The true cost of lockdown: 'negligible health benefits for the biggest assault on peacetime liberty'

Boris Johnson - 10 Downing Street
Boris Johnson - 10 Downing Street

When Boris Johnson announced that he would be placing the UK in lockdown he admitted that it was with a heavy heart.

No prime minister would want to put in place restrictions knowing the “damage that this disruption is doing and will do to people’s lives, to their businesses and to their jobs”, he told the public as he ordered them to stay at home.

But it was essential to “save many many thousands of lives”, he said. At the time, the modelling suggested that 500,000 people could die if the Government did not act.

For the first time, researchers have looked back at the impact of lockdown in the first wave of the pandemic on the UK and the data suggest that in reality the measures prevented as few as 1,700 deaths in England and Wales.

Through a meta-analysis of studies, they estimated that, across Europe, lockdowns “resulted in 6,000 to 23,000 deaths avoided”.

“To put those numbers into context, during an average flu season, approximately 72,000 deaths are recorded in Europe,” the researchers say. “Our results made clear that lockdowns had negligible public health effects when measured by mortality.”

The findings will likely lead to further questions about the benefits of lockdown compared with the detrimental impact that it has had on the NHS and treatment of conditions such as cancer, as well as children’s mental health, education and the economy.

It comes as the Covid Inquiry, which will examine the Government’s decision making during the pandemic, is set to get under way in earnest on June 13 with its first evidence hearings.

The meta-analysis by Johns Hopkins University and Lund University, to be published in a book by think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, looked at the overall impact of lockdown and also at individual restrictions.

The researchers found that the most effective intervention was a mask mandate, which reduced mortality by 18.7 per cent. The mask mandate in England was only imposed in July, after the first lockdown.

The second most effective measure was business closures, which reduced mortality by an average of 7.5pc. The largest impact was the closure of bars and restaurants, they found.

School closures are estimated to have reduced mortality by 5.9pc, travel restrictions by 3.4 and orders to stay at home by 2.

Limiting the size of gatherings and cancelling public events had the opposite effect of increasing mortality by 5.9pc and 2pc respectively.

But why did it not have the impact on mortality that was predicted? The researchers - Prof Steve Hanke from Johns Hopkins University, in the US, Dr Lars Jonung, from Lund University, Sweden, and Jonas Herby, special adviser at the Centre for Political Studies (CEPOS) a think tank based in Denmark – suggest its effects were limited for a number of reasons.

One explanation is that people “respond voluntarily to dangers”, and one study concluded that on average voluntary behavioural changes were 10 times as important as those mandated from above in limiting the impact of Covid.

In Sweden, where lockdown was limited, spending on consumer goods fell as much as it did in Denmark, which had a more draconian lockdown.

Secondly, lockdown measures only impact a proportion of potential contacts. In Germany, research found that most infections occurred in homes, care homes, hospitals and workplaces which were not subject to restrictions.

They also noted that compliance drops when infections drop and some measures could have unintended consequences, like a stay-at-home order resulting in someone infecting their family members.

“Lockdowns often limited people’s access to safe outdoor places,” the book notes. “With restrictions on meeting in places such as parks, beaches, some people would be more likely to meet at less safe (indoor) places despite the rules. The research found that limiting gatherings was counterproductive and increased Covid mortality by 5.9 per cent.”

Their research was limited by the number of studies with comparable data, they say, adding that future studies should attempt to differentiate between the impact of voluntary and mandated behaviour changes.

The findings come as the detrimental impact of lockdowns are still being felt across society.

There are more than 7 million people waiting for hospital appointments, a record with the numbers double what they were in March 2020.

During the first year of the pandemic, Britain cancelled more cancer operations than anywhere else in Western Europe. The backlog in the NHS means that almost half of patients are waiting too long for cancer treatment, with more than 7,000 waiting over 62 days.

Last year, a study of NHS hospital data by the charity Prostate Cancer UK found a tripling in deaths among men with prostate cancer in the first year of the pandemic.

The research showed an extra 5,000 extra deaths of men with prostate cancer during the pandemic, of which only around 1,000 were caused by Covid.

In 2022, more than 650,000 deaths were registered in the UK, up 9 per cent on 2019. Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance have warned that these figures will remain high for a “prolonged period” after cancelled operations and people avoiding the NHS during the pandemic.

It has also had a detrimental impact on mental health, with the number of children suffering problems rising from 10.1 per cent in 2017 to 17.8 per cent in 2022 and the number of young adults with symptoms of depression more than doubling from 11 to 23 per cent.

Children lost months of education and in 2022 the proportion of people meeting the expected level of reading, writing and maths fell from 65 per cent to 59 per cent.

There are now around 124,000 “ghost children” who have not returned to school as a result of the pandemic, the children’s commissioner has warned.

The justice system ground to a halt and crown court backlogs are now lingering around 61,000 – double their pre-pandemic norm.

The £350 billion of support offered by the Government to counter the impact of lockdown meant borrowing hit war-time levels and relative debt hit the highest levels since the 1960s.

The restrictions have also contributed to the cost-of-living crisis and driven up inflation.

For the authors of the study, the wider cost to society of lockdown is stark.

In Did lockdowns work? The verdict on Covid restrictions, they conclude: “For those who value liberty, our findings will be sobering, if not depressing. Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic gave rise to widespread lockdowns and some of the greatest infringements on personal liberties under peacetime conditions in history. In the final analysis, these infringements generated negligible public health benefits while imposing a set of massive costs on society.”