Covid lockdown was a ‘failure of public health policy’, inquiry hears

The coronavirus lockdown was a “failure of public health policy”, an expert has said as it emerged that top scientific modellers were never asked how to avoid the measure.

Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease and epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said lockdown should “always be a last resort” as he told a hearing the Government was not given a full range of options in the run-up to the November 2020 lockdown.

Prof Woolhouse (pictured), a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M-O), was critical of a “go hard, go early, go wide” approach favoured by some scientists when he appeared before the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

He said: “The harms of the social distancing measures – particularly lockdown, the economic harms, the educational harms, the harms to access to health care, the harms to societal wellbeing, just the way we all function, mental health – were not included in any of the work that SPI-M-O did and, as far as I could tell, no one else was doing it either.

“I take the view that it would have been very helpful if the Government said explicitly, ‘We don’t want to go into lockdown. What’s your advice? How can we both minimise the health burden and stay out of lockdown?’ And we could have given a lot of advice and all the other things you could do other than lockdown.

“The question of how to avoid lockdown was never asked of us and I find that extraordinary.”

Prof Woolhouse said the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) “did not communicate the seriousness and urgency of the situation as it developed in January and February” in the minutes of its meetings.

Referring to the phrase “going early, going hard”, which was adopted by members of Sage as well as Sir Patrick Vallance, former chief scientific adviser to the Government, Prof Woolhouse said “I remember, Patrick and others repeated it several times: ‘Go hard, go early and go wider than you would have’.

“Now that, for me, is a good maxim in a particular situation where your strategic objective is to eradicate the virus – you’re going to try and clear it out completely. That’s what was done with Sars in 2003.

“I did not think from very early on that eradicating the virus was even the remotest possibility. In which case this ‘go hard, go early, go wide’ is going to mean severe restrictions.

“I was always interested from early on in trying to find a sustainable intervention and so my maxim is ‘if you go early, you don’t have to go so hard’.”

Prof Woolhouse said he supported lockdown at the time it was introduced due to the rapid doubling times of hospital admissions and deaths.

But in his witness statement, he said that with hindsight he wondered whether the lockdown was necessary.

Drawing on data on where people were spending their time in the week before lockdown, he said the amount of time people were spending outside their homes had “fallen off a cliff”.

He said he had not seen “any good analysis” that the stay-at-home order was the “killer punch that was really needed”.

In his statement, Prof Woolhouse wrote: “I think it’s fair to describe lockdown, not as a public health policy, but as a failure of public health policy.

“(Lockdown) is what you do when all those other things you know you can do haven’t worked, it’s a last resort and it should always be that in my view.”

Prof Woolhouse added: “In the build-up to that November lockdown in England, as far as I could see, Sage was simply telling the Government it should lock down.

“I was saying ‘earlier action can be a less drastic action, we don’t have to lock down and, in fact, there’s good evidence now that that lockdown was not strictly necessary’.

“We could have done much more to avoid it if we took an early action.”

Prof Woolhouse said he did not believe that view was communicated to Sage, adding: “They were of this ‘harder than you want, earlier than you want, wider than you want’ point of view, which was clearly something the Government was resisting.

“I think Government was not given, in the build-up to that lockdown, the full range of policy options that should have been given.”

He said it was a “tragedy” that measures “well beyond shielding” were “lost sight of during the pandemic”.

He told the inquiry the carers of vulnerable people should have also been protected during the crisis.

“How do we protect (vulnerable people) best? By protecting their carers.

“The people they must come in contact with must also be virus-free. That is called cocooning, where you protect the people around the people you’re trying to protect.”

Prof Woolhouse added: “I have to say this is one of the occasions where I became very, very frustrated with Sage.

“I don’t think they looked at the cocooning proposal. Something that I believe would have worked and, as far as I can tell, it was never, never considered by them.”

He told the inquiry that lockdown did not have such a strong effect in hospitals and care homes.

“What lockdown did was drive down transmission rates in the wider community.

“All of us who had to stay at home, we weren’t transmitting the virus, but within a hospital, there are lots of precautions, but they do have to carry on. And the same with care homes.

“So the dynamics of the virus in those settings were different and lockdown did not have such a strong effect in those settings as it did in the community.”

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