Ross Clark Ross Clark

Did lockdowns cause more harm than good?

(Photo: Getty)

The question of whether lockdowns caused more problems than they solved will be picked over for years to come, even if the official Covid-19 inquiry shows little interest in peering into the matter. The latest contribution, a paper from Lund University in Sweden, provides further evidence that this really is something that a UK inquiry needs to investigate. The paper, published by the Institute for Economic Affairs, seeks correlations between the severity of lockdown restrictions in 25 European OECD members and outcomes in terms of excess deaths, economic growth and public deficits. It seems to provide a fairly clear answer: lockdowns were associated with higher overall levels of excess deaths, poorer economic performance and higher public debt.

It starts by using a marking system for the severity of lockdown, which gives every country a figure of between 0 and 100 – where 0 would be no Covid measures at all and 100 a cessation of all economic and social life. On the this measure the UK comes out at 50, France 48 and Italy 60. Sweden was given a lockdown rating of 39. Interestingly, although Sweden was perceived as an outlier throughout the pandemic, and indeed it did plough a very different furrow in the early weeks, Norway and Finland were given slightly lower overall lockdown scores for the duration of the pandemic, owing to the greater relaxation of measures during the rest of 2020.

Overall, the study establishes a fairly weak positive correlation between severity of lockdown and excess deaths. It establishes stronger negative correlations between severity of lockdown and economic growth, and between lockdown severity and the fiscal cost of the pandemic (as measured by the size of the budget deficit in 2020 and 2021 divided by GDP in 2019).

In other words, lockdowns impacted negatively on the economy and the public finances, as might be expected, but they also appear to be associated with slightly higher rates of excess deaths. The study uses excess deaths rather than Covid deaths because it is trying to assess the total effect of lockdowns: how many lives they saved against how many lives they cost through poverty, loneliness, a failure of people to seek timely healthcare because they had been told to stay at home etc.

There are, however, a number of caveats to be put against these findings. Firstly, as the authors admit, the system for giving countries a lockdown score is largely subjective. This part was not in fact the work of the authors – they used a scoring system developed for an earlier study. Secondly, the study doesn’t account for the fact that different countries had different levels of exposure to the virus – which was bound to spread differently in a country like Britain, which has a high density of population and many interconnections with the rest of the world, than in say Norway, with a much lower population density, smaller urban areas and fewer international flights. Indeed, the pattern of excess deaths in Sweden reflects the number of people who had travelled to the Alps for skiing holidays in early 2020 – the areas where more people went to the Alps suffered higher death rates.

Thirdly, it overlooks the fact that lockdowns were often a consequence of high death rates rather than the other way about – Britain, for example, had two further lockdowns in the autumn and winter of 2020-21 precisely because death rates were high and rising.

Scandinavian countries got by with fewer restrictions because death rates were lower – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they would have ended up with more deaths had they made restrictions tougher. We will never know what would have happened had Britain, say, followed the Swedish approach. Fourthly, there are plenty of other variables which were not measured in this study. You could, for example, see what correlation existed between excess death rates and obesity rates, smoking rates or vaccination rates.

All this said, there is clearly a strong case to be made that severe lockdowns caused more misery – deaths included – than they averted. It is essential that this is properly debated before we plan for future pandemics.


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