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Martin Sewell: The UK Lockdown: Was It Worth It?

This is an article by Martin Sewell. Martin is a quantitative researcher and developer in the financial industry. He can be contacted on martin@martinsewell.com.

When a pandemic such as COVID-19 strikes, there are benefits to reducing the rate of infection. Doing so allows us to reduce the total number of people who get infected (minimise the overshoot), reduce the peak number of infections (so that healthcare resources do not become overwhelmed) and buy ourselves time (to prepare generally and hopefully develop a vaccine).

One obvious means of reducing the rate of infection is social distancing. People will tend to voluntarily reduce social interactions as they wish to reduce the risk of becoming infected. However, if they become infected themselves they will likely fail to internalise the costs they impose on others. For this reason, overall social welfare may be best served by government nonpharmaceutical interventions, such as a lockdown. However, a government’s job is to maximise the aggregate utility of the population over time, and a lockdown, like most policies, should be justified by a cost–benefit analysis.

I shall attempt a cost–benefit analysis of the UK lockdown. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) values a quality-adjusted life-year (QALY) at £20,000 to £30,000 in order to inform decisions that affect the allocation of NHS resources (NICE, 2012). For our calculations we’ll take the average and use £25,000. Of course this is not the same as the intrinsic value one puts on their own life or the life of a family member. Of the deaths due to COVID-19 occurring in April 2020 in England and Wales, 64% were male and 36% female (ONS, 2020). The average years of life lost, after adjusting for number and type of long-term conditions as well as age, for men was 13.1 and for women was 10.5 (Hanlon et al., 2020). So the average number of adjusted life years lost was 12.2 and the average value of life lost due to COVID-19 was £304,000 per person.

According to the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr), at its peak the coronavirus lockdown was costing the UK economy £2.4 billion every day (Hymas, 2020). We can deduce that the lockdown was worthwhile if, and only if, it saved at least 7891 lives per day. The daily number of COVID-19 deaths in England peaked on 8 April 2020 at 801 (Leon, Jarvis, Johnson, Smeeth, & Shkolnikov, 2020), assume 966 for the whole of the UK. Therefore the UK lockdown was worthwhile if, and only if, it reduced the peak number of daily deaths by about 90%.

I reviewed the relevant literature on lockdowns, and for each article I estimated the number of deaths that would occur per day at the peak of the epidemic during a lockdown, relative to the number of deaths in the unmitigated case (Table 1). If we assume that the number of deaths in the unmitigated case is 100, the median number of deaths under a lockdown is 56. If we ignore articles not listed by Google Scholar, the median is 52. Whilst if we also ignore all articles with zero citations, the median is 49. In other words, at the peak of the coronavirus epidemic a lockdown reduces the number of deaths per day by approximately 50%.

In summary, it was estimated that a lockdown reduces peak daily deaths by about 50%, whilst the cost of the UK lockdown implies that it was only worthwhile if it reduced the death rate by about 90%. In conclusion, the UK lockdown was not justified.

Table 1: A literature review with estimates of the number of deaths per day during a lockdown at the peak of the epidemic, relative to the number of deaths in the unmitigated case (assumed to be 100).

 

References

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28 thoughts on “Martin Sewell: The UK Lockdown: Was It Worth It?

  1. I got as far as ”However, a government’s job is to maximise the aggregate utility of the population over time” . I am not a piece of machinery, nor a cow. I struggled on reading.
    I wish I hadn’t , sorry I know this must have taken some effort, but probably better spending the time picking weeds in the garden.

  2. Huge great big couple of issues with this analysis; 1) lockdowns have a dubious benefit to public health (no correlation between lockdown time/strictness and deaths, no correlation between lockdowns anywhere and change of rate of increase of the disease), and they also cause deaths, both through economic, educational and social damage, as well as directly through stopping access to crucial services. and 2) median length of life of 10 years does not make any sense when we know that half of all deaths have been in care homes, with a mean stay of 1.5 years; the other 50 % did not have 20 years of life left. It’s more like 5 years per person.

  3. I am guessing that Martin (sorry if I’m putting words in your mouth) is illustrating that no matter how you ‘bake’ the reasons for lockdown the resulting ‘cake’ is no good to eat. It taste awful, gives you indigestion and has little nutritional value. Then a few hours later the real pain begins when you are dealing with the aftermath!

  4. I am missing something here about the literature estimates of deaths per day. The predicted unmitigated daily deaths from (with?) C-19 have been scaled to 100 at the peak of the “pandemic”. Then we see predictions like Gorbatenko that show imposing lockdowns would increase that to 689. A number of the other predictions show no impact on number of peak daily deaths.

