Coronavirus cases dropped after we locked down, therefore lockdown worked. But is that right? I'm not convinced. And now it seems the government may be considering imposing another lockdown in response to the latest surge in cases. Doing so would be a mistake.
The 'Rule of Six', introduced this week, is only likely to add to the confusion. If there is no spike in cases, the law will take the credit. If it fails to work, harsher measures could come into force. I'm not alone in failing to see how this approach – which will inevitably inflict more damage on our ailing economy and send a confusing signal to those who were beginning to resume normal life – is sustainable. How long can we go on like this?
To get to the truth of what is happening – and to work out the approach we need to take – we need a control, something to show what happens when things are done differently. Peru offers one possible example: it has one of the world's strictest lockdowns, yet also the world's highest official death toll, at a rate of 929 per million. We also have Sweden, which favoured a light-touch approach; there has been no new big rise in cases or deaths and the country's economy is getting back on its feet.
Critics point out that Sweden fared significantly worse than its Nordic neighbours, with 578 deaths per million, compared to Denmark's 109 and Finland's 61. However, Sweden, which never took on the burden of indefinite suppression, is now in a much stronger position to contemplate a return to normal life.
What's more, an international comparison in the Lancet in July offered little conclusive evidence connecting the timing and strictness of lockdown in a country and the Covid-19 death rate. Yet still our leaders insist that wide-ranging restrictions on social and economic life are the best way to respond to this threat.
The public can be forgiven for overestimating the severity of the virus, having been subjected to a barrage of terror for the past six months. But the government and its advisers have no excuse. They ought to have twigged by now that, for most people, the threat has been overegged and the response to it far out of proportion to the danger it poses. Being able to step back and reappraise evidence and change direction in light of that – and then, crucially, bringing the public along with you – is an essential characteristic of a good leader and one that we are in desperate need of right now. On this count, Boris is failing badly.
The most urgent requirement is perspective. Peru's death toll, officially the worst in the world, represents a tiny portion of the country's population. In Sweden, where the epidemic has long been in decline, it is less than 0.06 per cent, meaning 99.94 per cent of the population has survived. Of those who died in Sweden, 75 per cent were residents of care homes or receiving in-home care. The average age of those who die in most countries is over 80. Countries which have had milder recent flu seasons have, in general, seen higher death tolls, suggesting that this is a significant factor in how a country has fared when it comes to coronavirus.
Fears are now focused on a second wave that may eclipse the first, and countries are eager to take early action to avert it. The uptick in cases in the UK – not as severe as the raw case data suggest because of increases in testing, but nonetheless real –has triggered a lightning response. Politicians and their advisers look across to France and Spain where cases have surged, and in Spain's case where hospital admissions and deaths have also risen a little, and see the stirrings of a new calamity.
But are they seeing it right? The new wave in Spain – more of a ripple really, with around 50 deaths a day and already possibly peaking – is showing few signs of the runaway growth seen in March. Are we witnessing a repeat of what happened in Germany in July? Back then, Michael Kretschmer, the premier of Saxony, declared: 'The second wave of coronavirus is already here. It is already taking place every day. We have new clusters of infections every day which could become very high numbers'. Yet his fears appeared to have been unfounded: new cases in Germany stopped rising in mid-August and deaths hardly rose.
It was the new restrictions that brought it under control, some will say. So what about Sweden? What new restrictions can be credited there? Is it not more likely that a form of collective immunity has emerged much earlier than expected, due to cross-immunity from other coronaviruses? Does that not better explain the facts than the dubious modelling of professor Neil Ferguson and his team?
We don't know for sure how this crisis will play out. But what we do know is that no country has yet seen the dreaded second wave predicted by some. Florida and the southern United States, along with South America, saw a delayed first wave during the summer, that now appears to be on its way out. In Spain and France, it's more like a ripple. Sweden's experience suggests populations are much less vulnerable than many have feared.
So what should we do next? Our best option is to look at the evidence and say it's not right to continue paying the colossal cost of lockdown, measured in jobs, health and quality of life, for the sake of trying indefinitely to suppress a virus that appears only likely to have a death toll of around 0.1 per cent of the population. That just isn't a sound piece of public health reasoning.
We can protect those who wish to be protected. We can mitigate the impact of any new winter spread as we close the gap on collective immunity, especially by boosting health service capacity. But isn't it time to come to terms with the fact that we panicked and have made some very costly mistakes? There is no gain in throwing good money after bad. Time to turn around.
Will Jones is an associate editor of Lockdown Sceptics