The decision to implement lockdown was inspired partly by the appalling scenes from Lombardy, where hospitals were overrun and dying patients left in corridors. In London, ministers were terrified by the prospect of the same happening here. Today’s Sunday Times has published a long investigation from its Insight team looking at the Covid disruption in hospitals, which makes for disturbing reading. The NHS, it says, faced “an unmanageable deluge of patients” during lockdown, and it offers several examples of things going badly wrong. As we debate whether the NHS may be overwhelmed now – and what steps are needed to prevent this – it makes sense to ask how close the it come to finding Covid unmanageable the first time? The Sunday Times report reveals fascinating unpublished documents and offers a powerful snapshot of the misery caused by the pandemic. But on general strategy, three points jump out.
1. Were infections “rocketing” until lockdown? Boris Johnson, it says, dithered for nine days before locking down on 23 March and “during this time the number of infections had rocketed from an estimated 200,000 to 1.5 million”. This, it says, meant Britain had one of the biggest Covid caseloads in Europe. The idea of the virus was surging until lockdown is a theory, popular at the time – but hard to reconcile with hospital numbers we now have. Covid deaths peaked on 8 April, which was 16 days after lockdown. We now know Covid’s infection-to-death timescale is closer to four weeks than two weeks. This points to fatal infections peaking well before lockdown. So Covid cases were probably falling fast – not rocketing – in the runup to 23 March. Simon Wood, a professor at Edinburgh University, has looked at this. Other European countries have used hospital numbers to estimate the trajectory of the virus and its R-number and have come to similar conclusions.
2. Was Covid spread to care homes by discharged hospital patients? Insight also looks at hospital patients being discharged early and sent to care homes without a Covid test.