    What would be the point of Lock Downs that have no impact on (or even increase) the peak number of daily deaths? As the man said — Predictions are difficult, especially about the future.

  5. The government’s job is actually to keep the government in power for as long as possible by any means necessary.

  6. Very easy to do those calculations AFTER the event.

    Now consider the decision process faced BEFORE the epidemic. Half a million deaths predicted and an overrun NHS. I can’t see how politicians could have decided not to lockdown. Hindsight is a wonderful thing – but those tasked with making the decisions didn’t have it……

  7. @Martin Sewell

    In summary, it was estimated that a lockdown reduces peak daily deaths by about 50%, whilst the cost of the UK lockdown implies that it was only worthwhile if it reduced the death rate by about 90%. In conclusion, the UK lockdown was not justified

    Spot on. I crunched numbers too and reached the same conclusion here
    https://hectordrummond.com/2020/05/25/simon-anthony-do-lockdowns-work/#comment-21807
    https://hectordrummond.com/2020/05/25/simon-anthony-do-lockdowns-work/#comment-21844

    @BiG
    No. That is politicians corrupting Gov’t

  8. “Half a million deaths predicted and an overrun NHS”.

    Yes, they were – weren’t they? [Kenneth Williams voice].

    The question is: predicted by whom? How reliable a source of predictions? With what kind of track record?

    If the government can be made to take such drastic (and probably unlawful) actions on the strength of one person’s predictions, I am willing to predict that unless the government gives me personally the sum of £10 billion, London will be struck by a giant comet.

    Will the government give me the money? I doubt it.

    But why not? I have no track record, whereas Professor Ferguson has a long and consistent track record of being dead wrong. Surely that makes me a much better bet than him.

    If politicians have any skills at all (doubtful), surely being a good judge of character and ability should be a core skill. Although it would be still better if they had a clue about medical and scientific matters, and then they wouldn’t have to put the fate of 66 million people into the hands of dodgy chancers who later claim that they were just making predictions and never expected anyone to act on them.

  9. @Dodgy

    Half a million deaths predicted and an overrun NHS. I can’t see how politicians could have decided not to lockdown

    You can’t see? Try this:
    “Predicted” by who? What’s his track record on predictions for major events?
    Oh, it’s sh1t. Make a note to review why MRC is giving him grants
    Officer, escort him out and send his prediction to Fraud Office

  10. Dodgy Geezer

    You are right in one respect in that a decision made at the time often looks bad after the event. Yet what we are talking about is the use of a strategy namely lockdown to isolate the healthy, close businesses etc, a strategy that had no significant history. We basically panicked and followed China and Italy. The ramifications of an action like this needs to be considered with the same vigour as the result you are trying to achieve. This never happened and we will all pay the price. Just image what 6 months minimum of little or no school will do for millions of kids? Just imagine what (if you have never experienced it) it is like to have no job and little hope of one. Image what it like to have your home repossessed. Imagine what it like to witness your mother or daughter die of a curable cancer because the NHS was effectively closed. A sad end to this affair is guaranteed and those responsible will probably walk away without a scratch.

  11. We disregard the predictions of David Icke for a reason.
    As Professor Ferguson has the same track record of accuracy as David Icke, his predictions should be treated with the same respect.

  12. A lot of people seem to be wise after the event.

    At the time Ferguson’s predictions had the support of all the scientific establishment, including the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor. What would you do as a politician if all the scientists and medical epidemiological establishment said “Lockdown!”? As they did.

    Perhaps you have forgotten. It was several weeks ago, after all. But as well as the scientists, the Media and the people were also crying out for a lockdown. Johnson had no choice….

  13. Dodgy “Perhaps you have forgotten. It was several weeks ago, after all. But as well as the scientists, the Media and the people were also crying out for a lockdown. Johnson had no choice…”

    Maybe, just maybe, back in March it seemed necessary. As was noted at the time there was an asymmetry in the political considerations: over-react, if it turns out not so bad claim credit, don’t act it was all your fault, If lockdown had been called off after two or three weeks when it was clear the hospitals were not overwhelmed then it may have been worthwhile: sorry we panicked, alarm over, back to work. But it has gone on too long, there is a different asymmetry now: to a public without a sense of proportion every death is one death too many, our politician are afraid of getting the blame,
    Like a fly-by-wire plane with faulty instruments in a nosedive to social and economic ruin, our panicked pilots persist in making things worse.

