Friday, November 27, 2020
Home COVID-19 Social distancing – the case against

Social distancing – the case against

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SOCIAL distancing, even when voluntary and though less oppressive than enforced stay-at-home lockdown, remains extremely costly in terms of economic activity and productivity, basic liberties and health outcomes.

This is why the question of whether it really helps prevent or slow the spread of the coronavirus is in urgent need of examination.

Most people tend to assume it does. Indeed, I did, until I looked into it in more detail. 

If social distancing were effective in preventing or slowing the spread of the virus you would expect it to have a consistent effect on the rate of spread of infections. Yet when you look at graphs showing the adoption of social distancing practice within populations (as measured by public transport use) and graphs showing the spread of the infection (inferred by shifting the death curve 16 days forward to reflect the average interval between infection and death) the most striking things are firstly the absence of any consistent relationship, and secondly a seemingly arbitrary number of days elapsing before any slowdown appears. That is not a sign of a causative relationship. In the meantime, while people are busy social distancing, evidence suggests the infection rate is still growing rapidly. 

To date, proponents of social distancing have not provided a satisfactory answer to this basic discrepancy between their proposed remedy and the data on infection spread. It appears to be based on wishful thinking about diminishing the amount of contact between people that superficially seems to make sense and appeals to ‘common sense’.

But study the chart below, and you see that it shows the widely varying and apparently arbitrary number of days between social distancing beginning and the slowdown in the infection growth rate in seven cities. If social distancing is responsible for bringing the epidemic under control, why is there no correlation here?

Source: www.moovit.com (transit data); government websites (death data). Notes: 1) Infections are assumed to occur on average 16 days before death (based on 6 days incubation and 10 days between symptoms and death); 2) Social distancing is assumed to correspond to use of public transport.

In the graph below we focus on Stockholm. Although Sweden never had a strict lockdown, the population did engage in voluntary social distancing, as the public transport curve shows.  The main difference between Stockholm and other cities is that it bottoms out around 35 per cent use whereas other cities typically bottom out around 25 per cent. Nonetheless, the peak of infections in Stockholm (as elsewhere) is reached and the decline has begun long before the use of public transport reaches its lowest point.

Source: www.moovit.com (transit data); https://www.scb.se/hitta-statistik/sverige-i-siffror/manniskorna-i-sverige/doda-i-sverige/(death data). Notes: 1) Infections are assumed to occur on average 16 days before death (based on 6 days incubation and 10 days between symptoms and death); 2) Social distancing is assumed to correspond to use of public transport.

Note also the seven days between the beginning of voluntary social distancing and any noticeable slowdown in the infection growth rate, before which it accelerates. You might say you would expect a delay like that, but if so you would need to explain why that is, and why there are delays of widely varying lengths in other cities (three weeks in Paris) despite having very similar public transport curves.

So why does social distancing not have any consistent, observable impact on the growth of infections and the shape of the epidemiological curve? One explanation could be that the virus’s spread was always more focused on hospitals, care homes and private homes, which are not much affected by social distancing, as described by a doctor who contacted Lockdown Sceptics to point out why neither the two-metre social distancing rule is observed by medical staff at her hospital nor are masks are worn when off the wards.

In summary, she explains that while there’s been adequate PPE, there’s a noticeable difference in how it’s applied. Further, as more staff were moved into critical care to assist with patient management, she explains how coffee rooms and offices became more crowded, with ‘everybody sitting at a normal distance next to each other, without masks – it’s difficult to eat with a mask on – sharing kitchen facilities and changing rooms’. Meanwhile junior doctors testing positive had a week off and were ‘allowed to return to work with a persistent cough’, maybe still shedding the virus. You can read her full account here. 

Likewise many people continue to work as key workers in more prolonged and close contact. Whatever the reasons, given the data and given the imposition of across-the-board social distancing – to economically ruinous effect and no observable benefits – it is a question which clearly needs looking at in a lot more detail by scientists and policy-makers.

If social distancing as practised doesn’t affect the infection curve, the theory that the epidemic peaks and declines because it has hit a collective immunity threshold and has run its course becomes ever more persuasive.

An antibody survey of Stockholm in April found a 10 per cent antibody prevalence (hence people who had been infected), which corresponds to the state of play as it was around March 31. This was well after the infection peak on March 21 (see the note on the graph), suggesting that Stockholm will finish up somewhere under 20 per cent of the population having antibodies, the same figure that’s been found in the locked down (but more densely populated) New York City.

Notably, these results are bang in line with the predictions of the model developed by Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, which finds collective immunity emerging between 10 and 20 per cent owing to varying susceptibility in the population. 

On this evidence, the case against the efficacy of social distancing – given that it cannot happen where it matters most – and in favour of the idea that the virus has now run its course and collective immunity has been reached, looks ever stronger. The onus really is on the defenders of social distancing to explain why their hypothesis explains the data better now its effectiveness can no longer be lazily assumed. With the world’s economy, education and even health care on hold while we all hide from this virus, the stakes have rarely been higher.

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Will Jones
Dr Will Jones is a maths graduate with a PhD in political philosophy and author of Evangelical Social Theology: Past and Present (Grove, 2017).He blogs at https://faith-and-politics.com/

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