Lockdowns, stable-doors, etc

This is really just recycling the work of others, but since such stuff gets little consistent press coverage, it’s worth pondering on the day when Boris Johnson is set to announce Lockdown v1.02. By all accounts this is more or less the same except for asking the airlines to function under a two-week visitor quarantine rule, and public transport to cover its costs with only 10% of its usual passenger numbers.

The new normal, it seems, will have everybody walking and cycling to their old folk’s lunches. Who needs to leave the villages anyway, when the roads are in such disrepair because Road-tax dries up?

So the aim here is to recycle some stats for the UK, which are very closely reflected in almost every other country. I’ve noted before how the flattening of SARS-CoV-2 deaths across nations as diverse in their responses as UK, America, Italy and, particularly, Sweden looks far more like a effect of the virus’s natural history than what should be the variable effects of different degrees of isolation policy.

Well, the data now clearly shows that the peak of deaths in the UK (and for most other European countries and America, it seems) was around April 14th.

But the time from onset of symptoms to death from SARS-CoV-2 is now known to be from 2-8 weeks. And it usually takes 6 days for symptoms to develop after infection.

The peak of deaths on April 14, therefore, reflects a peak of onset of symptoms occurring in the interval between around mid February to April 1st. And in turn that means the peak of new infections occurred between the first week in February and the last week in March.

Lockdown began on 23rd March – more or less the very last likely date for one of those peak-death patients to have acquired the infection. In other words, when lockdown began, the number of new infections had already been in decline for, possibly, several weeks. If you want to track the effectiveness of lockdown in your country, then, you need to shift the graph of deaths to the left for 3-9 weeks.

If you bear in mind that even before lockdown, informal social distancing advice had only been in operation for a matter of days, then it appears that the draconian measures in the UK were a matter of locking the stable door down after the viruses had not only bolted, but gone lame.

What other explanation is possible for these statistics? Even if lockdown were providing value-added protection to some natural phenomenon, you’d expect a downward kink in the curves at a suitable interval once infections dramatically fell off from shutting down society. But it’s not there. Just the smooth “S” shaped curve one sees with most new epidemics, and it’s the same shape in Italy, where the health service collapsed, and in Sweden, where there has been no shutdown at all.

What is there, according to a New York study made public today, is the observation that 60% of the hospital admissions there are from people who were carefully observing the advice to stay at home, rather than being out ignoring social distancing and paying the price. That suggests to me that although the virus has gone lame (possibly because of summer warmth, or its particular epidemiological profile), there’s a lot of it out there, and we may just be locking people up to develop the infections they acquired weeks ago.

All of which would be of minor interest were it not for the fact that it is part of the unprecedented social experiment of shutting down the world’s heart and hoping it spontaneously gets back to sinus rhythm at some indeterminate future time – when 7 billion doses an infallible and perfectly safe vaccine appear suddenly on a plane from Turkey, perhaps?

To get the economic cost of that in perspective, spending and borrowing to finance the lockdown in Britain is currently the equivalent of the cost of the NHS. That is around 7.5% of our GDP. Politicians normally agonize over whether some crucial new policy can afford 2 or 3% of the cost of the NHS: now we’ve not only got, financially speaking, two of them, but no economic activity to pay for it.

It remains to be seen how buses with three passengers each, mowing down swathes of eco-friendly cyclists in our cities, are going to generate the revenue necessary to pay it all back. Or even the cyclists who survive accidents, when they are off sick with pneumonia through commuting by bike come the cold, wet British winter.

Today, I read that 50,000 COVID-19 tests have had to be flown to the USA for processing because of logistical problems with our own labs. Stuff happens in emergencies. But the elephant in the room is that there was an airline still in business to transport them. That may not be true by the autumn, if every incoming passenger has to spend a fortnight in quarantine.

Does anybody remember voting for this new normality they’re touting?

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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