the vast majority of Homo sapiens (about 4 billion of them) live in countries with minimal home working, no welfare, no credit, no savings and where lack of employment leads directly to poor nutrition and all the attendant consequences.
Even in countries that do enjoy economic safety nets, this thesis also ignores the total cost of the economic bailouts in terms of debt and cost of socio-economic hardship which will last for years. In the US, models suggest the cost could be at least $8 Trillion and counting. A simple calculation using the US equivalent of a QALY ($10 million a life) shows that 800,000 lives would have to be saved to justify that cost.
Finally, many of us who fall into the ‘lockdown sceptics’ camp are not arguing that there should have been no lockdown. That is a debate that can only be had in hindsight after at least a year when data on infection rates, excess deaths and related health and demographic conditions are known. What we are arguing for is that that while the only thing the ‘experts’ actually agree on is social distancing and hand washing, everyone agrees that the world economy has collapsed into a deep recession and is heading towards a Great Depression….so now is the time to abandon the one size fits all mandated lockdown in favour of smarter, more targeted measures that respect both rights and responsibilities.

John Jones
John Jones
4 years ago

One of the under discussed issues of this pandemic is the greater impact on men. A female reporter yesterday asked Trudeau about the “greater impact on women” of coronavirus, because more females have lost their jobs. Apparently, for this reporter, the greater death rate for men was less important than the possibly temporary loss of jobs by women.

Denial of the greater impact on men is often brushed aside by the claim that the higher death rate is attributable to biological factors, such as a weaker immune system. In contrast, the higher death rate among minorities is attributed to racism. The possibility that older men are more succeptible to this disease because they have spent their working lives in deleterious conditions is never considered.

Perhaps this is because acknowledging that men are the ones doing the difficult, dirty, dangerous work would completely undermine the “privileged male” narrative, as well as explaining why fewer men than women have been laid off. Fewer men have been laid off because they are the ones doing the essential work of keeping supply lines open. More men are dying because those types of jobs tend to stress the immune system.

But never fear- the groundwork is being laid to complain that this pandemic exposes the underlying systemic sexism of society- against women, when in fact, the opposite is true.

Ashley
Ashley
4 years ago

I applaud Tom for looking into this but he misses the point. Firstly, this isn’t an economic recession; it’s far more than that. Deprivation of human rights is a huge psychological shock to the system, and I cannot believe even smart commentators seem to accept it is reasonable to impose such restrictions on supposition alone, without incontrovertible evidence (presumably because they’re very comfortably off and enjoying the peace and quiet, thank you very much). Only Peter Hitchens seems genuinely appalled. He is a hero for sticking his neck out in favour of liberty.

Secondly, the beauty of what is happening in Sweden is they seem more likely to develop herd immunity faster, which will enable their economy and society to normalise quicker. Our reactionary policy of governing by fear will mean a stuttering recovery, with damaging psychological effects.

Thirdly, has Tom or his cohorts considered the loss of GDP in poorer nations who rely on a thriving Western economy? The deaths of relatively few, mostly elderly people with co-morbidities from Covid-19 in developed economies is nothing compared to the misery of poverty and hunger, which people in many countries live with on a daily basis, and will only be exacerbated by a global recession. Global QALYs need to be considered if we really are in this together.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
4 years ago
Reply to  Ashley

Tom’s in the media, so he doesn’t care about any of these things, by definition.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago

He has “sold his birthright for a mess of pottage”. (Genesis 25: 29-34).

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  Ashley

Peter Hutchins and Lord Jonathan Sumption KS, both gave clear, unambiguous warnings about the threat to Liberty this synthetic crisis /panic represented.
Both have been ignored to our everlasting shame.
It is truly astonishing that this could have happened in the land that nurtured Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke.

Phil Carsley
Phil Carsley
4 years ago
Reply to  Ashley

Couldn’t agree more on Peter Hitchens whose indefatigable stance on liberty and critical thinking is a real tonic.
Governments rely on fear to maintain control over its populous, they depend on it. History has shown that when a state assumes greater powers, which invariably result in loss of liberty for us, they are hesitant to relinquish such powers. There is much historical evidence of this I will not go into here for brevity.
Keeping us all in a constant state of fear is essential for government, the odd thing is that the people often demand something is done, when actually the best things is often to do nothing.
“Those who trade liberty for temporary security deserve neither, and under a just god, cannot long retain it”.

tmglobalrecruitment
tmglobalrecruitment
4 years ago

the problem here is that the LD will achieve nothing but a timing difference, unless you LD until a vaccine is available, as that looks like 18m at best there will be no economy left.

