BORIS Johnson’s announcement of the first national lockdown, on March 23, 2020, was driven by several factors, including the apparent success of China in using lockdowns to halt the disease and the swamping of hospitals in Italy by elderly Covid patients. The big fear was that this would be a re-run of the 1918 pandemic, with its millions of fatalities.
Both the facts and the fear were wrong.
First the apparent Chinese lockdown success.
The most useful source to judge how well or badly countries are doing with the virus is the Worldometer site. It is here that the Chinese lockdown myth is exploded. Not because the figures are bad but because they are too good.
Here is a sample of the Worldometer figures that show what I mean.
|Country||Death Rate per Million People|
Just three deaths per million people in China! The only other countries that exhibit such low figures are either vanishingly small or largely populated by nomads or are desperately poor (or all of the above).
If China has been so successful, reducing the Covid mortality rate to a level where it competes with falling out of bed as a cause of death, why has President Xi chosen to launch further fierce lockdowns, including an order that Shanghai’s 25million residents stay at home?
The ludicrously low mortality rate claimed by the Chinese government throws into doubt all its claims made for the success of its lockdowns, which means that our own decision to follow this path based on claims of defeating the virus in Hubei was wrong. It also means that Chinese assertions that the epidemic did not arise from a virus escape from a laboratory are also likely to be lies.
Next, the Italian crisis.
This occurred in Lombardy, northern Italy, where two Chinese travellers are thought to have imported the disease from Wuhan. It burst upon a surprised healthcare system there in late February 2020, which faltered under the onrush of critical cases and the infection of healthcare workers. Here the pattern of the disease became apparent, with half of the associated deaths occurring in those older than 80 years, and with co-morbidities playing a very important part.
The alarm bells were now jangling around the world. Was this to be 1918 all over again? The British government turned to its public health officials, who pointed out the apparent success of the Chinese lockdown. The Italian crisis had received massive media attention, galvanised by scenes of overcrowding and despair. So while Boris Johnson’s laissez faire instincts made him unwilling to impose harsh restrictions on the electorate, the pressure to do something, and to be seen to do something, was immense.
What happened then was described by the historian David Starkey in an interview with Peter Whittle in the New Culture Forum, to be enjoyed here. He said that from his own sources the key days were the weekend preceding Johnson’s lockdown announcement, was when four things happened. The number of deaths from the disease doubled, France threatened to stop entry from the UK if no lockdown was implemented and Northwick Park Hospital near Heathrow saw scenes reminiscent of the Lombardy crisis. Finally, a multi-disciplinary team from Imperial College had informed the government that Britain might expect as many as 500,000 deaths from the disease.
Hence the national lockdown and all that flowed from it. The whole shebang of social distancing, working from home, mask wearing and the rest was adopted in the United Kingdom as the new normal, leading to empty schools, silent high streets, deserted airports, spikes in untreated diseases, mental breakdowns and a crippling financial legacy.
Illusory Chinese success and misleading Italian disaster aside, there was a third driver of the panicky reaction by the government – the spectre of another 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. In June 2020 the World Health Organisation quantified this fear when it said ‘coronavirus behaves in a similar pattern to the Spanish flu, which descended in the summer (of 1918) and returned fiercely in September and October, causing 50million deaths during its second wave.’
In fact there was little cause for worry. In 2008 this paper appeared, published by America’s National Institutes for Health. The authors re-examined autopsies and tissue sections of victims and concluded that the results ‘clearly and consistently implicated secondary bacterial pneumonia caused by common upper respiratory flora in most influenza fatalities.’ The point is that nowadays antibiotics will knock out such bacteria, making a re-run of the 1918 epidemic most unlikely.
We got it badly wrong. But did anybody get it right?
It can be argued that Sweden did. As the table above shows, the death rate was below that of the UK and the USA. What did they do? This link summarises it. Rather than enforce a nationwide lockdown, the authorities gave recommendations: to stay home if you have symptoms, keep a distance from others and avoid public transport if possible. Children are little affected by the virus and so preschools and schools for 6- to 16-year-olds stayed open.
So that’s it. The Swedish economy was affected only indirectly by the Covid recession elsewhere and there was little of the stress-related effects the disease had on mental and physical health. Let us hope that Britain’s political class has learnt something from this catastrophe, even if only not to rely on doctors and scientists for policy guidance, least of all government approved ones.