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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March 8th. A “Big Bang” for the Virus.

What a difference a week makes. From March 8th being the earliest possible time to reopen some schools, slowly, slowly, carefully, carefully, it seems to moved through being one of those target dates that become a matter of Ministerial virility to hit, all the way to being a “big bang” day on which all schools open at once. So, eight and a half million students and three quarters of a million educators all going in and out of workplaces every working day with “bubbles” 20 times the size allowed outside, then going home again. Rather a lot of vectors of transmission there. This is like watching a fly trying to get through a window. No matter how many times it bangs its head on the glass, it keeps trying to do the same thing. History repeating itself as tragic farce.

The media – doing their usual job of framing a discussion as though there isn’t one – have gone into overdrive hyping it up in that hopeful way that makes any criticism come across a curmudgeonly, likely to make children unhappy and ruin their lives and – in the case of the Daily Mail – targeting the NEU with a We Reveal Evil Teachers Plotting to Keep Children Safe story; as if demanding safe conditions to teach and learn in were an outrageous abuse by people who don’t know their place. The spirit they would prefer to see being that of the wounded trooper in the 11th Hussars at the end of Tony Richardson’s 1969 film Charge of the Light Brigade, who looks up from the carnage around him as Lord Cardigan rides slowly back up the valley and calls out in a cheery cockney way “Go again Sir?”

The line from the government is that the roll out of the vaccines – a fabulous job by the NHS, thankfully not outsourced to SERCO – will bring the level of infections down to a point that opening up again from March 8th is something they can get away with without overwhelming the Health Service. At the same time they are flying kites with “Great Barrington Declaration” written all over them – arguing that vaccinating the most vulnerable (once) makes it an acceptable risk to go for ” a big wave” of infections among everyone else. Back to “herd immunity”. Here are the problems with this.

If you look at the graph that shows infections in the UK, the pattern is very clear Fig 1.

Fig 1.

During the first lockdown, schools were closed to all but a very few pupils and we were only dealing with the original variant of the virus, which had not yet evolved so that it could spread more quickly. The peak for infections is quite low when you compare it to where we got to over the winter. The point at which infections began to rise again was as soon as the lockdown was lifted in mid summer. This was initially not very apparent because the numbers were low, and its slow growth helped by schools being shut for the summer holidays (despite “Eat out to help out”). Then we had September. Schools reopening evidently had a significant effect on transmission of the virus. Look at the date. Look at the rising curve. The failure to circuit break when absolute numbers were still low enough, then the half hearted lockdown in November followed by the attempt to open up for Xmas shopping can be tracked exactly on this graph. As can the rapid drop resulting from the current lockdown.

It is possible to argue – so people do it – that the rise in infections is down to an increased level of testing, but this is only true in what might be called a limited and specific way. The pattern of deaths follows the same curves; the slowdowns during lockdowns and the increases when they open up. Fig 2. the minimal downturn in November can partly be attributed to the government’s mulish insistence on keeping schools open. The current, much sharper, downturn is at least partly because schools are currently running with between 20-25% of students in. It would be sharper still if those numbers were down to the 3-10% that was the case in the Spring.

Fig 2

The notion that the sharp fall is attributable to the vaccine roll out is not based on facts. The government and media can be a bit allergic to these if they are inconvenient, but the ONS data on infection by age group shows that the rate of infection has dropped most sharply among the school age cohorts and barely at all among the over 70s; who are the age group that have primarily received their first jab. See the graphs here.

So, the contribution of vaccinations to reducing infections has so far been marginal at best. Further, at the current rate of 2.5 million vaccinations a week, it will take until summer to give everyone over 16 one jab – and this will be even slower because everyone who has already had one will have to have their follow up within 12 weeks. So, a wide and rapid reopening on the hope that the vaccines alone will do the job is on a bit of a wing and a prayer.

It should also be stressed that no vaccine is currently liscenced for use on anyone aged under 16. So, children will have no vaccine protection at all. The call from Labour for all teachers to have one jab this week to provide some protection – ignored by the government (who presumably either think that it can be defeated with “British Pluck” or that teachers should be prepared to pay the final sacrifice in an undaunted way) also misses the point that you need TWO jabs to be fully vaccinated. The vaccines also – while offering significant protection against serious illness and death do not in themselves prevent infection and transmission.