If you tested and contact traced and agreesively took on the virus – yep that could work

Hiding passively away in your homes, whilst the economy is thrown to the fire is no solution. Firstly how can you come out of LD, when there are no real facts as to how many have had covid, lets face it you dont go for a test if you feel well, so all their numbers based on tested people are meaningless.

BoJo based his decision based on bodged numbers the author of which ran away from under challenge, and disappeared totally today.

Locking down older people sure but get the others back to work. People will die the virus is going nowhere, accept that and get back to work, before there is nothing left to get back to

Mike Gelbman
Mike Gelbman
4 years ago

I’m not forgiving governents for erring on the side of caution, because that’s not what they did. They appeased the rampant hysteria without listening to experts and now we’re all bankrupt

David Bell
David Bell
4 years ago

This article ignores what is possibly the most important aspect of any virus response, immunity. The response of many scientists and media types has been to write off immunity as a callus policy but in reality it’s the only long term policy. Immunity will come in one of two ways, a vaccine or from a certain number of people getting the virus and developing what has now become known as “herd immunity”.

New reports are emerging (based on studies from captive populations on curse ships and other locations) that we will achieve herd immunity when 20% of the population has been infected (this figure has to be peer reviewed so a large pinch of salt is still required). If this is correct then the lock down is not effective because we can achieve herd immunity and improve living standards much fasted through natural infections (as long as it is controlled to protect the vulnerable) than by waiting for a vaccine.

This may sound callas but a number of points must be remembered:

1. We do not know how many people have died already as a result of the lock down already
2. We do not know how many people are going to die in the future due to the after effects of the lock down, including people not going to hospital, cancelled treatment, suicide, etc
3. People will die from the vaccine. Fact of life but some people will take a reaction to the vaccine and they will die.

Regrettable this is a numbers game. People die, what we want is to limit the deaths and the policy with the most PR value (lock down) is not always the best policy in that calculation.

John Jones
John Jones
4 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

It is highly unlikely that there will be herd immunity at 20% infection rate. For other diseases, herd immunity is only achieved at rates of over 90%.

Second, although we do wish to achieve that level ultimately, the danger is that if too many people are infected at the same time, hospitals will be overwhelmed, and many thousands will die who would otherwise have lived, including those who will die of other causes such as heart attacks, who will be denied care because health care is overwhelmed.

The trick is to keep the infection rate under control over a long period of time so that it can be dealt with. The first step in gaining control was to isolate people to lower the infection rate. That’s what “flattening the curve” means.

So lock down was certainly the right thing to do. The only issue is whether we can safely ramp the economy up again. We can only do that by keeping the infection rate low. And we can only keep it low by slowly lifting lockdown.

Niko Lourotos
Niko Lourotos
4 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

“Curse ships” indeed!
Have you ever been stuck on one for a week, surrounded by elder Americans in polyester? 😉

David Bell
David Bell
4 years ago
Reply to  Niko Lourotos

Thankfully no

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
4 years ago

If we accept that it was necessary to lockdown on extremely imperfect science, then we must accept that it is necessary to end the economic harm of lockdown on much better, but still imperfect science. Science basically works on trying something and seeing what the results are. Sweden has been a very good test bed for all sorts of things. I am not saying just follow Sweden. But if good enough answers to most scientific uncertainties are not obtainable from the Swedish experience, we are just going to have to make a best assessment and get on with it, rather than hiding behind the excuses of uncertainty.

Dave Smith
Dave Smith
4 years ago

The economy is already screwed. My three sons have never been out of work in their lives. Families to raise and now as tradesmen NOT your civil servant/state paid class they face the destruction of their businesses for good if you are being realistic. A bit of charity from the state is just not going to cut it.
This article is full of academic theorising and does not relate to the lives of most of us.
Also there are too many dead now . All over the world and in particular in the US Spain, Italy, France and here. The theorists and the MSM media forget just how ordinary people are going to feel about this. First sorrow, then anger. This is the way of the world.
You can sense it .Already in the USA a country that lives by a different code sometimes many are calling for revenge. Revenge on what and who? I leave that for you to guess but the peace of the world has never looked as fragile since Cuba.
Imagine a USA where to buy from China will be seen as deeply unpatriotic,. Where every company that trades with China will be under enormous pressure to leave . It could well; happen and very fast. What price Huawei and our 5G then? We are entering very difficult days.

