19 November 2021

Returns to lockdown in Europe are a sign of lazy 2020 thinking

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Faced with a wave of Covid-19 cases, EU countries are reintroducing significant restrictions. Belgium has made working-from-home compulsory four days per week. Austria has imposed a lockdown on the unvaccinated and looks set for a full one in certain areas of the country. The Netherlands has forced early closure of shops and restaurants and even banned spectators from attending large, outdoor sporting events.

Here we go again, you might think: another winter wave, bringing fresh threats that if these measures don’t alleviate cases, fuller shutdowns could result. Despite having vaccines for nearly a year, better testing technologies than before, and new treatments, policies once deemed emergency measures seem have become unnervingly routine.

What exactly is the thinking here? As I explain in my book Economics in One Virus, Covid-19 was a thorny externality problem initially because any person’s behaviour risked having extremely damaging effects on others’ health. Nobody knew who was infectious, so to protect the most vulnerable and avoid the prospect of overcrowded hospitals, politicians made us act as if everyone might be infected. Lives were saved, but the costs of such crude shutdowns were huge. Business closures, lost schooling, and lost liberties clearly brought big net harms to most people’s wellbeing, whether or not the value of lives saved outweighed these effects across society as a whole.

Notice, though, the most robust argument for mandates: that if we’d had no lockdowns, too much unnecessary death would have resulted. ‘Stop the spread’ was, at best, about buying time for building more hospital capacity, producing effective treatments, and, ultimately, vaccines, to mitigate the worst human costs of this disease killing people in the future. As economist Alex Tabarrok explained at a Cato event in April, as a precautionary measure in spring 2020, or when vaccines were imminent, such extreme measures to save lives were most defensible. They are far less sensible as an ongoing tool for managing the pandemic.

How on earth, then, are such restrictive measures back on the agenda today? It’s clear Covid-19 is here to stay. With a more transmissible variant, cases might rise very acutely in winter months of ‘normal’ behaviour, even though vaccines do mitigate the risk of symptomatic disease. But what the vaccines are particularly good at is reducing the risk of hospitalisation and death. There’s still an ‘externality’ risk, but the worst costs have been severely dented and, to put it bluntly, personalised. The best thing anyone can do to mitigate their own risk is get vaccinated or boosted. If they don’t, the biggest risks fall primarily on themselves, so long as others have the possibility of vaccination too.

Covid-19 for the vaccinated now appears to produce death risks similar in magnitude to seasonal flu, whereas in a susceptible population it was thought to have an infection fatality rate perhaps 14 times higher. Yet the US CDC now says the unvaccinated are 6.1 times more likely to catch Covid-19 and 11.3 times more likely to die than the vaccinated. The UK government likewise believes its vaccines are 65-90% effective against symptomatic disease and that even among known cases in the oldest age groups after this protection has been breached, death rates for the unvaccinated are almost three times higher.

Given we don’t impose lockdowns for these flu risks, then, why are governments contemplating such restrictions in heavily vaccinated populations? The Netherlands has vaccinated 85% of adults, and the figure is higher still in Belgium.

One argument is that with modest proportions of populations still unvaccinated, a very large outbreak will still cause needless illness and high numbers of unnecessary deaths. Yet this raises an impolitic question: what burdens, in the form of coercive mandates and indefinite suspensions of normal life, should large groups bear to protect the unvaccinated, the overly neurotic, very low-risk children, or the much smaller proportion of the population left immunocompromised or unable to get vaccinations? 

The unvaccinated can get vaccinated and front the consequences of not taking the shots. Pandering to the neurotic offers no path to normality and intolerable costs. Kids surely stand to suffer more, on average, from ongoing life disruption, given their risks of death are tiny. Those still at severe risk are most deserving of some protection, but in a vaccinated world are more identifiable and smaller in number – indeed, vaccines make genuine ‘focused protection’ of the most immunocompromised and vulnerable more achievable. Whatever you thought about it last year, that approach of protecting care homes and those at highest risk is surely more cost-effective today.

A second argument is that, absent new restrictions, hospitals still risk being overwhelmed with another big surge. If true, though, this is a shocking indictment of government planning. Covid-19 has now been with us for nearly 20 months; the more highly transmissible Delta variant has been known for almost a year. That seems plenty of time to have built or at least adjusted facilities, beefed up ICU capacity, and expanded hospital staffing to manage them. Are our continental neighbours expected to live partial lives each winter because of this gross mismanagement?

In reaction to the baffling Dutch measures, its football federation and top two professional leagues described the new restrictions as ‘policy poverty’. It’s difficult to disagree. Just as Europe failed to learn quickly the East Asian lessons last year about lower cost ways to reduce risks, it has failed to adjust its thinking about when to intervene to the new context today. And so, we get the lazy 2020 playbook of shutting things down on repeat.

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Ryan Bourne occupies the R. Evan Scharf Chair for the Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. He is the author of 'Economics In One Virus'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.