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From the very initial stages of the Coronavirus crisis, the nation has had its eyes glued to the Government’s health charts, looking out for when the “peak” arrives. This term can mean a number of things, such as death rates, a rise in new infections and the number of active cases, but is often used to describe an increase in new infections.

The Government and its advisers have made various estimations about when the peak occurred. Matt Hancock, for instance, said that the UK was “at the peak” of the outbreak on April 22; three days later Professor Stephen Powis, National Medical Director for England, said the number of new cases was “fairly stable”, and on April 30 Boris Johnson declared that the nation had “come through the peak”.

The reality of the matter, however, is that the peak, like many areas of Coronavirus, is the subject of considerable academic debate, along with the question of whether lockdown was timed correctly.

For one, it’s not obvious if there is a “peak”, per se – in other words, a definitive rise across Covid-19 rates. Deaths in all settings, as one example, has fluctuated quite clearly on Government graphs – take April 30, for instance (when the UK was supposed to be over the peak), hence why Government advisers have also plotted a seven-day moving average. 

Some university scientists have tried to plot the peak, and there have been conflicting estimates of when this came. Researchers from the University of Oxford, for instance, concluded that Britain passed the peak in hospital deaths on April 8 in London, four days ahead of the rest of the country.

The University of Bristol, too, has studied Coronavirus death rates and estimated that the most fatalities occurred on April 8, and that the victims would have been first infected around March 18-19. This was four days before the UK lockdown was launched. Professor Simon Wood, who ran the study, said that: “the currently most reliable data strongly suggest that the decline in infections in England and Wales began before lockdown.”

The added complication to all this is – as an aside – is that Covid-19 data is harder to compile than the public is led to believe. Countries have measured Coronavirus rates in different ways – from how deaths are recorded to the inclusion of care home data – and they will also have had lags in when the death occurred, versus when it was recorded. This makes every estimation tricky, and could mean we see data changing over time, as it is updated and differences in recordings across countries are smoothed over.

Even so, scientists are able to make fairly reasonable estimates from the data of when cases and death rates shot up, and how that timing related to lockdown, and Bristol and Oxford’s reports will add to concerns that the UK did not intercept the peak.

It is worth saying at this point that this will not be a UK-limited issue; given how many unknowns there are about the virus, plotting the “correct” lockdown date was almost impossible for all governments, which also had to factor in how long people could handle self-isolation. The countries that locked down before their peak look ostensibly better prepared, but could suffer worse recurrences of the virus and/ or tougher economic consequences. No one knows what will happen over the next few years.

ConservativeHome has never taken any strong views on “the best” way to manage Coronavirus, nor tried to forecast how it will play out, as even the finest scientists in the world have conflicting opinions and admit the limits of their knowledge. Governmental decisions have to be understood in the context of what advisers knew at the time.

What has astonished this site, however, is the absolute certainty some members of the media have had in deciding what course of action the UK should have taken. A quick lockdown has always been put forward as the right – and moral – thing to do.

Lockdown seems, of course, the most obvious way to stop Coronavirus. Occam’s razor tells us if you stop people interacting, they will not give each other the virus, and it looks at least to have worked in some countries (although the aforementioned point around recurrence still stands). But only complex analyses will unravel its effectiveness as an intervention.

For one, some scientists have said that Coronavirus has a natural peak and decline, regardless of whether a government imposes a lockdown – hence why Sweden, which avoided the intervention, has shown the same shape in Covid-19 rates that we have seen everywhere (albeit at different levels and speeds).

People often believe lockdown causes the decline – the Government has repeatedly told UK citizens that we are “flattening the curve” – but it may be a case of attribution bias. Scientists need to examine the evidence fully.

When they do this, they will be trying to answer questions like: how much of the drop in Covid-19 cases would have come down on their own? How did the timing of lockdown effect Coronavirus rates? And is some of the drop in cases actually a result of people’s natural tendency to socially distance, as opposed to lockdown? The list of considerations is quite long.

Moreover, scientists could even ask if lockdown facilitated infection rates. This seems a controversial idea, but let’s play devil’s advocate. Imagine the activity that would have taken place when governments asked their citizens to quickly find somewhere to lockdown. This no doubt created a flurry of panicked movement, and a fair few people in cities bolted for their country homes. What if this moved the virus about?

In essence, there is still much to know about Coronavirus, in every respect. We do not even really know what questions will be asked at the inquiry expected to take place one day, when the pandemic seems to be over. They could look radically different from the loudest question currently – “why didn’t you lockdown earlier?” Who knows; perhaps with more research, the chorus of “why did you lockdown at all?” will grow louder.

91 comments for: Research suggests lockdown came after the peak. But that doesn’t make the armchair epidemiologists right.

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