The Covid inquiry is pushing pro-lockdown myths
The claim that an earlier lockdown would have saved countless lives is demonstrably untrue.
The UK Covid inquiry is dragging on without addressing any of the mistakes that were made in our handling of the pandemic. The inquiry could have provided an opportunity for officials and advisers to finally admit that the government jumped the gun in sending the nation into lockdown as hard, as fast and as frequently as it did. Instead, the opposite has happened. The inquiry has become a pro-lockdown talking shop.
Last week, former chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, chief medical officer Chris Whitty and his deputy, Jonathan Van-Tam, told the inquiry that we should have locked down earlier than we did in March 2020. They and the inquiry’s lawyers then went on to insinuate that then chancellor Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme in the summer of 2020 reignited the virus that autumn, leading to the second wave in late 2020.
No one at the inquiry even attempted to challenge these assertions. Which is odd, considering that Vallance, Whitty and Van-Tam themselves held very different positions at the time.
Early in the pandemic, on 13 March 2020, Vallance told the Guardian: ‘If you suppress something very, very hard, when you release those measures it bounces back and it bounces back at the wrong time.’ He added that Covid was ‘quite likely… to become an annual virus, an annual seasonal infection’. To ITV News he further opined: ‘Ideally 60 per cent of the UK would become infected to ensure we were “all a bit protected”.’
Ten days earlier, Whitty also made the case against a hasty lockdown, telling a press conference: ‘Locking down a city is most useful when [a pathogen] is starting in one place with a high transmission in that place and nowhere else.’
These points were true then and they are true today. Covid behaved as Vallance predicted and while lockdown might have eradicated a very early localised outbreak it’s not a strategy for suppressing a metastasising outbreak, as we were experiencing in the early months of 2020.
The wider data back this up. Consider Czechia. It began its first lockdown on 16 March 2020, a week before the UK and with just a handful of cases. Infections peaked at 377 on 27 March. The UK, with a six-times larger population, was recording 500 deaths per day by early April.
On 1 July, Czechia celebrated the virus’s defeat with a large party on the Charles Bridge in Prague. But Covid roared back in October, with multiple spikes in deaths throughout the winter of 2020 and 2021. A final spike came as late as December 2021. Ultimately, Czechia recorded just over 43,000 Covid deaths. Relative to population sizes, Czechia’s death toll was 18 per cent higher than that of the UK.
This pattern was also seen in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, the Baltics and the Balkans, which all endured very few deaths during the first wave of Covid following early lockdowns. But they suffered many more deaths during the Omicron wave of winter 2021 and 2022. Indeed, these countries now occupy many of the top slots for most Covid deaths per million of the population.
By obsessing over early lockdowns, we also risk letting the government off the hook for other tremendous failures. Up to half of the UK’s first-wave deaths were in care homes. The virus was seeded in care homes by patients who had been moved out of hospitals, before the spread was accelerated by care-home staff working shifts for multiple providers. The movement of older patients from hospitals into care homes began a week before the first lockdown, following NHS instructions on 17 March. Those deaths might have been prevented – or, more likely, postponed – by changed healthcare working practices, but not by an earlier lockdown.
As for ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ being the great catalyst of the autumn wave, it’s a laughable argument. Covid came back everywhere across Europe in the autumn of 2020, with numbers rising first in Spain, then France and the UK. Neither Spain nor France had schemes similar to ‘Eat Out to Help Out’. Nor did those European countries to the east, which ended up being among the hardest hit. Whether ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ was a good use of taxpayers’ money is questionable – there was lots of fraud, for one thing. But it is blatantly untrue that it was a key driver of the pandemic. Rather, as Vallance sagely predicted, the virus simply behaved seasonally.
Tragic as it may be, as a species we are prone to occasional respiratory-virus pandemics. They hit us once or twice per century. When such pandemics do emerge, there is not much to be done except at the edges, as the Swedes rightly understood during Covid. Non-pharmaceutical interventions are confounded by the speed of viral evolution. Suppose your restrictions cut transmission by 33 per cent, but the virus becomes 50 per cent more transmissible? You lose. The Chinese state proved this point, pursuing non-pharmaceutical interventions like lockdowns to the bitter end, until Omicron overwhelmed every draconian measure it imposed.
South Korea, meanwhile, made ‘test and trace’ work for a while, using very intrusive contact tracing against a backdrop of very few cases. But Korea had excess mortality through 2023 of around 20 per cent – higher even than in the West. The same applies for Singapore and Taiwan, two more countries that were widely considered to be success stories of the pandemic.
Vallance and his colleagues appear to be unwilling – or unable – to remember and restate simple facts they knew and were stating three and a half years ago. And the inquiry’s lawyers show no inclination to challenge them. Having been panicked into lockdown, they apparently do not want to state the glaring, uncomfortable truth – namely, that vast damage was done to the economy, to education and to society, all in a vain attempt to control the uncontrollable.
David Livermore is a retired professor of medical microbiology.
Picture by: Getty.
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