Norway is assembling a picture of what happened before lockdown and its latest discovery is pretty significant. It is using observed data – hospital figures, infection numbers and so on – to construct a picture of what was happening in March. At the time, no one really knew. It was feared that virus was rampant with each person infecting two or three others – and only lockdown could get this exponential growth rate (the so-called R number) down to a safe level of 1. This was the hypothesis advanced in various graphs by Imperial College London for Britain, Norway and several European countries.
But the Norwegian public health authority has published a report with a striking conclusion: the virus was never spreading as fast as had been feared and was already on the way out when lockdown was ordered. ‘It looks as if the effective reproduction rate had already dropped to around 1.1 when the most comprehensive measures were implemented on 12 March, and that there would not be much to push it down below 1.’ Here’s the graph, with the R-number on the right-hand scale:
This raises an awkward question: was lockdown necessary? What did it achieve that could not have been achieved by voluntary social distancing? Camilla Stoltenberg, director of Norway’s public health agency, has given an interview where she is candid about the implications of this discovery. ‘Our assessment now, and I find that there is a broad consensus in relation to the reopening, was that one could probably achieve the same effect – and avoid part of the unfortunate repercussions – by not closing. But, instead, staying open with precautions to stop the spread.’ This is important to admit, she says, because if the infection levels rise again – or a second wave hits in the winter – you need to be brutally honest about whether lockdown proved effective.