  14. I see that you agree with the only point that I made – which was that, given the establishment advice and political pressure, the government could not have done other than invoked a lockdown. How they get out of it, once it is shown to be of no value is, of course, a different question.

    The reason that I am interested in this is because of the close relationship it has with the Climate Change scam. Here, again, ‘scientific consensus’ was established, forcing politicians into supporting highly damaging actions like ruining our energy supply. This turns out to be an ideal way for activists to enforce their beliefs. But how do we get out of it when it is found to be mistaken?

  15. Dodgy, people were already changing their behaviors due to the fear being instilled by the MSM, (my local had removed tables to allow for social distancing, card payments only etc.) so much of the effect of the subsequent lockdown was already occurring.
    And, as with global warming, there are plenty of scientists out there with differing opinions, but our politicians only listen to those who fit their own agenda – the description “spineless” above, is a perfect fit.
    Some of our ‘leaders’ should go to the wall for what they have done to the people of this country.

  16. Dodgy. You need to read the SAGE minutes. At no time before 23rd March did SAGE advise a total lockdown. The decision was political, especially as Macron was threatening to close off the channel if we didn’t.

    In the two weeks before lockdown SAGE are minuted as being on balance against a lockdown.

    On the 19th March the High Consequence Infectious Disease (HCID) group reduce COVID-19 to not a High consequence disease because infections were passed their peak. You can see their statement on the Governments HCID web page. This HCID decision was highlighted by a good number of commenters on the day after the lockdown.

    It isn’t hindsight – in meteorology it is called nowcasting.

  17. “And, as with global warming, there are plenty of scientists out there with differing opinions, but our politicians only listen to those who fit their own agenda – the description “spineless” above, is a perfect fit….”

    Here you have put your finger on the problem – but I take issue with the word ‘spineless’. The issue is more complex than you have portrayed.

    The root of the problem is that the politicians are not able to chose which scientists they listen to. They have an established process set up for many years to provide independent scientific advice to government – many committees, working parties and sub-groups exist for this purpose inside the Civil Service – the Chief Scientific Adviser is a part of this system.

    This is where scientific advice to government comes from. It HAS to come through this process. And it is this process which has been taken over by activists.

    If a senior politician were to reject the advice provided by this scientific establishment, and instead rely on some other research – or even do his own sums as presented in this item above, the next stage would be that a legal petition for maladministration would go to the Supreme Court, and the politician would have to back down. Because he would indeed have broken the administrative rules – he would have rejected the definitive scientific advice which he was bound to take.

    There would be no point arguing that the scientific advice was wrong. Courts do not rule on the validity of scientific findings – they accept the evidence of experts. And the ‘experts’ in this case would all be drawn from the scientific elite, and they would all toe the scientific establishment line.

    The problem here is NOT one of politics. It is deeper than that. It is the problem Eisenhower warned about in his Farewell Address:

    “…Yet in holding scientific discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite……”

    You don’t get out of that problem by writing a paper pointing out that the scientific findings being relied on are false….

  18. In reference to the HCI classification, I understood at the time that corona was removed from it because HCID illnesses are required to tirgger a series of actions such as isolation in a special nominated hospital. Obviously if there was going to be a high number of cases they needed to be treated wherever was appropriate, not in special hospitals. That’s why it came off the list. Nothing to do with any perceived peak.

    Why are we still getting over 1000 new cases a day? Does this mean the lockdown is saving us from worse? Or that it’s useless? A thousand cases means 140 deaths a day in three weeks unless outcomes have been improved.

  19. @DavidR “…You need to read the SAGE minutes……In the two weeks before lockdown SAGE are minuted as being on balance against a lockdown……..”

    I have, of course, read what came out. You will have noticed the abrupt change once Ferguson presented his model findings. And that SAGE is currently warning against releasing lockdown too early.

    There are two points to make:

    1 – We have some SAGE minutes. We DO NOT have the formal advice statement issued to Ministers. That remains secret, and I am sure that it would have recommended a lockdown at some point. The politicians would not have taken the momentous action of closing the country down without ensuring that their backs were covered in this way.

    2 – Timing is a critical issue here. The advice will have changed as time went by, and you cannot take a recommendation against lockdown to refer to any time apart from when it was made. Two weeks before lockdown – advice against – therefore no lockdown. On the day – advice for – therefore lockdown.

    Incidentally, the HCID stated that COVID-19 was not a High Consequence disease because it is not. That definition includes high mortality, and Covid-19 mortality is low. That does not mean that it won’t kill a lot of people if it spreads widely, and it does not mean that a lockdown may not be an appropriate action to take.

