It was, I admit, gratifying to see a recent report in the Mail refer pejoratively to “lockdown lovers” and “Covid-restriction enthusiasts”. It was one of the first times I can recall that mainstream media have used such dismissive terms of those once confusingly labelled Covid “doves”. (Why is it dove-like to forcibly close schools and businesses and incarcerate people in their homes? I was glad to see a recent article in the Atlantic get it the right way round.)
It’s not, of course, constructive to use such dismissive labels of one’s ideological opponents. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to think there might be a time coming soon when it’s the fans of restrictions who will have to defend themselves against such dismissive epithets rather than us, who have opposed lockdowns throughout.
This is all part of a recent narrative shift in the U.K. that has seen leading Government figures like Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak and Grant Shapps actively distance themselves from the restrictions they and their colleagues imposed, claiming either that they were actually opposed to them at the time or they wouldn’t do it again.
It’s been welcome, too, to see the lack of any pushback against this from politicians keen to defend lockdowns or burnish their pro-restriction credentials. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer notably did not try to make any political capital out of it by taking against the sceptical position, and it was left to out-going Prime Minister Boris Johnson to offer any kind of defence of what his Government did.
However, among journalists and former Government advisers there are still a few ready to speak up in support of lockdowns. Former members of Johnson’s No. 10 team Lee Cain, his Communications Director and Dominic Cummings, his Chief of Staff have launched public defences of their actions, mostly based on the false premise that infections were growing exponentially at the time of the first lockdown and would have continued to do so had drastic action not been taken.
Such defences fall flat, of course, because it’s now well-established that new daily infections were already falling several days before the first lockdown was imposed.
Some of the more hardcore pro-lockdown journalists have also sallied forth in defence of the old cause. Tom Chivers at the i is still clinging to the discredited claim that the U.K. lockdown saved 200,000 lives, even though there have only been 150,000 excess deaths in total over the past two and a half years (many of which are not due to Covid) and countries such as Sweden and states such as Florida which eschewed lockdown never saw anything like the predicted level of deaths.
Chivers mentions Sweden, but only to dismiss it. People in Sweden were “hiding in their homes anyway out of fear of a deadly virus” he claims, so not locking down made little difference. This claim is demonstrable nonsense, as Chivers should know as he was covering the pandemic at the time. The images of life continuing as normal in Stockholm were beamed round the world that spring. Here are two, one from April 1st 2020 and one from May.
The data back up the impression given by the pictures. Google mobility data for Sweden show that footfall in workplaces and retail and recreation dropped by just 15-20% in April and May 2020 before largely returning to normal. In the U.K., these indicators dropped by 55-75% and stayed well below normal levels for months afterwards. Sweden also never closed schools for under-16s.
Chivers next claims that because of this supposed voluntary cowering in homes, Sweden’s economy had a “gigantic economic dip” anyway. Well, it’s true it did suffer a dip in 2020, owing largely to the international situation, but according to the Economic Observatory it fared comparatively well.
According to the IMF, the Swedish economy in 2020 contracted 2.9%, similar to Denmark (2.3%) and Finland (2.1%), and much better than the overall European contraction of 5.6%.
Chivers also claims Sweden had “much worse public health outcomes than its neighbours”, yet as Dr. Noah Carl has argued, this is unlikely to be to do with lockdowns:
It’s true that Denmark has had fewer COVID-19 deaths. However, it’s unlikely that lockdowns account for this difference. During the first wave, Denmark had zero days of mandatory stay-at-home orders, and did not introduce mandatory business closures until March 18th. But the country did introduce border screening on March 4th, followed by a total border closure on March 14th. Hence its success during the first wave is more plausibly due to border controls.
During the second wave, Denmark had about the same level of restrictions as Sweden, and in any case saw a moderate number of deaths.
More importantly, the argument that “we have to compare Sweden to its neighbours” isn’t very convincing. Sweden’s age-adjusted excess mortality up to week 51 of 2020 was just 1.7% – below the European average…
What’s more, the Baltics are similar to the Nordics in terms of climate and population density, and once you include them in the comparison [with neighbours], Sweden no longer stands out.
It’s also no longer true that Sweden has higher excess deaths than Finland.
