Over the past 18 months, we have had three national lockdowns. We have grappled with all kinds of other restrictions, too – masks, social distancing and more. Yet despite all this, over 125,000 people have died. Have any of the measures actually worked? And have they justified the enormous collateral damage they have undoubtedly caused?
Carl Heneghan is the director of Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine and sits on the board of Collateral Global, a publication that analyses the global impact of Covid restrictions. spiked caught up with him to find out more.
spiked: Why do you feel that lockdowns are such an ineffective tool in the fight against Covid?
Heneghan: In healthcare, people like quick fixes. There are some amazing examples of them, like antibiotics, which can be silver bullets. When you look at lockdowns, they seem like such a simple intervention that will sort everything out. It’s as if magically, all of the cases will disappear.
In reality, lockdowns are a kind of intervention that has not been tried before. The debate about them has become a political argument as opposed to an evidence-based one. That has created all sorts of issues, because it has allowed opinions to reign over evidence. In situations like that, we should not intervene with lockdowns. All healthcare interventions should start with the premise of ‘first, do no harm’. But the conversation about the balance of benefits and harms is not being had, even now.
Lockdowns don’t really help in care homes or with hospital-acquired infections. Care homes and hospitals make up a big chunk of the caseload. The thinking is that lockdowns reduce the risk among young people and that this will aid the wider population. But if you build up immunity among the young, you get a better barrier against the spread of the virus through the rest of society.
‘Flattening the curve’ just slows down the transmission rate of the virus. It does not affect the overall attack rate. That means we have just prolonged the pandemic.
spiked: What about the collateral damage of lockdowns?
Heneghan: The collateral damage will start to emerge over the next two to five years. Clinically speaking, that is what has happened in previous pandemics like the Ebola crisis – it caused an upsurge in measles two years later, because it disrupted vaccination programmes.
It’s similar with economics. We are borrowing a lot of money and at some point, somebody will have to switch the tap off.
The longer all this goes on, the more the harms will accentuate. The anxiety instilled in the population is already so ingrained that even as we are opening up, many people remain highly fearful.
We are going to be talking about the damage of lockdowns for decades to come. Will we try to bury it all, or will we think critically about what we did and how well it went?
spiked: How should the government deal with the ‘pingdemic’?
Heneghan: We have had so many interventions against Covid. Lockdowns. Social distancing. Masks. Test and trace. At some point, somebody is going to have to ask the question of which ones work. The case data suggests that not many of them do.
It could be that test and trace works in certain situations. There is evidence to suggest that many young people, for example, are only contagious for 24 to 48 hours. They could probably self-isolate for a short time, fairly effectively. But once we make people self-isolate for 10 days, and make them do so on multiple occasions, the chances of them adhering to the rules obviously fall. What we need to do is find out how infectious people are. Otherwise, we will continue forcing people to self-isolate unnecessarily.