Ashley
Ashley
4 years ago
Reply to  Dave Smith

Exactly. I don’t think we should underestimate how much closer we are to real Armageddon as a result of the West’s reactionary approach to this crisis. Statesmanship is about keeping calm in a crisis and yet everyone except Sweden has chosen to panic in response to what they saw in China, and were told by the WHO with close links to China. The Chinese whispers have only just begun.

Dave Smith
Dave Smith
4 years ago
Reply to  Ashley

The die is cast as they say. Statesmanship is irrelevant now.

John McFadyen
John McFadyen
4 years ago
Reply to  Dave Smith

One hypothesis is that we need to get out of China as they have already manipulated the world to ensure they control manufacturing and own the debt of many countries in exchange for their respective natural resources or strategic position geographically. As a result manufacturing has died in the west and with it jobs have gone and technical know how lost.

Jon Quirk
Jon Quirk
4 years ago

We see what the spotlight picks out; sneaking past in the dark, it seems likely now that the virus has secretly met up with many of us. We didn’t have any warning, no notion whilst it invaded us and it left no marked trait other than the evidence of it’s passing, which evidence can only be discerned by testing.
The spotlight picked out the exceptions, the hospitalised, the dead and those in that passing wake; extrapolated by analysts, making the minuscule spot-lighted percentage the statistical representative of the whole.
Had the spotlight been on the axe-wielding murderer, it would have, by example and similar extrapolation made murderers of us all.
We, all around the World have given the Stasi element, lurking just beneath the surface in too many societies, not just the key to our booze cabinets, but also the blindfolds, restraints and paraphernalia to control all aspects of our lives; where we walk, with whom we walk, when we walk, what we think, how we say it, where we eat, what we eat, and God forbid, we vary one iota from the pre-packaged, carefully modulated, ANC prescribed “average”.
We have become the sheeple, or as I put it in an article in the Times, where Government sought to beat up business and place all responsibility onto them,
“Baaaaa”; the sound of sheeple being herded into their offices, too thick, stupid, lacking in judgement to possibly be able to assess and manage risk for themselves.
Has our view of our fellow citizens fallen to such abject levels that we now need to absolve them from all personal responsibility and decision-making?
If that genuinely is the case – then should they be employed, or even employable in the first instance?

Welcome to our Brave New, Aldous Huxley World.

Michael Baldwin
Michael Baldwin
4 years ago

I appreciate the rare honesty of this article, in the current climate of dubious statistics and propaganda, in admitting so many things we don’t know about both the behaviour and real status in terms of “deadliness” of covid-19, as well as the possible behaviour of the economy depending on the duration and nature of the lockdowns, here in the UK or elsewhere.

What is alarming, and probably not very rational therefore, is that the government (here or elsewhere) has decided to make such potentially devastating decisions based on so little understanding of the likely effects of those decisions, both on the public health and the economy, which two matters are of course interlinked as pointed out here and elsewhere.

The possibly underused maxim “if it’s not broke, don’t try to fix it” may instead well have been applied, with less pain, fear and suffering for nearly all concerned.

“Nearly all”, meaning we don’t know, and quite likely never will know with total certainty what would have happened if there had been no lockdown.

Though as Sweden seems to have a proportionate number of deaths to ourselves, perhaps that is near enough proof to say it would most likely have made little or no difference to the overall mortality rate.

i.e. on current figures it’s 1 in 2,220 (29,500 out of 65m) of UK people allegedly dying of covid-19 and in Sweden it’s 1 in 3,578 (2,850 out of 10.2m), so in fact Sweden so far is doing much better.

But here is another statistic which is more certain as it is final and incontestable – in 2018 there were roughly 616,000 deaths registered in the UK.

Now bearing in mind the “quality of life” element, we can safely assume at least 500,000 of those totally certain, incontestable, 2018 UK deaths were in the over 60s/70s/80s group, the group who allegedly we are going to all this trouble to protect, as only a small percentage younger than that are apparently at risk.

And therefore that the same number of that group – that’s roughly 500,000, or half a million in other words, in this age group are going to die this year also.

And so in fact, around half a million – and that’s just in the UK – are going to die this year after having their whole year probably destroyed, under an effective prison sentence.

