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Covid-19: Lockdowns

Volume 818: debated on Wednesday 9 February 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the paper A Literature Review and Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Lockdowns on COVID-19 Mortality, published in January; and in particular, the conclusions that (1) lockdown measures during the pandemic reduced COVID-19 mortality by 0.2 per cent on average, and (2) the public health benefits of such measures were outweighed by their economic and social costs.

The paper has yet to be peer-reviewed and there are important methodological issues that we would expect the reviewers to address. For example, the figure of 0.2% reduction in Covid-19 mortality from lockdown comes mainly from one of the 34 studies reviewed, while other studies report a reduction in mortality of up to 35%. To examine the trade-off between the public health benefits of lockdown and the economic and social costs requires a wider examination of the evidence.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reasoned Answer. I have absolutely no idea whether these conclusions are correct, but does my noble friend think that the formulation of government medical policy should be influenced by a wider range of scientific advice, such as that from the authors of this paper, rather than by the narrow focus of SAGE? This is epitomised by the discredited Neil Ferguson. Is he an ex-member? I cannot quite remember. He is still dragged out by the BBC to spread inaccurate gloom and doom. Can my noble friend also confirm that the Chief Medical Officer, at the Cabinet meeting on 8 December, predicted that without further lockdown by new year London would be like Lombardy was in March 2020?

Before I answer any further questions, I should draw Members’ attention to my registered interests and more specifically to the fact that, when I was the academic research director of a think tank, I invited one of the authors of the paper to speak at an academic webinar. In fact, he did not speak on this issue; he spoke on Lebanese currency—quite different issues, as noble Lords can imagine.

I say in response to my noble friend that what is important is that we look not only at the epidemiological evidence and the medical evidence but, in considering government policy, at the wider range of social, economic and other factors. For example, even within clinical decisions, there were some asking for lockdown in order to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed, but that was counterbalanced by mental health experts who were very concerned about the impact on mental health. As my noble friend will know, there are also trade-offs with the economy and other issues.

Would the Minister agree that smoking causes cancer, that the earth is round and that, in a pandemic caused by a respiratory virus, asking people to stay at home at the height of the pandemic reduces transmission of infection? Furthermore, would he agree that meta-analysis is the right way to look at randomised control trials and how they perform but not the ideal method to look at observational studies, as referred to in the Question?

The noble Lord makes important points. If we look at the history of the debate about the world being round, at one time scientists believed that the world was flat. Because of scepticism and contestability in science, we have been able to come to the conclusion that the world is round. That shows the importance of science being contestable and of having an open debate.

On the issue of Covid and mortality, does the Minister have a view about the allegations made in the BBC2 documentary last night that there were hundreds of thousands of excess deaths because of the business and political attacks on the AstraZeneca vaccine in the early days? The fact is that its non-profit system did not suit the drug industry’s business plan. The massive allegation that, because of this failure, hundreds of thousands of extra people died, clearly ought to be investigated.

I apologise to the noble Lord. I did not see the programme last night. I was swatting up for the Health and Social Care Bill debate today and for this Question. The noble Lord refers to an important point. We should not forget not only the contribution that the research community made towards those vaccines, but also that AstraZeneca was prepared to supply, commercialise and distribute them on a not-for-profit basis. Sadly, it was attacked for doing so, not just for commercial reasons, but also by other countries that engaged in vaccine nationalism and disparaged the efficacy of the vaccine. Unfortunately, people in other countries have lost out. I hope that we do not see this in future.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, has indicated her wish to speak. This may be a convenient moment.

My Lords, this paper’s economist authors admit that it reflects their opinions. Extraordinarily, they chose to exclude the most recognised epidemiological research on excess deaths. It is not even peer-reviewed. The conclusions are contradictory to the established annual excess death protocols, published for years by the ONS and other national statistical agencies around the world. Which data should scientists advising the Government and Ministers rely on when making decisions about lockdown?

The noble Baroness makes some important points about the meta-analysis in the paper. Undue attention has been given to one paper out of 34 studies. While I am answering the noble Baroness, I will refer to an earlier question. In academia there is a huge debate about meta-analysis in all sorts of fields. The question is what other research should be analysed with meta-analysis. This continues to be an issue of debate among academics in many disciplines.

My Lords, I want to follow on from what the noble Lord, Lord Patel, said. The World Health Organization’s authoritative and in-depth research shows the effectiveness of large-scale social distancing measures and movement restrictions—ie lockdown—in slowing down Covid-19 transmissions because they limit contacts between people. Is it not far better to work on the basis of this evidence, as well as our own much-respected evidence from the CMO and his team, rather than a non-peer-reviewed paper from an American think tank?

Once again, the noble Baroness makes the point that this paper has not been peer-reviewed. That is an important consideration. The Government were quite clear that they introduced measures including lockdown—in the face of some opposition, but with the support of the Benches opposite—because, on the balance of epidemiological and other evidence, it was important to prevent and reduce the risk of transmission of the disease.

My Lords, many decisions taken during this pandemic led to unintended consequences across the board. Apart from the devastating economic impact on business and industry, the children of the United Kingdom were most badly affected. Mental health problems escalated, particularly due to lockdowns. I hope that I never live to see another lockdown in this country. Can the Minister tell the House exactly what the NHS is doing to address this particular issue?

My noble friend raises an important issue about the trade-offs that had to be considered when the Government announced the lockdown and plan A measures. They also announced measures to restrict the transmission of the disease. Costs and benefits had to be weighed up. It was often a nuanced decision. We are clear about the backlog in tackling mental health issues. In debates on the Health and Social Care Bill, many noble Lords across the House have expressed the importance of tackling mental health issues in this country. We hope to put that at the forefront of future health policy.

My Lords, all papers with modelled counterfactuals are excluded from the report mentioned in the noble Lord’s Question. As this is the most common method used in infectious disease assessments, does the Minister agree that this has the practical effect of excluding most epidemiological research from the review?

Had I still been in academia and was asked to referee this paper for a journal, I would have pointed out a number of issues, including the focus and bias on one particular study, for example, and the studies that were excluded without justifying why.

My Lords, I understand that the rules on replying to Questions mean that there is not enough time for the Minister to explain everything which is wrong with this particular paper. Does he agree that it would be useful to draw your Lordships’ attention to the work of the Science Media Centre, which has provided a comprehensive explanation of its deficiencies?

If the noble Lord would like to write to me with details of that paper, I would be happy to share it with other noble Lords.

My Lords, 54 health professionals have urged the Commons Public Administration Committee to conduct an inquiry into government use of covert psychological strategies, particularly in Covid messaging, which raise significant ethical issues, including the need to obtain consent. What is the Government’s response to growing evidence of fear inflation and social division due to the equating of compliance with virtue and use of peer pressure to ensure conformity with lockdown and other Covid restrictions?

I thank my noble friend for giving me advance warning of his question. The British Psychological Society’s ethics committee has been approached on this topic and has provided a response that has been published in online articles by the authors of the recent letter. Overall, the BPS concludes that it believes that the contribution of psychologists in response to the pandemic was entirely consistent with the BPS code of ethics and conduct, demonstrating social responsibility and the competent and responsible employment of psychological experience.