In Depth

Pros and cons of lockdown

Millions in north of England remain under lockdown

Millions of people across the north of England are currently under newly implemented lockdown measures following a surge of cases across the country in recent weeks.

Greater Manchester has been under a local lockdown since the end of July, with Salford, Trafford, Bury, Tameside, and Rochdale also banning household mixing in homes and gardens.

In the northeast, Northumberland, Newcastle, Tyneside, Gateshead, Sunderland and County Durham have been under stricter measures since 30 September, and this weekend new restrictions were introduced in Liverpool, Warrington, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough.

In total, around 22.5 million people in the UK are now affected by these extra restrictions, but do they work? Here are the pros and cons of lockdowns:

Cons

Economic downturn

The BBC’s health correspondent Nick Triggle claims that a second lockdown is “extremely unlikely” given the widespread belief that such a move would be “hugely damaging to the economy”. 

The first UK-wide lockdown, which began on 23 March, had a devastating financial effect that sent the UK into recession for the first time in 11 years.

As The Telegraph reports, “Britain’s economy contracted by 20.4% during the second quarter – between April and June – leaving it as the world’s worst-hit major economy. Only Spain’s economy contracted more over the first half of 2020.”  

The economic slump and forced closure of businesses has seen unemployment soar, with newly released data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing that a total of 695,000 payroll jobs were lost in the first five months of the pandemic.

As of the end of August, the total number of people out of work stood at 1.4 million, despite the government’s bid to support workers through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

And the Unite union warned this week that the “redundancy floodgates will open” unless the furlough scheme is extended beyond the current cut-off date of 31 October. 

Further disruption to education

Schools across the UK were forced to close in late March as the virus spread across the nation, with A-level and GCSE exams cancelled or postponed. 

The exam cancellations resulted in chaos, after around 40% of A-level results predicted by teachers were downgraded by a controversial algorithmic system. Following a public outcry, the government was forced to perform an embarrassing U-turn on the use of the automated system, but universities warned that pupils who had appealed against their grades might have missed out on securing places.    

Meanwhile, research published by the Royal Society in July showed that school time lost because of the pandemic could harm the UK economy for the next 65 years.

As the BBC reported at the time, “evidence of long-term damage from reduced schooling included studies in Argentina, where year groups affected by prolonged strikes were found to have reduced average earnings into mid-life, of 1.9% for women and 3.2% for men”.

In August, ahead of the start of the new academic year in the UK, the government insisted that closing schools again was “not an option”. But Professor Whitty warned earlier this month that this pledge needs to be “looked at again” if infections among school-aged children rise, reports The Telegraph.

“At the moment rates are still very low, if there were to be a change in that, there were to be a much broader increase in rates including of school-age children, I think the current policies would have to be looked at again as in the other areas,” Whitty told a press briefing.

Mental health

According to figures released by the Office for National Statistics in July, the number of people in the UK affected by depression rose from one in ten to one in five compared with the same time last year. 

As The Independent notes,  “it is perhaps not surprising that people have been experiencing poor mental health in 2020; dealing with the physical threat of Covid-19, feelings of isolation brought on by lockdown, distance from support networks of family and friends, and the uncertainty of future restrictions has taken its toll”.

“To feel comfortable and be in a state of mental and emotional equilibrium, you need to have stability in your life,” Dr Natasha Bijlani of the Priory hospital in Roehampton told the paper.

Democracy and freedoms curtailed

For many people, having the minutiae of daily life coming under government rule is an alien and confusing experience. Sweeping legalisation aimed at tackling the coronavirus has given unprecedented powers to governments and police in countries worldwide - as politicians in Westminster have acknowledged.

In March, shortly before the first UK lockdown began, MPs on Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights admitted that some measures being mulled by Downing Street would “significantly curtail individual rights”, as The Independent reported at the time.

“There are other practical and economic impacts on individuals who cannot work due to self-isolating, or due to sickness – some of these measures will affect certain groups more significantly than others,” the MPs wrote in a briefing paper. 

Sounding a note of warning in the wake of the committee’s comments, The Guardian columnist Cas Mudde wrote: “At this stage, the threat of contagion is very high, which means that measures to limit the movement of people are legitimised.”

But “we should not let our fear be used to drag us into yet another false ‘war’,” he continued. “Because if we do, politicians will use it once again to strengthen the already far too strong repressive powers of our surveillance states.” 

Do local lockdowns work?

The jury is out on whether or not these measures work.

Sky News suggests that a “whack-a-mole” approach makes little difference and that “once stricter restrictions are imposed on particular regions they are rarely lifted - because infection rates keep rising”.

“Boris Johnson recently gave Luton as an example of local lockdowns working,” the broadcaster adds. “But although it was released from lockdown after a few days when cases started to fall, they have since started rising and are now above their original level.”

So far, Leicester is the only area to record fewer cases than when the measures were implemented.

Meanwhile, the BBC reports that while cases have risen in Greater Manchester hospital admissions “do appear to have been kept at a low level following the introduction of restrictions”.

“It is possible the measures did something to protect the most vulnerable, even if they didn't have as noticeable an impact on overall cases,” the broadcaster says. “The data confirms that curbs in local areas can have a considerable impact.”

Pros

Saving lives

Despite the various downsides, many health experts believe lockdowns have been an effective and necessary measure.

In June, a team at Imperial College London published research that suggested lockdown measures had prevented an estimated 3.2 million Covid-related deaths in Europe, including 470,000 in the UK.

The study assessed the impact of restrictions in 11 European countries - Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK - up to the beginning of May.

“By that time, around 130,000 people had died from coronavirus in those countries,” according to the BBC. “The researchers used disease modelling to predict how many deaths there would have been if lockdown had not happened. And the work comes from the same group that guided the UK's decision to go into lockdown.”

Lessen strain on NHS

Announcing the UK lockdown back in March, Johnson warned that “without a huge national effort to halt the growth of this virus, there will come a moment when no health service in the world could possibly cope, because there won’t be enough ventilators, enough intensive care beds, enough doctors and nurses”. 

That message was echoed by intensive care unit (ICU) doctor Tim Cook in an article for The Guardian.

“When resources are overwhelmed and not all patients can be fully treated, doctors may instead have to focus on what is in the best interests of society,” Cook wrote. “If this comes to pass in the UK, doctors will be making some of the hardest decision we have ever had to make.”

By the end of April, as the nationwide lockdown continued, daily reports of Covid cases began to enter a slow decline. 

And according to the newspaper, physical distancing measures have also helped reduce cases of flu, colds, bronchitis and a host of viruses other than Covid-19 in England, which “has helped relieve pressure on the NHS”.

Drop in pollution

A positive side-effect of lockdowns worldwide has been a significant drop in levels of air pollution and warming gases in many cities and regions where the pandemic has resulted in reduced travel and industrial production.

A study by researchers at the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) found that improvements in air quality during coronavirus lockdowns had resulted in 11,000 fewer deaths across Europe in April alone. The UK had the second-highest estimate of any European nation for avoided deaths, at 1,752, after Germany (2,083).

James Lee, a research scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, told Royal Geographical Society magazine Geographical in May that levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) “in cities around the UK has dropped by varying levels, but between 30% and 45% compared to the average levels of the same period from the past five years”. 

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