So it has actually not only robbed these half a million or more old people of the last year of “quality of life”, on the contrary, it has made that last year one full of fear, isolation, confusion and misery.

The way things are panning out, one suspects that under the current government, that like Brexit, this covid-19 catastrophe (more one of government, than of health in my view) may drag on at least till the end of 2020, and possibly even for years, bearing in mind the economic fallout.

So let’s say it ruins the way of life we had before April 2020, for the next 5 years.

Then that means at minimum, 2.5 million old people are going to die under this horrible regime and collapse that has set in, and indeed around 3 million overall, as of course the ruination of younger lives matters as much as older ones, if they get cut short, so these half a million younger people never live to survive the crisis.

These are facts, not speculations, if the economic damage is even half as bad as is being touted at present.

So that’s 3 million lives ruined to perhaps save a few tens of thousands or not, which we can never know for sure, but Sweden suggests is at most the saving.

But economic uncertainty aside, it seems to me we have a very simple problem here, which has been made unnecessarily and vastly complex by people who aren’t actually facing it much or at all – i.e. the young and healthy.

These lockdown measures are supposed to be protecting the old people.

So why not just let the old people decide whether they want to take the risk of catching covid-19 or not?

Though my best guess is most have been exposed to it already, long before the lockdown, which again is a view many experts of very high stature support.

That is, all conspiracy theories aside, when it was made clear by the official sources that with few exceptions (the ones you hear about are one of numerous thousands or millions even) it was only the over 60s/70s/80s significantly at risk, why the hell ever did they lock down everybody in the first place, instead of just protecting those most at risk?

So the BBC and Guardian do acknowledge that the old and vulnerable are suffering, but they suggest every other measure than what the old and vulnerable really want, which is to end the lockdown and get back to what was normal life for them, which was hardly a bowl of cherries for most of them the way things were before.

The part we seem to have lost, in this “super nanny state” mentality we seem to have blundered into, is that life is and always was full of risk.

That is, there are still people around who fought and got blown up in wars, even very recent ones, and the idea that they should be scared of getting a respiratory infection as compared to walking through a field full of landmines with snipers likely to blow their heads off any minute with machine gun fire, must surely be laughable to these people.

We didn’t get to be the dominant species by surrendering to fear, by refusing to take risks, but precisely the opposite – by explorers and adventurers in every field of life pushing the human boundaries of endurance and intelligence to their limits.

I forget exactly who said it at the moment, but the saying comes to mind:

He that is not busy living, is busy dying.

Let us therefore choose freedom, not captivity, choose life with all its risks, instead of cowardly hiding in self-made prisons until we die of loneliness, boredom and despair.

I’ve got a theory myself, that while not applying perhaps to everybody applies to many: we on the whole tend to last while there seems to be a purpose to life, and once that purpose is gone – for some people it is losing their life partner, as is well known – death is not far way, because we have lost the will to live.

Millions of the old especially are losing the will to live right now, and I’ve seen reports from mothers that even young children now are due to this climate of fear and imprisonment, becoming only a shadow of their former selves.

As to the economy, nobody yet knows the truth, but commonsense suggests that the longer the lockdown goes on the worse it will get, and then people of all ages will suffer.

Though I hope for the best, I fear that the future will be a lesson to all concerned, and especially government, that when you have a system that works approximately well, play with the fundamentals of it at your gravest peril.

I think the analogy of the familiar scene of the patient lying on the operating table whose heart has stopped applies, and who is frantically electroshocked time and time again if necessary in an effort to try to bring him back to life.

Just how long can the heart and breathing stop, before it cannot be revived?

Likewise, all who are fit and health enough now all need to be shocked back into normal life, before it is too late, and the “body economic” permanently dies.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

Well of course it’s doing more harm than good. All sensible people have known that for the last few weeks. Little wonder that the mainstream media is collapsing when all they give us are lies or statements of the bleedin’ obvious.

Jo C
Jo C
4 years ago

This assumes that lockdown is preventing the number of deaths predicted by Ferguson. After several months, is there a single bit of evidence worldwide that supports the assumptions? Genuinely curious, as all the studies (not modelling) I have seen is vastly different to the lockdown model

John Jones
John Jones
4 years ago
Reply to  Jo C

Where is the evidence that lockdown prevents death?

Try Worldmeter, which shows that Sweden, which didn’t lockdown, has a death rate of 283 per million. In contrast, those countries which reacted quickly and decisively, like S. Korea (3 per million) Singapore (4 per million) and Japan ( 5 per million) are doing much better.