    You are painting a picture of spineless politicians rejecting scientific advice. I am sure they would have done nothing so crude and risky to their careers. This is not the way Whitehall works. If political advantage is to be gained from taking a course which is not scientifically recommended, then the politicians will attempt to have the advice changed. It is the spineless SCIENTISTS who give in to this pressure who should be the object of your derision.

    Of course, we have all seen what happens to any scientist who does not give in. They are sacked and replaced with a more malleable place-holder. It is this issue – the politicisation of science – which I see as so dangerous. And blaming politicians simply diverts attention from where the real blame lies. But after all, that is what politicians are for – to carry the can while the administrative establishment operate their own policies…

  20. Dodgy Geezer: “Very easy to do those calculations AFTER the event.

    Now consider the decision process faced BEFORE the epidemic. Half a million deaths predicted and an overrun NHS. I can’t see how politicians could have decided not to lockdown. Hindsight is a wonderful thing – but those tasked with making the decisions didn’t have it……”

    Ferguson has a track record of his worst case scenarios being wrong. This is a matter of record but doesn’t seem to have been raised in the scientific advice. AFAIK he thought that up to 80% of the population could be infected by Covid-19 in the absence of any measures to contain the spread. Is there any evidence from past pandemics to suggest that is even possible let alone plausible?

    One thing hindsight has shown is that if the government thinks a precautionary approach is the way to go then next time they need to act straight away, stop flights from the virus country of origin and implement other measures. Countries like Taiwan and Vietnam seem to have dealt with this far better. What the fiasco has shown is that having a pandemic as a top national security threat and supposedly being well prepared for a pandemic looks great on paper, but is worthless unless the scientific advisers and government make the right decisions straight away. Unfortunately the experts were originally advising government that the virus didn’t pose a threat and there was no need to stop travellers from China from entering the UK.

  21. How would the results differ if you compared the late lockdown to a lockdown starting a month earlier? Note that it seems to be possible to totally eradicate Covid (see for example New Zealand)

  22. It makes no sense to compare £25k in the NICE metrics directly to £25k of GDP in this way. When NICE say “We are willing to spend £25k to secure one QALY”, they are talking about £25k of ready cash in the government’s pocket which can be directly allocated to health. GDP is nothing like that: a smaller proportion of each pound of GDP is “captured” by society in terms of improving human life. Notice that Toby Young’s famous The Critic essay, though crude in its premises, did not make this same mistake: he was starting not from GDP but from the £350 billion of committed Treasury bail-out funds – in other words, he was comparing government spending with government spending, which actually works.

  23. @D Bebbington:

    “…..Ferguson has a track record of his worst case scenarios being wrong. This is a matter of record but doesn’t seem to have been raised in the scientific advice. AFAIK he thought that up to 80% of the population could be infected by Covid-19 in the absence of any measures to contain the spread. Is there any evidence from past pandemics to suggest that is even possible let alone plausible?…..”

    See my comments above.
    1 – Ferguson was the scientist tasked with providing data. Therefore that was what the decisions were made on.
    2 – Yes, there are MANY instances of epidemics throughout history wiping out large numbers of a population. That is why we have a Pandemic Plan. For a good analysis of the relationship between disease and human civilisation, see Hans Zeigler’s ‘Rats, Lice and History’.

    The problem with infective diseases is that we DO NOT KNOW what is happening until well after the event – often not then. For instance, how many people does flu infect each year? We know that, before vaccination, approximately 10% of the population suffered from it sufficiently to inform a doctor – but for all we know the other 90% either did not have it, or had it without symptoms.

    When faced with a new disease for which we do not know the infection ratio or the case fatality rate, we used to put up with it and hope it was not a heavy hit. Occasionally, as in 1968, it is. This time around we tried a different strategy.

    I dearly hope that we can learn useful lessons from this experience – but I fear that the usual human response is to look for a scapegoat to blame, and then forget that anything ever happened. That is why I am suggesting that knee-jerk reactions are counterproductive. For instance, we do not have all the data in to even start making the assertions that the lead article does – and won’t have it until the end of the year at least…

  24. Dodgy G. on the politicization of science: “It is the problem Eisenhower warned about in his Farewell Address”

    Indeed! Most people have heard of the “Military-Industrial Complex” from Eisenhower’s perceptive speech, but few people are aware of his warning against the potentially deleterious effects of government-funding for science. The piper often gets to call the tune.

