Coronavirus: 'Wrong time to lift restrictions' says Greenhalgh
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Wednesday will mark two years since the first UK lockdown was imposed, an unprecedented move that turned society on its head. Supporters say it was necessary to combat a virus which, models claimed, threatened to kill hundreds of thousands in the UK alone. But Professor Mark Woolhouse, who sits on the SpiM modelling group that provided pandemic advice to the Government, said “harmful” restrictions were imposed without evidence that such measures would work.
Even when it became clear some of the restrictions were not needed, the UK continued to impose them at “great cost to lives, livelihoods and society”, he said.
Prof Woolhouse, an infectious disease expert based at Edinburgh University, said the long-lasting lockdowns in response to the pandemic were not only “flawed” and “highly damaging” but also “morally wrong”. He said: “Much of the scene about our response to the pandemic was set from February 2020. The core of this was around lockdown. We have never had a proper debate about that response.
“It was an idea concocted by China and the World Health Organisation intended to eradicate the virus, which it did not do.
“We latched on to the idea of lockdown, making up our strategy as we went along. Having started on that road we adopted it as a public health tool but lockdown was not something we’d planned to do. It was untried and not thought out.
“We need to think through our options ahead of time and respond appropriately next time.”
Prof Woolhouse, author of a new book on the Covid response – The Year The World Went Mad: A Scientific Memoir – said Britain initially under-reacted to the threat of Covid but then over-reacted with continued tough measures.
He said: “If lockdown was meant to save lives it didn’t do a good enough job of it and we should have done much more to protect those at greatest risk.
“Lockdowns have been a global public health failure on a mass scale. We did serious harm to our children and young adults who were robbed of their education, jobs and normal existence, as well as suffering damage to their future prospects, while they were left to inherit a record-breaking mountain of public debt.
“All this to protect the NHS from a virus that is a far, far greater threat to the elderly, frail and infirm than to the young and healthy.
“We were mesmerised by the once-in-a-century scale of the emergency and succeeded only in making a crisis even worse.
“In short, we panicked. This was an epidemic crying out for a precision public health approach and it got the opposite.”
Meanwhile, medical experts last week warned the pandemic was not over yet, after global case numbers rose following a month of decline.
World Health Organisation official Margaret Harris told a conference in Geneva on Friday that it was “far from over”, adding: “We are definitely in the middle of the pandemic.”
The UN agency backed the use of lockdowns in October 2020, saying: “We understand that sometimes such measures – although not sustainable – are needed to swiftly suppress the virus and avoid health systems being overwhelmed.”
Others pointed out that in the absence of vaccines, lockdowns were one of the few available options.
Writing in the BMJ in June 2020, Edward Melnick, assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine, said: “In the absence of a safe and effective vaccine, treatment or prophylaxis, non-pharmaceutical interventions are the only options available to slow the virus’s spread.”
A study last month suggested that lockdowns had only curbed Covid death by 0.2 percent.
But Seth Flaxman, who had authored a 2020 study suggesting lockdowns had saved up to three million lives across Europe, said this recent study was “almost certainly fundamentally flawed”.
He said: “Smoking causes cancer, the Earth is round and ordering people to stay at home decreases disease transmission.
“A study purporting to prove the opposite is almost certain to be fundamentally flawed.”
The Royal Society of Medicine’s president last week said UK decision-makers “must not risk becoming complacent” over Covid. Roger Kirby said: “We are not out of the pandemic and must not risk becoming complacent.
“It is critical that leaders in medicine, science and research continue to have a strong voice in UK decision-making so we are in the best possible position to deal with future threats.”
The anniversary comes as a new study today concludes that two years on there is still no proper definition of a “Covid death”.
It suggests that many deaths attributed to the virus could have been from other causes.
Experts at Oxford University’s Centre of Evidence-Based Medicine released the research, which found many of those who reportedly died of Covid had potentially fatal underlying health conditions.
Centre director Professor Carl Heneghan said: “There is a disparity even on the Government’s own websites about the numbers of deaths that can be assigned to Covid.
“We need to understand the causes of deaths as a matter of urgency, as figures will affect policy every time winter comes around.”
Dr Tom Jefferson, co-author of the study, added: “Accurate data is needed to assess the evolution of the virus, compare cases between regions and countries, and compare Covid to other threats.”
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