Lockdown worked. The evidence is there for those who understand it.

Adamsson
Adamsson
4 years ago
Reply to  John Jones

South Korea hasn’t had a general lockdown. It reacted quickly and isolated the infected

Joe Smith
Joe Smith
4 years ago
Reply to  John Jones

But Sweden has a lower per capita Covid-19 death rate than countries like UK, Italy and Spain. That suggests more factors are involved than lockdown.

I’ve read that in some countries the growth in infections started to slow before lockdown, which if true suggests lockdown may not have had much impact compared to the social distancing measures already in place. One thing we can be sure of is that we can’t afford another victory like this over Covid-19 if it means a second tanking of the economy.

Tommy James
Tommy James
4 years ago

A key premise of this article is that GDP and life-expectancy are closely related and that life expectancy increases along with economic growth. This is wrong in the case of rich countries. Once rich countries have reached a certain level of wealth there is a flattening of the life expectancy curve, meaning that further increases in GDP per head don’t impact on life expectancy (UN Development Programme, Human Development Report, 2006). What makes a difference is how unequal rich countries are. For example, the US has a lower life expectancy than countries that have much lower GDPs per head such as Greece, Spain, Sweden, Japan etc etc. (UN Development Programme, Human Development Report, 2004)

Scott Allan
Scott Allan
4 years ago

Preaching to the converted.

Since the beginning the real medical evidence about any COVID stated two facts.

1. There has never been a successful vaccine
2. The immunity for all other covid has been dealt with most effectively scientifically by isolating the most vulnerable, mitigating with enhanced sanitation and letting the low dose of the virus work through at least 70% of the population.

Well that is the Swedish plan. The Swedish plan has not seen more deaths or an overwhelming of their medical system. No two countries are exactly the same and those differences are logically to receive individual mitigation attention.

However, this FACIST assault and mass incarceration of the healthy that decimates the contract of the citizenry with the state and the heavy-handed Neo-Marxist tone of the administration of this pandemic should be a wake up call to all.

You will be much poorer than before. Many will die from the non-covid related disease such as suicide and undiagnosed illness during and after this pandemic. The human and economic cost will pervade for 5-10 years.

We have got to stop knee-jerk reacting to “Experts” with their models. When will the populace learn they, “the Experts”, are guessing. The hypocritical people like Neil Ferguson’s are indoctrinated into a CULT. This cult is Neo-Marxist SJW Femanazism. It needs 3 essential things. You to look to the state for answers, income and morality.

None of these idiots have any of those things for you. They are solely interested in their positions of power, comfort and security. Liberty relies on self-determination, access to amenity and opportunity by ensuring free speech (Yes even when it offends) and free trade. Trade that has fairness built into its structure. Not a guarantee of fair outcome but the reasonable opportunity of a fair outcome.

Because the institutions of government and academia are so infected by this CULT we must de-fund them. Shrink their number, money and influence accordingly until they once again represent the citizens as they should.

Paul Dobbs
Paul Dobbs
4 years ago

Excellent analysis. However I regret the omission of one consideration: the concept of TOTAL cost analysis. The world has run for so many decades now on the theory that growth is always good. Unfortunately this has led many to believe and governments to strategize on the basis of growth is good at any cost. Thus we have governments supporting and even subsidizing fossil-fuel industries even while science consistently predicts that this is leading toward drastic weather change bringing storms, floods, and agricultural failures on a massive scale. This of course has a cost, one so high it is incalculable. It seems a mistake to mention that growth may correlate to life expectancy without also mentioning this often ignored but well-know bug in the machine.

tjell2010
tjell2010
4 years ago

Thank you for such a thoughtful article especially for your appreciation of uncertainty.

Niko Lourotos
Niko Lourotos
4 years ago

Large scale antibody/immunity testing should be here very soon – there is no excuse that it isn’t already, in fact.
It will show that 30% of the population had already had the virus – asymptomatically.
The direct conclusion will be that the lockdown was largely unecessary. It did very little good, indeed.

This is mere speculation, of course, but let’s wait a couple of months for the results, before we dismiss it, yes?

Joe Smith
Joe Smith
4 years ago

“It’s (possibly) affecting our mental health.”

It has definitely been affecting some people’s mental health.

Joe Smith
Joe Smith
4 years ago

The real control country should not be Sweden, but probably Taiwan or South Korea. Govts across the world panicking and enacting lockdowns have exacerbated the economic damage by affecting international trade as well as domestic demand.

