In Monday’s debate on the bonfire of Covid safeguards that has restored Boris Johnson’s mojo with his right wing back benchers, Graham Brady MP, chairman (sic) of the 1922 Committee and one of those well fed, smartly suited Conservative MPs, insulated by being comfortably off from the consequences of their policies, and secure in their delusions, announced, with that air of authority they always have when standing on thin ice, that “lockdowns don’t work.” This is an attempt to rule out the possibility of safeguards being restored when they are needed on the basis that all we need to “live with it” is to pretend that it isn’t there and lead with our chins and “British pluck”.
When Johnson held his press conference, the SAGE speakers were quite clear why this is a completely insane course. Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, without overtly challenging the government’s vainglorious framework quietly undermined the bluff on which it is based; that
- the pandemic isn’t over.
- if left to be endemic there will be future waves, especially during winters
- new variants will evolve and, because the virus is evolving in a multitude of directions, some of these new variants are likely to be more lethal than Omicron, not less.
Johnson stood between them looking as sick as a chip. As well he might. But, in the context of a well worn tabloid narrative that we are only being held back from the good life by “gloomy scientists”, Brady’s assertion against lockdowns, which is common currency on the hard right, should not be left unchallenged by facts.
As the virus spreads through social contact, cutting that down reduces its capacity to do so. Lockdowns cut down social contact and the more strictly they are applied the fewer social contacts there will be. Applied for long enough, the virus starts to die out from lack of new people to infect. That’s why the countries that have applied active Covid suppression have had so few deaths compared with countries that have faffed about, like the UK.
With an approximate lag of around two weeks between the rate of infections beginning to decline as safeguards take hold and the rate of deaths beginning to follow, the impact of lockdowns can be seen from the figures in the graph above.
Lockdown came into effect 26th March 2020. Deaths were 103 that day. Deaths peaked two weeks later at just over 920 on April 13th. So the impact of the first lockdown was felt exactly at the time it would have been expected to. There was then a very rapid decline in daily deaths.
Safeguards began to be removed on 10 May at a point that – had the downward trajectory continued at a steady rate – domestic infections would have been all but over by mid to late June. As it was, deaths were running at a very low 10 -13 or so through August and early September. Attempts to reopen schools before the summer holiday were successfully resisted by the education unions, but, once schools were back and with the summer “eat out to help out” scheme getting people out and mixing in large numbers, the rebound began in mid September.
As cases and deaths began to rise in September, the government gave limited guidance to meeting only in groups of six and work from home, but it wasn’t until 31 October that a second lockdown was announced and November 5th before it came into force.
This was a much laxer lockdown than the first. Schools were kept open; so 8 million students and educators were travelling in and out of schools every weekday and mixing in “bubbles” that could sometimes number in the hundreds. This inevitably weakened the impact of the lockdown, so it took longer for cases and deaths to decline.
On Nov 5th, deaths were running at 309 a day. Two weeks later, on November 19th, deaths were up to just over 420 a day but kept rising to around 460 a day until Dec 1st, at which point they began to decline again. So, the laxer second lockdown took almost twice as long to get deaths falling as the stricter first one.
But, no sooner had this began than the government axed the safeguards, on the logic that being “past the peak” is the same as “done and dusted”.
Within two weeks of that, carrying over the momentum from the lockdown, but with the more infectious Alpha variant rapidly spreading, deaths had gone slowly back down to a low point of 415 on December 11th, but began to rise very sharply from then on; with the government seemingly more concerned with having a normal Xmas than stopping the spread.
With deaths at 610 a day by January 3rd, the PM nevertheless insisted that children should go back to school the following day. Faced with a revolt from teachers, students and parents, this was reversed within 24 hours and on 6th January, with deaths at 685 a day, the third lockdown was announced.
Two weeks and three days later, we reached the peak on January 23rd, with 1248 deaths, after which, they declined very rapidly in the same way as they had done under the impact of the first lockdown.
So, the pattern is very clear and completely contradicts Brady’s assertions.
From early December 2020, the vaccination drive began. This would significantly blunt the impact of future waves, but was unable on its own to eliminate them.
Deaths declined to 32 a day by April 6th and stayed mostly in single figures through May and June, beginning to climb again in late June. This was earlier than in 2020 because the hospitality industry and a limited amount of tourism were back in business, so cases rose through the August, whereas they had remained static in 2019.
The lethality of the Omicron peak has been significantly below those of the first two waves – 266 on January 6th, and slowly subsiding to 144 a day by Feb 21st. The government is gambling that the impact of relatively high vaccination rates will combine with the antibodies generated by the very widespread Omicron infections to create the Holy Grail of “herd immunity” that they have been searching for since the beginning of the pandemic. This is whistling in the wind because
- having some antibodies does not confer immunity, as the vaccine effect declines with time and new variants tend to evade at least some of their efficacy and, as that also applies to the effect of having caught the virus once, there are increasing numbers of people who have been reinfected
- even in its mildest form, this virus is ten times as infectious as flu and people need to be fully vaccinated not to be cut down in swathes by it.
- new variants, as stressed by SAGE, are not guaranteed to be milder than Omicron, so removing free testing, self isolation with symptoms and ONS monitoring from Easter, and hoping for the best instead of preparing for the worst, means that such a variant could be in and amongst us before anyone has noticed.
In such circumstances further safeguards will be forced on the government if it is to avoid the Health Service being overwhelmed.
But Brady’s statement is a warning that, if the libertarian zealots get their way, we will instead “press on regardless of casualties” like Hague at the Somme.