In a week when the Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast a 35 per cent fall in real GDP and an unemployment spike of up to 10 per cent (equating to 2million people newly out of work), the government must be more aware than ever of the need to get the lockdown lifted as soon as possible and limit the damage. So what’s stopping it?
Aside from public apprehension fuelled by media-driven panic, the answer seems to be a worry that in the absence of severe lockdown measures the virus will resume a catastrophic spread that will kill not just the 20,000-30,000 now projected but the 250,000-500,000 originally envisaged in Neil Ferguson’s Imperial College report.
Defenders of lockdown have already gone to work claiming that the current plateauing and apparent peaking of hospitalisations and deaths is due to severe lockdown measures keeping the spread under control. But if that is true, what’s their plan now? The virus isn’t going anywhere, so what is there to stop the outbreak returning to full force as soon as the restrictions are lifted?
The problem is that we cannot realistically wait around in lockdown for a vaccine, which is at least six months away and probably more, and so, as one of Germany’s top epidemiologists Professor Alexander Kekulé says, we must find a way to live with the virus. Professor Kekulé calls for an end to the curfew, which he says is causing more damage than the virus itself, to allow the general population to develop immunity quickly while high-risk groups are protected.
There is certainly growing evidence of harm being done by the lockdown itself, and not just economic. The latest ONS report for the week ending 3 April shows a sharp spike in mortality in England and Wales of 6,112 more deaths than the same week last year. However, only 3,475 of those had Covid-19 mentioned on the death certificate, meaning 43 per cent of the additional deaths were not, according to the death certificate, connected with Covid-19. Furthermore, the ONS explains that not all of the ‘Covid-19 deaths’ actually tested positive for the virus, but in an unspecified number a doctor has certified ‘the involvement of Covid-19 based on symptoms and clinical findings’. In addition, the figure includes all deaths with but not necessarily from the virus, since ‘if a death certificate mentions Covid-19 it will not always be the main cause of death, but may be a contributory factor’.
The upshot is that perhaps half or more of the spike in additional deaths from that week were from causes other than Covid-19. Is this because the lockdown and radical reprioritisation of the health service have prevented some people from accessing the essential healthcare they need? It has to be strongly suspected. All the more reason to get things back to normal as quickly as possible.
It is just as well, then, that evidence is mounting that lockdowns are not necessary to prevent catastrophic contagion. As outbreaks peak and decline around the world, comparisons can begin to be drawn, and preliminary results are not looking good for lockdowns. The president of the Israeli National Research Council, Professor Isaac Ben-Israel, has looked at the data and concluded the coronavirus epidemic runs its course in most countries in about eight weeks regardless of the measures taken. His recommendation is therefore to lift the lockdown immediately.
Sweden’s experience seems to back this up. Despite its ‘relaxed strategy’ it appears to be following a similar trajectory to the UK, with hospitalisations and deaths already stabilising. A senior physician at the Karolinska Klinik in Stockholm explains: ‘There are many vacancies in intensive care units in all Stockholm hospitals. We are approaching the flattening of the illness curve.’
So is it really the lockdown keeping the number of deaths down, or were the lockdowns in most countries far too late to prevent the virus getting around anyway, and what we are seeing is in fact the virus at close to full force? Does this mean we have little to fear from lifting the lockdown? More to the point, is the lockdown actually killing people rather than saving them?
These questions are obviously of the utmost importance and we trust the government is doing all it can to gather data from around the world to answer them. The lockdown is ludicrously costly and it must not remain in place for a moment longer than it is doing more good than harm. That time may already have passed, if indeed it ever existed at all.