Richard Jones
Richard Jones
4 years ago

So tedious to have the only consideration when discussing the pros and cons of the lockdown be economic vs. life/death. We are social beings, too, for heaven’s sake; locking people in their homes causes enormous negative mental/emotional health effects, as we’re already seeing in the U.S. Most new cases of Covid-19 in NY are already occurring in people sequestered in homes, as Gov. Cuomo admitted in his press conference on May 6. Also, the ramifications of not being able to work are formidable – 84% of new cases in NY happen in unemployed/retired people. There’s a philosophical point about the importance of pure action for the human being, so that should be considered, too. Are we so materialistic and shallow that we only consider economic consequences to this lockdown situation?

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
4 years ago

The key issue for a 1st world country is whether or not its health service can cope. The sad fact is the NHS hits breaking point during most flu seasons. The claim is that NHS just about coped at the peak. Arguably this is true, but many people have died and are yet to die from all causes without access to medical care they should / would have had, had it not been for coronavirus. It is actually very clear from the daily death data that this was not a natural peak associated with herd immunity, but one created by lock down measures. Had we held off for another week then we would have seen the sort of healthcare meltdowns seen in Lombardy and New York, 2 weeks and there would have been mass panic and civil disobedience on a massive scale.

The lessons we should be drawing from Sweden are to fund our NHS better in normal times and to get the benefit of the micro data it has with respect to schools etc to inform the lifting of lock down measures.

The key going forwards is to use the summer months to get to levels of herd immunity without overwhelming NHS, particularly in the working age population, which will make us more resilient when flu season returns so NHS is not overwhelmed by a double whammy then. A difficult balance where being too cautious in lifting measures could be worse than not being cautious enough. The issue is does the Govt have the control needed to walk that tightrope?

ccblackburn
ccblackburn
4 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

In your post you have supplied one reason why the recovery rates for UK are not published. Simply because it is underfunded and, very possibly, abused by private contractors.

ccblackburn
ccblackburn
4 years ago

The article is mealy mouthed & would make great political rhetoric.

To the point of “After all, if the disease is in fact worse than we think ““ and there’s no more reason to assume we’ll be wrong in one direction than the other”
According to Imperial’s statistics (refer pg. 11 of their report), under maximum lockdown we should have reached around 900,000 deaths globally by now. We haven’t reached 300,000 to date, globally.
Ergo, we have already proven the disease is not as bad as we once feared.

Aside from this, the article addresses only two aspects; a death toll (which is far higher in developed countries) and the economy.

As a number of comments have pointed out, there is also the loss of liberty and the freedom of choice.

One comment, I can’t find it now, spoke of the developing nations & their reliance on a global economy.

So, there is yet another aspect to consider too, the humanitarian crisis provoked by lockdown. This is a sheer certainty.

Also consider please, coronaviruses have been with us since the mid-60s. There have been no significant vaccine breakthroughs. We may not find a vaccine for this particular strain for a very long, long time.

What hubris has lead to the British people from the more sane “flatten the curve” to the godlike “Save Lives!”?

What if the best we can do is to shelter our elderly & those at greater threat of nCov, would we choose to remain locked away forever?

Bill Bolwell
Bill Bolwell
4 years ago

The tests are not always accurate for SARS2. Some places record a death where the cause is not SARS2 as a SARS2 death. Why did they suddenly alter the method of isolation from isolating the sick , to isolating the well? You will find the answer is because this was a psyop. You will find the answer in what Bill Gates said, that the world will only be “safe” when everyone in the world is vaccinated. You see that they say the new “vaccine” will not be tested on animals, that the previous vaccine killed the animals and was abandoned , you see Bill Gates has often said he wants the world population to decrease, etc.

Steve Dean
Steve Dean
4 years ago

I see lots of ‘reasoned’ argument on this site. To me, a lot of the time, it just serves to confuse. Agenda leads the argument. I don’t know the Latin name for this, but all I see is agendas…
On this occasion, I don’t think we have a ‘scooby doo’!
Do we….

Steve Dean
Steve Dean
4 years ago
Reply to  Steve Dean

Thanks for comment T Hopp

I think your asking what scooby doo is all about makes my point, better than my referral to agendas, which I admit was misplaced in this environment.

Scooby doo is colloquialism for not having a clue.

