As we resume our life back to normal, the costs of lockdowns become painfully clear

The enormous costs of a policy of strict lockdowns – identified and predicted by many economists in the summer of 2020 – are now becoming obvious. As our memory of them starts to fade away, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is still tracking vital Covid-19 data.

The WHO provides estimates of the excess deaths due to Covid-19 in 2020 and 2021 in individual countries. In other words, it looks at how much higher actual deaths were than the number which would be expected in the usual course of events.

Judging on the basis of the pronouncements of epidemiological modellers and health professionals during the pandemic, we might imagine that the UK would sit close to the bottom of the table. On the contrary,  Britain is firmly in the middle of it.  

The WHO numbers are estimates rather than precise figures, and they provide the range of uncertainty around the central estimate. The UK had 109 excess deaths per 100,000 population due to Covid-19, with the true number lying between 98 and 121.

This puts us in the same position as Germany and Spain. Of the other two major West European countries, Italy was a bit higher, and France somewhat lower.

In general, these EU countries had stricter restrictions than we did. Indeed, Britain was often pilloried for its irresponsibility in removing almost all restrictions in July 2021. But it turns out that our excess deaths due to Covid-19 were effectively similar to the other main countries of Europe.

Paradoxically, despite the appalling forecasting record of the epidemiological modellers themselves, the WHO numbers provide strong evidence that the fundamental mathematical principles underlying these models are correct.

The basic model of the spread of an epidemic – developed by two Scottish scientists nearly 100 years ago – shows very clearly that in general lockdowns shift the number of cases in time. They don’t necessarily affect the eventual total number of cases.

There are two main exceptions when this might not apply. First, if you can impose a strict lockdown for long enough for effective vaccines to emerge, the policy will reduce deaths. But we have only to look at recent events in China to see what a complete disaster such a policy would have been here, even if it could have been maintained.

The second is if the appearance of a virus induces a shift in behaviour so that the level of social mixing is permanently lower than it was before the appearance of the virus. The key word here is “permanent” – it has to be forever.

Of course, the pandemic shows that behaviour is indeed influenced, but only temporarily. Now, behaviour has been more or less back to normal, and as a result we have seen very high levels of infection.

Most of the time, the modellers made the elementary mistake of assuming no change in behaviour at all. Yet this itself was an assumption – one which throughout 2020 and 2021 was certain to be wrong.

Now that lockdowns are behind us, we start to pay the price for their implementation. And given what the WHO numbers tell us, we might ask ourselves if they came at the right cost.

As published in City AM Wednesday 11th May 2022
Paul Ormerod
Image: Wikimedia
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