    The failures of Big Science are obvious today — not just the inappropriate Covid-19 response and the whole Climate Change Scam. Landscapes across the Western world are littered with windmills which use taxpayer & consumer subsidies to kill endangered birds — while millions of mainly young “black” lives have been sacrificed in Africa over the last half century due to the banning of DDT in order to save endangered birds. All we have demonstrated is that most “scientists” will follow the grant money — anywhere!

    In the real world, every well-intended action has consequences, some good & some bad. What we lack is a mechanism to force an explicit acknowledgement and weighing of the positives & negatives. Say — delaying the deaths of X 80+ year-olds by Lock Down is worth accelerating the deaths of Y 50 year-olds with heart disease & cancer. Michael Crichton suggested a good old fashioned adversarial trial for science used as a basis for public policy — that might work.

  25. Dodgy Geezer: “The problem with infective diseases is that we DO NOT KNOW what is happening until well after the event – often not then.”

    That’s not entirely true. Michael Levitt showed early on that Covid-19 wasn’t likely to justify lockdowns, but he isn’t an epidemiologist and was probably ignored by governments even if they knew of his work.

    I share your concerns that we won’t learn lessons from this. It’s quite possible the political and academic spin will be to justify their decisions with some weasel words about how they could have done better.

  26. “That’s not entirely true. Michael Levitt showed early on that Covid-19 wasn’t likely to justify lockdowns,…”

    He did not show – he PREDICTED. The fact that he was probably right is irrelevant. Predictions are not cast-iron certainties. Unless you can give a politician a cast-iron certainty – and a politician knows that there is no such thing in politics – they will opt for covering their backs every time.

    And it really is the case that we do not KNOW what has happened yet – in any great detail. We have mortality figures which are more or less accurate – but can you guarantee that there won’t be a second spike? I don’t believe for one moment that there will be – but I also know that we know far too little about this new virus to predict what it will do in all circumstances… predictions are hard, especially about the future.

  27. @Dodgy
    Johnson did have a choice.

    He could be the Leader he was elected to be and follow in the steps of his hero Churchill
    or
    He could relinquish Leader and capitulate to the hysterical media who incited panic, and be a follower

    Johnson failed to be Leader

    Hindsight doesn’t come into it. Many were being rational, looking at world data, etc before UK deaths started to rise and concluded “it’s like a bad flu”. World data in Feb/March also showed non-white/yellow at much higher risk

    On 7 March I wrote @TW

    Normal: In the UK there are 1,668 deaths per day
    https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/datasets/vitalstatisticspopulationandhealthreferencetables

    Covid-19 +1, 10, 100, 250 pd mostly ‘with’ not ‘by’ premature – nothing burger

    Keep calm and carry on

    @rhoda
    1,000 new cases pd in pop of ~70milllion is nothing. Deaths decreasing as many ‘vulnerable’ already gone. NYC has shown lockdown doesn’t stop new cases in those locked down

    @djc, Addolff, David R
    Spot on

    btw imo Dodgy is trolling

  28. Dodgy Geezer: “He did not show – he PREDICTED. The fact that he was probably right is irrelevant. Predictions are not cast-iron certainties. Unless you can give a politician a cast-iron certainty – and a politician knows that there is no such thing in politics – they will opt for covering their backs every time.”

    Yes, I should have said “predicted” rather than “showed”. The fact that he may well have been right was irrelevant then because he wasn’t advising the government, but it’s relevant now for learning lessons.

    As for politicians covering their backs every time if they don’t have certainty, that’s not true. It seems they only enacted a lockdown because of Ferguson’s predictions and that other countries had locked down. Without the latter I’m not sure we would have done so. Also, we had no certainty that the virus wouldn’t affect the UK, but the government didn’t take early action to cover their backs. The arse covering comes from claiming to be guided by the science.

    Dodgy Geezer: “And it really is the case that we do not KNOW what has happened yet – in any great detail. We have mortality figures which are more or less accurate – but can you guarantee that there won’t be a second spike? I don’t believe for one moment that there will be – but I also know that we know far too little about this new virus to predict what it will do in all circumstances… predictions are hard, especially about the future.”

    Indeed, nobody knows if there will be a second spike, but I think we know enough about the virus now to be able to manage a second spike as we have to with the annual flu. I’m sick of life being restricted and micromanaged just in case of a second spike. The government knows who will be most at risk so can have contingency plans to shield them as much as practicable. I also think that waiting for a vaccine is a fool’s errand as we have no idea if one is possible, when it could be available and how effective it will be. If its effectiveness is anything like a flu vaccine then it’s only a case of reducing risk, not eliminating it.

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