David Simpson
David Simpson
4 years ago

Hope the lockdown release planners have read the quillette piece – it’s very clear and totally convincing, and odd/ironic that it takes a lay/amateur to do the work. OK to go to the cinema, but not to a party or the pub. Also, ironically and surprisingly, ok to travel on a crowded but silent tube or bus

Bill Bolwell
Bill Bolwell
4 years ago
olivps
olivps
4 years ago

Tom, lockdown is like a diving suit, it protects you till you run out of Oxygen. People forget that viral diseases do not have cure, and even with vaccines they remain because of some of us will be asymptomatic carriers for life. Oxygen is running out fast and the clock is ticking! Sorry but QALYs are worthless in this setting.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
4 years ago

The Swedish economy is mostly sluggish due to limited export of goods and services. Just think of iKEA. I do believe looking back, we will all be jealous how they handled Covid-19. The only regret by Swedish virologists and politicians was not having protected the vulnerable and the homes early enough. The death toll would be even less now.

ccblackburn
ccblackburn
4 years ago

A question I have for which I’m unable to find an answer, no matter what research I do: why is the UK the only country not to publish their recovery rates please?

C Arros
C Arros
4 years ago

For a moment your article looked like you got it right when you quoted Gordon Smith saying “The essential prerequisite of all good public health measures is that careful estimates should be made of the advantages and disadvantages for both the individual and the community.”
But your ending the article with “It’s better to lock down when you don’t need to, than not lock down when you do need to.” shows the initial remark just to be hogwash.
It is not only an argument concerning public health measures but one generally valid for any medical intervention, starting from prescribing a medicine and reaching to any more invasive procedure, i.e. operation.
And if you took this into account you would suddenly recognize that there are not just “some sceptics” such as Peter Hitchens you link to, who by the way is not a health expert but coming up with valid arguments. You would only have to look at some of the posts on UnHerd, yes, the same place where your so-called ‘analysis’ is posted, to realize that there are dissenters in the health sector as well which would have provided you with enough arguments to understand why they consider the lock-down the way it was done and is maintained as an undeniable mistaken approach.
To avoid the complexity of the medical field let us just compare what happened to an example easier to understand for anybody. Let us say you realize that crossing a busy street near a school is endangering lives. Interventions there could save life. Because you are a parent the potential danger scared you so much that you paint a cross-walk, install a red light for pedestrians, add to that one of these horrible speed-bumps, reduce the speed of the cars to 15 km/h, and to make sure all this works you place a police officer on the scene as well. And of course you would make sure this is maintained 24 hours a day for 7 days a week.
Of course most readers will say my example is absurd, nobody would do such a thing.
But it is kind of what has been done in many countries when locking down the whole community. In a state of panic a whole array of cumulative measures were imposed without even taking into account the few things we already knew about a disease made scarier by the uncertainties surrounding it.
And the impact it is having, or not having, is leaving more than one sceptic beyond the one you linked to.
Let us just look at some issues coming up on UnHeard https://unherd.com/thepost/… . As Prof. Streeck points out rightly imposing the whole barrage of measures leaves us clueless as to which of the measures have really had a significant impact. This compounds the difficulty of knowing at present with which ones to start re-opening society. Heck, if we do not understand how efficacious, -or useless for that matter -, each measure has been we might even run the risk of relaxing the one which has had the most impact. So let us best leave all of them? The chain of uncertainty created by all this goes even further, as outlined in the article. We will not be able to relax one measure after another or we would never finish with it. Should figures turn again for the worse we will remain clueless as to what is causing it and in a knee-jerk reflex risk to close down everything again leading to more of the undesired side-effects.
Ironically it is a bit like the treatment given in some instances of severe illness to COVID-19 patients where every imaginable treatment with a hint of a potential benefit was thrown at them. While on the medical side this is slowly helping to adjust protocols on how to approach the treatment of critically ill patients, in the case of the lock-down it seems that instead of trying to have a similarly rational approach everything has become politicised and to save face scaremongering is being used and people start to be divided into camps as if it was an issue of ideology or religion.

Bill Bolwell
Bill Bolwell
4 years ago

SARS2 is another psyop. Many say it is man made. It’s death rate is similar to the flu. We have been brainwashed with the media pushing the stories continuously. Wake up people!

Bill Bolwell
Bill Bolwell
4 years ago

The statistics are rigged to make SARS2 frighten people. The virus or may not be man altered. This SARS2 is a psyop to usher in mind control.