In Depth

Could more people die from lockdown than from coronavirus?

Government report warns that healthcare delays and economic impact of pandemic may lead to up to 200,000 deaths

Tens of thousands more people could die from the effects of the Covid lockdown and efforts to protect the NHS than from the virus itself, according to a newly revealed government report.

Experts say that healthcare delays and the economic fallout of the coronavirus could result in up to 200,000 deaths - a prediction likely to fuel “debate over the easing of lockdown restrictions”, says The Telegraph.

Some politicians have argued that it is too early to lift lockdown measures, while others “have questioned whether the cure is worse than the disease”, the newspaper reports.

What does the report say?

Published in April by experts from the Department of Health, the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the government’s Actuary Department and the Home Office, the report said that to 25,000 people could die from delaying treatment for non-coronavirus-related illnesses in the first six months of the pandemic, with a further 185,000 dying in the medium to long term.

Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific advisor, revealed the existence of the report while appearing before the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee last week.

The report also warned of a predicted 500 more suicides during the first wave of infections, and between 600 and 12,000 more deaths per year due to the impact of a recession caused by the economic ramifications of lockdown.

Deaths owing to accidents in the home and domestic violence were expected to increase too.

In total, around quarter of a million people would die due to the country’s response to the coronavirus, rather than the pandemic itself, the experts predicted.

Has lockdown led to more illness?

An analysis published in April by experts at University College London (UCL) revealed that urgent referrals from GPs for suspected cancer had dropped by an average of 76% during lockdown.

The researchers predicted that total cancer deaths could rise from 89,576 to 107,491 in just one year as a result of the pandemic. 

Thousands of strokes and heart attacks also went untreated during lockdown, and early diagnoses of diabetes and kidney disease were missed, the Daily Mail reports.

University of Oxford researchers revealed last week that 5,000 fewer heart attack patients had attended hospital between March and May. 

And the new government report has added further “credence to the view that patients with serious illnesses unrelated to coronavirus have been neglected” during the Covid crisis, says the newspaper.

Is the cure worse than the disease?

Many lockdown sceptics point to the millions of jobs lost around the world, the warning of a “recession to end all recessions”, and the Bank of England’s fear that the British economy is facing its worst crash in three centuries.

The case against locking down has been made repeatedly by right-wing politicians and conservative news outlets. US President Donald Trump railed against lockdown in late March, telling Fox News: “You’re going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression.”

His Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro said in May that economic stagnation would hurt Brazil more than the virus, calling governors and mayors who had initiated local lockdowns “a terrible disgrace”.

Did lockdown damage the economy?

Attributing economic slowdown to the lockdown rather than the virus itself is simply false, says Oxford economics profession Simon Wren-Lewis in an article for The Guardian.

“Conservative MPs seem to think the collapse in output is due to the lockdown, whereas in reality it is due to the pandemic. If there had been no lockdown, and the epidemic had run its course unhindered, we would have seen a fall in output of similar size.”

Many commentators point to Sweden as evidence of this claim. The Scandinavian country opted not to lock down, arguing that taking such “draconian measures” was not sustainable and would harm the economy unnecessarily. However, Sweden has ended up suffering significantly more deaths than its Scandinavian neighbours, with little economic gain.

“They literally gained nothing,” Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington told The New York Times. “It’s a self-inflicted wound, and they have no economic gains.”

The government’s focus going forward should be on ridding the UK of coronavirus rather than continuing to ease lockdown, says Wren-Lewis. 

“If we continue to put ending the lockdown above bringing infection levels down,” the “grim reality” of “a deeper and longer recession” will only become more likely, he concludes.


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