The UK acted the slowest of any major economy which entered lockdown – a New Statesman data investigation has found – and it may have cost thousands of lives.
An analysis of the strength of lockdown measures introduced during the early stages of the pandemic has revealed that the UK was among the slowest of the world’s major economies to lock down, when compared to the number of deaths it was suffering.
On 16 March, after 66 people had died from Covid-19, Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised all individuals against non-essential travel and contact with others. It took until the evening of 20 March – and 195 deaths – for all cafes, pubs and restaurants to close, and it wasn’t until 23 March – and 360 deaths – that Johnson made his television address announcing a UK-wide lockdown.
The graph below shows the speed at which most countries tightened restrictions, relative to the number of deaths they had experienced. A country’s stringency score records the strictness of “lockdown-style” policies that mainly restrict people’s behaviour.
It is taken from the Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker – which records when each country implemented policies to stop the virus. Some countries, such as Italy, India, Russia and Brazil, had already introduced fairly strict measures by the time the first death was announced. Others, such as Germany and France, were quick to push through measures once people started dying from the disease.
But the UK is notable for having the only convex shaped graph – indicating that the government allowed deaths to start rising before implementing restrictions.
The analysis comes as the New Statesman publishes a special issue – “Anatomy of a Crisis” (out today) – examining in detail the British government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The full analysis compares 14 major world economies across more than 40 data points, building a picture of how well countries have dealt with Covid-19. It finds that, despite being theoretically well-prepared for a pandemic, the UK acted far too slowly – with devastating consequences.
Britain has also been among the slowest countries to descend from its epidemiological peak. Based on a rolling weekly average, it recorded the highest number of deaths on 14 April. However it took 59 days for the daily death toll to fall to 20 per cent of the peak level – the slowest of any of the countries we analysed that had reached this point.
Italy’s death figures fell by 20 per cent 49 days after the peak was reached, Canada’s after 47 days, and Spain’s after 42 days. It took France 34 days, Japan 30 days, and Germany and South Korea just 27 days. Other countries – such as Brazil, Russia, and now the US, are still seeing the number of deaths rise.
The UK also opted to ease lockdown restrictions when its death rate was still far higher than that of other countries. Britain recorded around seven deaths per million people on the day it eased restrictions – compared to five in Italy, three in France, and one in Germany. But it remains too early to say exactly how lockdown speed relates to the number of deaths.
Professor Neil Ferguson – who was advising the government at the time of lockdown – told MPs that introducing lockdown measures a week earlier would have reduced the final death toll by half – saving tens of thousands of lives.
He said: “The measures, given what we knew about the virus then, were warranted. Certainly had we introduced them earlier we’d have seen many fewer deaths.”
However, a recent study by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University suggested that while international travel restrictions did have an effect on death rates, lockdowns in general did not have a statistically significant effect on mortality, and that other factors may play a more important role in reducing the death toll – such as governments encouraging the use of masks.
The researchers found that in countries with cultural norms or government policies supporting public mask-wearing, Covid-19 mortality per capita increased by just 8 per cent each week on average, compared to 54 per cent each week in other countries.