Future governments must consider the harmful impact of lockdowns on subsequent generations, a leading sociologist has said. Professor Robert Dingwall, who helped draft the country’s pandemic plans at the turn of the century, spoke ahead of the third anniversary of the first covid lockdown next Thursday which led to almost two years of work-from-home orders, school closures, border closures and the shuttering of businesses deemed “non-essential.”
Debate still rages about the value of lockdowns with some arguing they saved thousands of lives by slowing infection spread and others insisting they did more harm than good due to the economic and social costs with some even suggesting lockdowns cost more lives than they saved.
Prof Dingwall, who sat on two advisory groups supporting the UK Government’s response to Covid-19 said: “Governments should trade off deaths from Covid with other important goals in the population. During the pandemic the obsession with a single disease and a single cause of death and the control of infection as the only focus has led to and will continue to lead to death from other causes downstream. This includes untreated cancers, diabetes, heart disease, poverty-related deaths, addictions, as well as harm and premature deaths from the societal and economic damage caused by those policies.”
He added: “The pandemic flu planning of 2005-07 envisaged a worst case scenario of 650K deaths in 3-6 months – much more than the worst Imperial projection for covid-19. But our focus was, ‘how do we keep things going?’ For example, you would only shut schools on an individual basis if you could not keep them open because there were too few teachers due to sickness. Educational progress and social development of all children suffered. Child mental health problems have surged as a result of lockdown.
“There is also a quiet quitting epidemic in schools. As Anne Longfield, former Children’s Commissioner pointed out during lockdown, the social contract around school attendance was broken and we now have nearly million children identified as persistently absent from school some of whom have disappeared from the school radar. It is not just direct learning loss but a sense that having children in school matters.
“This culture change is also reflected elsewhere in employment. We have seen early withdrawal from the workforce leading to a new trade-off between people choosing jobs where they can work from home and the transmission skills for the next generation of workers.”
He added: “Some people say that had we not locked down hospitals would have overrun and this would have led to reduced ability to treat disease. However, hospitals only ever approached capacity and the Nightingale facilities were never used. We still do not have evidence that lockdown made any difference to death rates compared with a more voluntary approach adopted in Sweden and no evidence has been published subsequently to justify a lockdown strategy – this was all based on assumptions. There was no systematic attempt to evaluate the various elements of lockdown in real time – so we still don’t know what, if anything, worked and we are no better placed to balance benefits and harms next time.”
“We have instead current data on excess deaths over a three-year period and we can see that despite Sweden deciding not to lock down, they have very low numbers of excess deaths and are not much different to Norway and Denmark which did lockdown. The overall picture is that there is not a lot of difference between the Nordic countries whatever they did and if you look at the 30 countries which make up Europe, the UK ends up mid-table.”
He concluded: “I suspect when all the dust settles, and the epidemiologists, the demographers, and the social scientists have finished arguing they will discover pandemic, mortality, and post-pandemic mortality is concentrated on people who are always more at risk of disease, death and lower life expectancy – those who are poor, from ethnic minorities, and those who are disadvantaged. To the extent that lockdown achieved anything it was to give focused protection for the middle classes.”
He concluded: “Professor Amitava Banerjee, a data science expert at the University of London who provided evidence to the Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, to justify the first lockdown and also advised the government’s pandemic advisory body SAGE said:
“The first lockdown was necessary. There was little credible alternative for protecting the high risk population such as those with heart disease and lung disease. We did not have good treatments and we did not have a vaccine for covid. At the same time we calculated this group represented 20 percent of the whole population and without lockdown we estimated 70,000 patients from this group would have died.”
Prof Banerjee, a leading cardiologist added: “Despite our concerns there was inconsistent messaging and this was one of the reasons why we had longer lockdowns, because many people didn’t take the virus seriously enough leading to high levels of infection. This meant our already strained health system was flooded and could not cope with other diseases. The problems in the NHS were exacerbated by the fact many NHS staff were off with covid or long covid which meant many patients could not get seen quickly.”
He added: “In the first lockdown we were caught like rabbits in the headlights. But by the second lockdown we should have been able to think more broadly about the indirect effects of lockdown on mental health and cancers among others things which were unforeseen, though lockdowns were still needed to make sure we had hospital capacity.”
Professor Banerjee, who specialises in heart health added: “We are now seeing an excess non-covid mortality, particular cardiovascular disease, an ailing economy, people struggling with long covid and post-traumatic stress. The causes of these problems we are facing are so much bigger than lockdown.”
He added: “The UK has exceptionally good data so in future we should make use of this to track and re-evaluate ongoing areas of concern.”