The UK Health Security Agency concluded that evidence around NPIs is weak
On Wednesday, the UK Health Security Agency quietly released a review which found that the evidence base for the effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) on Covid transmission was weak. These include such measures as lockdown, the ‘rule of 6’, test and isolation, face coverings, border restrictions, and more.
The review identified 151 studies conducted in the UK. Two-thirds of the evidence identified was based on modelling studies, and there were only two randomised control trials included. Studies focused on measures to identify or isolate infectious people or reduce the number of human contacts were the most numerous. Only nine studies focused on measures to protect the most vulnerable.
The report concluded that “there is a lack of strong evidence on the effectiveness of NPIs to reduce COVID-19 transmission”:
The review noted the many challenges with evaluating NPI effectiveness, which makes the current evidence-base prone to confounding and bias.
This includes the way NPIs were implemented, levels of adherence and compliance, wider behavioural changes, the difficulties of isolating one NPI from a range (or ‘package’) of measures, endpoint measurements, poor study designs and study quality, and ethical considerations. The report went on to recommend a strengthening of evaluation research for NPI interventions in the future.
The report is part of ongoing efforts by the UKHSA, and other government departments, to digest the state of knowledge on NPI effectiveness in preparation for the next pandemic. However, as with a recent Royal Society Report current analyses have not yet focused on the wider social, economic, psychological and political impacts of NPIs.
The report fails to mention that public health research should, in principle, weigh the impact of specific interventions on a virus against their full societal impact, including their social harms and unintended consequences.
This myopic definition of “effectiveness” continues to hamper an intelligent and holistic assessment of whether NPIs were, all said and done, really the best of many bad options.
The decision to implement lockdown and the pandemonium of rules unleashed on the British public during the crisis were, in the end, political decisions. Epidemiological studies on Covid ‘effectiveness’ can only take us so far in trying to understand the Covid years, and what decisions should be made in future.
Luckily, next week the UK Covid Inquiry opens its nine-week second investigation (Module 2), focused on decision-making and political governance. In this regard, I am sure we will learn more about the ‘effectiveness’ of our contemporary British government.