Opening schools up wholesale on March 8th – even with all the safety measures that Heads and educators have struggled to put into place – is therefore another attempt at a triumph of the will over scientific reality (of a similar sort to the way they are trying to bluff their way through on climate breakdown) and will have comparable effects. It is likely to become the beginning of a super spreader event across the whole of society.

This continual in and out, stop and start has given the virus time to evolve. As it has evolved the variants that are more infectious are the ones that will survive best. Some of these, like the South African variant, have also become more deadly and resistant to the vaccines. It stands to reason that as the mass vaccinations are carried through, the only variants that survive will be those that resist them.

The decisive question therefore is why, given that this is common knowledge, the government does not adopt a strategy to eliminate the virus – as advocated by the Zero Covid coalition. Using the vaccines as an aid, but not relying solely on them. A key demand is that raised by the education unions throughout – for full disclosure of the scientific advice from SAGE.

Reading the comments made by the 50 strong Tory backbench – and profoundly misnamed – “Covid Recovery Group”, that although wholesale reopening of schools will make it impossible to keep the R rate below 1 that this is “worth it” – it is possible to conclude that this is just bluff and ignorance. The calls for “the scientists” to be taken out of political decision making – so that MPs like them don’t have to be troubled by awkward facts when they have to strike a posture – echoing the long muscular sporty traditions of the Public Schools so many of them went to, with their deep suspicion of intellectuals (dubiously continental and probably effete) and the boys comics they read when they were growing up – full of evil villains with big, sneaky brains and weedy little bodies. This – however – is simply a matter of style. These are not stupid people. But they are remarkably unconcerned about deaths among the sorts of people most likely to die – ethnic minorities, front line workers, the unproductive elderly, those with “underlying conditions” making them not fully work fit, and the worst off in general, who have made the “poor lifestyle choice” of living in overcrowded accommodation – if their lives are an obstacle to letting the economy rip and profits made. “Herd immunity to protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad” as Dominic Cummings put it. Daily Telegraph business editor Jeremy Warner put it like this last March. “Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might be mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling (sic) elderly dependents”.

Find out more and join the resistance here.

Vaccines are not a magic bullet. Zero Covid coalition zoom meeting. (

Let’s not get previous about the vaccine.

With all the pathetic, posturing, patriotic hoo-ha around getting the vaccination programme authorised first- nothing like authorising a vaccine developed in Germany by Turkish immigrants for a US company manufactured in Belgium to make you “Proud to be British”- and hyped up just in time to give everyone false reassurance before the Xmas relaxation of restrictions generates the same sort of third wave as we saw in the USA after Thanksgiving – the quantity of vaccine currently available has been downplayed.

The UK currently has 800,000 doses. As everyone has to be vaccinated twice, that’s enough for 400.000 people. Considering vulnerable groups, there are 3.2 million people aged over 80. In addition there are 1.3 million workers in the NHS and 1.5 million working in adult social care, so its not going to stretch very far very fast.

A million more doses are due next week, but even if that rate of supply is kept up it would take until the end of January just to do all of the over eighties; assuming that no front line workers are going to be covered at the same time.

Because it is going to take a long time, even to vaccinate the most vulnerable, any delusions that its all over are very dangerous. If you add that to Jonathan Van Tam’s argument that the virus cannot be eliminated and we are going to have to live with it forever, a worrying variant on herd immunity is starting to re-emerge.

Rather than seeing the vaccines as a tool to eradicate the virus, the logic of this is that if the most vulnerable are vaccinated, it becomes an “acceptable level of risk” for everyone else to go back to normal before they are vaccinated and therefore still in danger. This will be posed in macho, character building terms about not hiding under the sheets for fear of the virus. But to mangle one of Van Tam’s metaphors, even if all the penalty takers get on to the train that is just pulling into the station, not only will the train be travelling very slowly once it sets off, it doesn’t actually have a destination and will just keep trundling along for ever and ever amen.

The approach to schools during the tightened restrictions that have just ended has been a dummy run for this. It rapidly became apparent that secondary school students were the age group with the most rapid viral spread – but schools were kept open. The relatively small dent in viral spread made by the Mockdown, compared to the previous one in the Spring can partly be attributed to this.

Although the government in Wales has finally moved to distance learning for the last two weeks of term, without the UK government following suit – and also keeping restrictions in place over Xmas as tight as they were during Eid and Diwali – we will be heading for a third wave in January and the vaccine programme will barely dent it.