Covid lockdowns were no more effective at controlling the pandemic than letting people adapt their own behaviour to the threat, a major Oxford University-backed study suggests.
Researchers modelled virus death and unemployment rates in response to different pandemic policies.
Results showed imposing blanket shutdowns, which forced people to stay home and closed essential shops, squashed fatality rates for the virus.
However, leaving people to adapt their own behaviour — similar to the controversial approach used in Sweden — was just as effective, data revealed.
Experts concluded that both policies led to ‘similar trade-offs’ for people’s health and the economy, with both approaches triggering huge job losses.
Due to differences in logging data, comparisons between countries are difficult. However, figures from Oxford University platform Our World in Data suggests Sweden (blue line) is doing better than its European peers. It has logged 2,370 deaths per million people compared to the 2,769 per million average for the European Union by late October. For comparison, the UK has logged 3,421 per million (red line)
The researchers said strict non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) — lockdowns, social distancing and face masks — were ‘critical’ to reducing the spread of Covid
However, they noted that individuals changing their behaviour of their own accord — such as by minimising contacts and less frequent trips to shops or restaurants — could have also minimised deaths while having less impact on the economy
The researchers said strict non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) — lockdowns, social distancing and face masks — were ‘critical’ to reducing the spread of Covid.
However, they noted that individuals changing their behaviour of their own accord — such as by minimising contacts and less frequent trips to shops or restaurants — could have also minimised deaths.
To determine the effects of both approaches, the researchers created an economic model based on the first wave of the pandemic.
They used data from around 416,000 people in New York City.
Researchers inputted a range of scenarios, including varying levels of restrictions and changes to behaviour.
The model then estimated how many infections occurred as a result, as well as which occupation, income and age group were most affected.
Government’s top pandemic scientists to give evidence at UK Covid-19 Inquiry
A pandemic-era chief scientist whose diary entries contained revelations that Boris Johnson described coronavirus as ‘nature’s way of dealing with old people’ is set to appear before the UK’s public inquiry.
Sir Patrick Vallance is expected to give evidence on Monday followed by England’s chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty and his former deputy, Sir Jonathan Van-Tam later in the week.
Extracts from Sir Patrick’s diary during his time in office have already been the subject of much of the inquiry’s examination of other key figures, including ex-Downing Street director of communications Lee Cain and former cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill.
One entry recorded that the former PM had referred to the Treasury as the ‘pro-death squad’ when he wanted the ministry to back him in arguing for a path to eased restrictions.
Another contained an allegation that Mr Johnson had suggested he believed the pandemic was ‘nature’s way of dealing with old people’ as he resisted lockdowns.
Sir Patrick, who served as the Government’s chief scientific adviser from 2018 to 2023, also wrote about his own frustrations in dealing with the then-prime minister.
‘(Mr Johnson is) obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going,’ he said.
‘Quite bonkers set of exchanges,’ he wrote, referring to a WhatsApp group including the former PM.
Sir Patrick said that he and Sir Chris felt Number 10 officials were trying to ‘strong-arm’ them into appearing by Mr Johnson’s side at a Downing Street press conference following the then-PM’s ex-chief adviser Dominic Cummings’ press conference on his lockdown trip to Barnard Castle.
The journey was clearly against the rules and Mr Cummings’ televised appearance before the media was a ‘car crash’, the former chief scientist said in an entry in May 2020.
Sir Patrick has objected to the publication of his pandemic-era diary in full, describing the notes as a ‘brain dump’ written ‘at the end of immensely stressful days to protect his mental health’.
Chairwoman Baroness Heather Hallett has said it would be ‘premature’ to make a decision on whether the entries should be disclosed in their entirety.
But further extracts could be put before the inquiry as he answers questions from lawyers about his time in office during the Government’s response to the virus next week.
His evidence will be followed by Sir Chris on Tuesday and Sir Jonathan next Wednesday, according to a timetable published by the inquiry on Thursday.
Dame Angela McLean will also appear next Wednesday, while Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch and Dame Jenny Harries, a former deputy chief medical officer for England are expected next Thursday.
Results, published in the Nature Human Behaviour Journal, showed that both strict lockdowns and high rates of behaviour change led to a rise in unemployment and fewer Covid deaths.
For example, if lockdowns were imposed, virus deaths fell 35 per cent while unemployment jumped 64 per cent.
In comparison, if people were left to their own devices in a ‘high fear’ situation, deaths fell 50 per cent, while job losses increased by 40 per cent.
The team said this showed there is a ‘similar trade-off between epidemic and economic outcomes’ regardless of whether Covid restrictions are imposed or if people are left to change their behaviour.
‘Both substantial behavioural changes and stringent closures lead to similar patterns of rising unemployment and fewer infections,’ they wrote.
The researchers found that this trend still stands, even if older people make bigger changes to their behaviour than younger people.
‘While it is intuitive to expect stricter mandated NPIs to increase unemployment and decrease Covid-19 deaths, it is less apparent that heightened behavioural adaptation would yield similar results,’ the team added.
They also found that forcing the closure of sectors that aren’t people-facing — such as construction and manufacturing — triggers a large spike in job losses with ‘only a marginal decrease in fatalities’.
Additionally, bringing in pandemic restrictions late when people have already adapted their behaviour ‘leads to a dual blow of increased deaths and unemployment’.
The researchers noted that their results are only based on data from one area of the US during the first lockdown and do not take testing, Covid variants or vaccination into account.
However, the findings address ‘key policy debates’ of the Covid pandemic and will enable future governments take tough decisions, they said.
Professor Doyne Farmer, director of the complexity economics programme at Oxford University‘s Institute of New Economic Thinking, said the paper is ‘timely’ given the ongoing Covid inquiries around the world.
He said: ‘We are seeing governments across the globe begin their “moments of reckoning”, reviewing the effectiveness of a great variety of policies brought in during Covid.
‘According to some, lockdowns were not imposing any trade-off between health and the economy because, if the virus got out of control, the economy would be equally damaged.
‘According to others, letting at-risk individuals spontaneously reduce their risk of infection would have led to the best epidemic and economic outcomes, with no trade-off.
‘These debates have remained contested and unresolved.’
Professor Farmer said: ‘Our quantitative research helps provide evidence-based answers to these questions, suggesting that both lockdowns and spontaneous behaviour change lead to similar trade-offs between health and the economy.
‘Those that claimed that there was no trade-off between health and the economy were not basing their belief in a quantitative model.’
The UK imposed its first lockdown in March 2020, with then Prime Minister Boris Johnson telling the nation ‘you must stay at home’.
It saw schools, shops and hospitality close, social distancing come into force and Brits only allowed to exercise outdoors once a day.
Experts largely accepted that the economically-crippling measures were vital to control the spread of the virus, as there was no vaccine to prevent severe illness and stunt hospital admissions at the time.
But other epidemiologists and public health scientists shared ‘grave concerns’ about the collateral damages of such policies on the NHS and other parts of society in future.
Sweden became an international outlier in 2020 when, instead of shutting down society, it relied on citizens’ sense of civic duty to reduce the spread of Covid.
Authorities advised residents to practice social distancing, however schools, bars and restaurants remained open and it never required people to wear masks — they were only recommended on public transport during the second wave.
Among its stricter measures included a ban on visits to elderly care homes and limits on the number of people attending public gatherings.
The approach gave rise to a heated debate abroad, and was at times held up as a cautionary tale, or on the contrary, hailed by opponents of lockdowns.