Ross Clark

How do we know which lockdown measures should be lifted first?

How do we know which lockdown measures should be lifted first?
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Today, the cabinet has to decide where to go next with the lockdown – although the decision will not be announced until Sunday. Boris Johnson has talked of a ‘menu of options’ for relaxing some of the measures, but we have been warned not to expect too much. The government has also distanced itself from speculation that rules on outdoor exercise will be loosened, as well as garden centres and a few other businesses allowed to reopen.

How does anyone know which lockdown measures have been effective and which haven’t? A team of epidemiologists led by Paul Hunter have attempted to do that, and their pre-published paper may well feed into the government’s decision-making today. They have studied patterns, cases and deaths across Europe and analysed the relationship between these and the various packages of measures that countries have introduced.

Their conclusions? That the most effective measures have been closing schools, banning mass gatherings and closing bars and restaurants. What has not been so effective are stay at home orders, closing every non-essential business and ordering the public to wear facemasks. Interestingly, this does seem to align with speculation as to what the government will decide today: it has been reported that councils have been advised to drop their ‘stay at home’ advice from this weekend onwards. Meanwhile, a document published by the SAGE committee recommended a three-stage ‘traffic light’ system for relaxing lockdown – with the first, the green stage, allowing picnics, sunbathing and solitary sports, but going no further.

The research does, needless to say, come with numerous health warnings. Like so much coronavirus research, it has yet to be peer-reviewed. It is extremely difficult to separate out the effects of various different measures, especially when most countries have introduced similar measures. But then that is true of the whole science of epidemiology – it is a similar business trying to separate, say, the effects of smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise on heart disease, when many people are guilty on all three counts. The scientists have been helped by the fact that various measures against coronavirus were introduced in different places at different times – Germany, for example, closed schools on 16 March but didn’t ban mass gatherings until 22 March. Poland, by contrast, banned mass gatherings on 10 March, two days before it closed schools.

The pre-publication of the University of East Anglia research is, however, a reminder of how little evidence there is on what works and what doesn’t work to stifle a pandemic. All governments have been flying blind, without much of a clue which of their measures, if any, have helped to turn the tide on the virus. Many will want to point to Sweden -- which banned mass gatherings and closed sixth forms and colleges but took few other legal measures to close down businesses – and yet has experienced a similar path of the epidemic compared with other countries.

One thing is for sure: once the crisis is over, we are going to be seeing a huge amount of analysis of this nature – which should hopefully lead to lighter-touch measures in a future pandemic.