22 March 2021

The data is clear: the Government must move the lockdown roadmap forward

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There was a moment in Gogglebox a few weeks ago which, as so often, captured the mood of the nation. Watching Boris Johnson announce his roadmap to freedom, the households were aghast to hear him mention the prospect of lifting lockdown “in six or nine months”. Johnson only mentioned this possibility to dismiss it, but the mere idea came as a bolt from the blue. The lockdown was introduced to stop the NHS collapsing. No one ever suggested it might last until September.

No one except SAGE, that is. Models from Warwick University and Imperial College submitted to SAGE in January painted an extremely gloomy picture, even under the modellers’ most optimistic scenarios. The Warwick model forecast a thousand Covid-19 deaths a day in July even if a highly effective vaccine was rolled out rapidly. With less optimistic assumptions, the death toll would approach 5,000 deaths a day. 

The Imperial model’s most optimistic forecast involved another 130,800 Covid-19 deaths between January 2021 and June 2022. It, too, saw a thousand deaths a day in the middle of summer as a distinct possibility.

Both models were based on lockdown being eased over a number of months starting in late February or early March, with society going back to normal on July 1. The authors of both models urged the Government to be extremely cautious. The Warwick study proposed a “best we can manage scenario” in which restrictions were kept in place until September, but even that would supposedly result in 750 deaths a day in October.

Since there had been an average of eight Covid-19 deaths a day last August, the idea of there being over a thousand a day at the height of summer when most people had been vaccinated seemed unlikely, but the models were influential nonetheless. The minutes of SAGE’s meeting on 4 February noted that:

“Modelling indicates that relaxation of measures over six or nine months results in much smaller subsequent epidemic waves than relaxing measures over three months.”

Although SAGE acknowledged that “the modelling has some uncertainties and does not include seasonal changes”, it concluded that relaxing “a significant number of restrictions over three months starting from the beginning of April could lead to hospital occupancy higher than the January peak”. As a direct message to the Prime Minister, this could hardly have been less subtle if it had started ‘Oi! Boris!’.

When Johnson announced his roadmap, he may have thought he was steering a middle course between the two or three-month lockdown the public expected and the six to nine month lockdown SAGE wanted, but this was only because the models had dramatically shifted the Overton Window.

It soon became clear that the ‘optimistic’ assumptions in the models were rather pessimistic. The lockdown worked better than predicted and both the uptake and efficacy of the vaccine exceeded expectations. So far, there is no sign of opening schools leading to a rise in infections. When a peer-reviewed version of the Warwick model was published last week, it forecast very few deaths if lockdown was eased in April so long as the vaccines are at least 60% effective. Like the other models, it made the dubious assumption that neither warmer weather nor vaccinations would reduce levels of transmission, but even so, there seems to be no realistic prospect of the NHS being overwhelmed – and that, let us never forget, is the sole justification for lockdown.

Although Boris Johnson promised to base policy on data rather than dates, SAGE turned this into a one-way ratchet by concocting a rule that says it takes four weeks to evaluate the data and another week to act upon it. This concept was notable by its absence last year, when restrictions were being introduced on an almost weekly basis and it seems to have been invented for the sole purpose of keeping the roadmap to a snail’s pace.

The reality is that we are in a far better place than anybody expected in January. The number of positive tests in England has fallen from over 50,000 a day to less than 5,000 (despite testing twice as many people). The number of hospitalisations has declined by more than 90% and the number of daily deaths has fallen from well over 1,000 to less than 100. Most of the adult population has had at least one dose of the vaccine and millions more have natural immunity as a result of having had the virus. We have seen the same pattern in Israel, where the infection rate has been plummeting since the country fully reopened earlier this month.

Under the old tier system, most of the UK would now be in Tier 1 and nowhere would be in Tier 3. And yet, if the Government sticks stubbornly to its rigid timetable, we have at least eight weeks to go before pubs and restaurants can fully open anywhere.

The surge in cases across Europe reminds us that we cannot be complacent, but we must also acknowledge how much things have changed. Cast your mind back to January when the vaccination programme was well underway. There were some who said lockdown should be lifted once the over-70s were vaccinated. More cautious voices said that we should wait until the over-50s had received their first dose. Almost nobody was arguing for lockdown to stay in place until every adult had been given a jab and yet that now seems to be the implicit policy objective. 

Only 2% of those who have died of Covid-19 have been under the age of 50 and the vast majority of them had an underlying health condition that would have put them in a priority group for vaccination. Thanks to the vaccines, the virus no longer has a fatality rate that can justify bringing the country to a standstill. This will remain the case regardless of what the EU tries to do with vaccine exports in the future.  

Every extra day of lockdown is producing diminishing returns and mounting costs. The Centre for Economics and Business Research estimates that output is £521 million a day lower than it was before the pandemic. One in four businesses remain closed. Not all of this is due to lockdown by any means, but a large part of it is and it is becoming increasingly unnecessary. 

People will be meeting in each others’ homes over the next two months regardless of government diktat. It would be economically and epidemiologically better if they met in a pub or restaurant. We are not out of the woods yet, but if things are still improving by Easter there will be a strong case for moving the roadmap forward by a month. The data are manifestly moving ahead of the dates. The public can see that. The government should acknowledge it.

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Christopher Snowdon is the Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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