The latest attempt to dismiss the lessons of Sweden appeared in the Times this week, with Louise Callaghan implying that Sweden’s strategy was fine for ethnic Swedes but a “disaster” for ethnic minorities, who had much higher death rates:
“For ethnic Swedes the strategy was good,” said Nuri Kino, a Swedish investigative journalist and human rights advocate with Middle Eastern Christian roots. He grew up in Sodertalje and lost several family members to the pandemic. “But for the immigrant groups, for our communities, it was a disaster. That’s what we try to make the Swedish authorities understand.”
The argument seems to be that you have to lock down for the sake of your ethnic minorities (otherwise you’re racist?). Pretty desperate stuff. And also false. As the Times article itself shows, among the minorities with higher death rates in Sweden, top of the league are Finns, with Norwegians and Germans up there too. Poles on the other hand fare much better than the natives. Whatever lies behind these curious trends, racism it ain’t.
An opinion piece in Nature last week also made the case for lockdowns. The author, Dyani Lewis tells the story of a retracted paper that claimed to show stay-at-home orders don’t work. She adds:
The retracted paper is not the only one to contend that lockdowns failed to save lives. But these analyses are out of step with the majority of studies. Most scientists agree that lockdowns did curb COVID-19 deaths and that governments had little option but to restrict people’s social contacts in early 2020, to stem SARS-CoV-2’s spread and avert the collapse of health-care systems.
These assertions, which are made without evidence, are false: it’s simply not true that the “majority of studies” show that lockdowns curbed Covid deaths, particularly if you limit it to those based on data not speculative, self-fulfilling modelling. Apart from anything else, the original theory of lockdowns as presented by governments themselves was merely to ‘flatten the curve’ to spread out deaths, not to reduce the total number. It was generally understood that the virus was going to spread to the whole population either during the wave or once restrictions were eased.
Lewis approvingly cites “epidemiologist Edward Knock and other members of the Imperial College COVID-19 response team”, who “concluded that nationwide lockdown was the only measure that consistently took R below 1 in England. And the earlier that strict measures were imposed, the better”. Knock is said to have “estimated that had England introduced a nationwide lockdown one week earlier in March 2020, it would have halved deaths during the first wave”.
This is of course fantasy epidemiology: even Chief Medical Officer Sir Chris Whitty acknowledged the mountain of evidence that daily new infections were falling ahead of the March lockdown. It’s abundantly clear that Covid waves peak and fall by themselves, while restrictions (such as the local lockdowns, ‘circuit breakers’ and tiers of 2020 in the U.K.) never prevented a wave.
Lewis’s article showcases the work of Peter Klimek, a data scientist at the Medical University of Vienna, who with his team in December 2020 published a study purporting to “quantify the impact of 6,068 hierarchically coded NPIs [non-pharmaceutical interventions] implemented in 79 territories on the effective reproduction number, Rt, of COVID-19″. However, far from an empirically-grounded comparison of outcomes in similar places using different policies, Klimek and colleagues used a “modelling approach that combines four computational techniques merging statistical, inference and artificial intelligence tools”. Is it any wonder then that their “results indicate that a suitable combination of NPIs is necessary to curb the spread of the virus”? More fantasy epidemiology, where the models used to push lockdowns are then validated by yet more models.
For her main conclusion, Lewis goes to Klimek:
One lesson that Klimek takes from lockdown studies is that there was an early window of opportunity when the virus could have been eliminated – as it was, in effect, in countries such as China, Australia and New Zealand. Had harsher measures been adopted sooner, and more widely, the pandemic might have played out very differently. “I think this is the big learning that we need to take away,” he says.
Eliminated? How utterly bonkers. Nature should be ashamed to have published this nonsense, even in its news section.
Yet the danger from these lockdown fanatics is real. The political winds may have shifted in the U.K. of late, but in other countries such as Canada and Germany the winds are blowing in the other direction, and they could quickly change among the fickle British public and our political class were some new variant or virus to appear.
Publications like the i, the Times, the Spectator and Nature are still publishing articles pushing the case for lockdowns based on discredited claims and fantasy modelling. We are not out of the woods yet. The lockdown zealots may not currently be in the ascendancy, but they have not gone away.