How lockdowns worked. Why Graham Brady is dead wrong.

The original of this graph here is interactive and you can check the figures for each date by dragging your curser across the lines.

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 a record like this, proclaiming “a moment of pride” is extraordinarily brass necked.

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.

First Wave

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.

Second Wave

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.

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2 thoughts on “How lockdowns worked. Why Graham Brady is dead wrong.

  1. Hi Paul,
    Could you lay out for me what you would do going forward? I’m very interested to look at and think about how different governments have tackled Covid. I’ve been mostly watching and listening to non mainstream news but there’s still too much rhetoric for me to wade through. You’re good at getting to the heart of a matter so I thought I’d ask the, ‘what would you do?’ question. Ta x

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  2. I think its a long and winding road. The government’s announcements on Monday were essentially and admission that they are not willing to pay the costs involved in trying to live with the virus with safeguards. So, the first line of resistance is to fight for those safeguards – principally paid self isolation and freely available testing. Trying to stiffen any resistance from opposition parties and devolved administrations is important. Why TFL have just withdrawn their requirement to wear masks on public transport is quite beyond me. What do they lose by keeping it? Beyond that, I fear that the next significant wave of resistance will come if the virus becomes resurgent with a new variant – not something anyone wants to see – and/or if the removal of safeguards has an ongoing effect of keeping infections, hospitalisations and deaths at a relatively high level that wears away at any good feeling people have about “getting back to normal”. Did you mean that, or are you thinking more on the theoretical lines of what would a zero covid government in the UK do?

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