Friday, 26 February 2021

The lockdown debate with Toby Young

I had an hour long debate about lockdown policy with Toby Young on TalkRadio yesterday. You can watch the whole thing below. Apologies for the sound quality a times. Skype didn't seem to work as well Zoom for me in this.

Much of what was discussed has appeared in more detail on this blog before - and also on the Quillette article that started all of this. I expected a disproportionate number of smileys in the online audience so I started off with the basics. SARS-CoV-2 is a virus that spreads from human to human. If humans don't interact with others, it can't spread. The claim that lockdowns don't reduce the number of infections therefore requires extraordinary evidence.

Florida has recently joined Sweden as the place that has supposedly proved that lockdowns don't work. Neither has had a lockdown in the last six months and although they've had a lot of COVID-19 deaths, they haven't had an exceptionally high number. 

There are more restrictions in both Sweden and Florida than the smileys acknowledge. Even if there weren't, it obviously wouldn't prove that lockdowns don't work. At best, it would show that some places can keep cases down to a manageable number level (debatable in the case of Sweden) without resorting to lockdown. 

Good for them. I've always wished Sweden well. If Britain could have kept the virus at a manageable level through voluntary measures, I would have never supported lockdown. The problem is that we could not and manifestly did not. We had reached an NHS-busting level of infections by the end of December - higher than the peaks in both Sweden and Florida pro rata - and suffered the consequences in January. We couldn't sustain those kind of levels, let alone allow them to rise.

It would have been a suicidal gamble for the government to do nothing and simply hope that people would radically change their behaviour of their own accord or that the virus would somehow go away at the start of January. 

I mentioned the Google Mobility data in the debate. I find it fascinating. In Sweden, you can almost see the exact moment at which people's behaviour changed in late December, thereby leading to the decline in cases in January. You can also see the subsequent rise in movement which correlates with the current increase in cases.


This is evidence that people can change their behaviour voluntarily (albeit with a lot of nudging and a few regulations) in a way that brings case numbers down. But there are two things I find particularly interesting about this data.

Firstly, mobility fell to a record low in Sweden in late December. Even the current level is lower than it was last spring when rates were falling. In other words, the kind of behavioural change that was sufficient to bring case numbers down in the spring no longer seems to be enough, presumably because winter makes it less congenial to meet outdoors.

Secondly, look at the graph below, particularly November and December.

In the UK, mobility was more than 30 per cent below normal levels in December and yet rates of infection were rising rapidly. In Sweden, they fell to that level in late December, but that was sufficient to bring rates down. 

This is just one measure of mobility, but all the others show a similar trend and a similar disparity between the two countries. It strongly suggests that even if the British had been able to reduce their mobility to Swedish levels voluntarily, it wouldn't have been enough to stop the rise in infections. This might be because of the B117 virus which is dominant in Britain or it might be something else. It could be any number of things. It is a reminder than Sweden and the UK are different countries. You cannot assume that what happens in one place will happen in another.

As I said in the debate, we tried a more 'Swedish' approach in December and unfortunately it didn't end well.

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