Is it too early to come out of lockdown?

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

Understandably, there is still some nervousness about whether or not we should be coming out of the current lockdown just yet or whether it is too soon.  I thought it might be helpful to have a look at the available data.

The key information is as follows.  First of all, the rolling 7 day average of cases peaked on the 1st January 2021 at 61,267.9.  The peak included a spike in positive tests just after Christmas with the 29th December accounting for 81,546 cases and the 30th December for 70,821.  On the days either side there had been 45,651 cases (28th December) and 52,808 on the 31st December. There were further spikes in cases on the 4th and 5th January.[1]  It is possible that those data spikes suggest a mixture of catch up from the bank holiday periods but also given the apparent trends that there may have been specific spikes linked to Christmas/New Year. In terms of hospitalisations, these peaked around the 13th December and deaths around about the 18th January.

It is worth noting that in the first wave that deaths peaked on the 8th April 2020.  This was just two weeks after the first lockdown was imposed on the 23rd March.[2]  At that stage, the UK did not have as extensive a testing programme in place so it is difficult to compare the pattern in terms of reported cases. However, given that there appears to be a two week lag time for deaths hospitalisations and deaths, this would suggest that the first lockdown came into effect after the peak in cases. 

It is data like this that has caused some to question whether or not the form of lockdowns we have seen in the UK were as effective a part in the fight against the pandemic or whether social distancing, improved hygiene (hand washing), face masks and the self isolation of sufferers have in fact been the primary methods for reducing the transmission of the disease.   It is worth noting that we have not had lockdown measures that have completely eliminated transmission and so it is worth considering that there are substantial sections of the community that for whatever reason have not been able to follow the “stay at home” instruction. That will include of course key workers and their children as well as factory and office workers  in contexts where working from home was not possible.  It is possible however that lockdown has helped to speed up the reduction in transmission and cases that ws already happening.

The next bit of interesting data concerns the way that the virus has affected the population by age category.  Please have a look at these two tweets containing data graphs first for deaths and then for hospitalisations. I’m currently trying to track down the original sources. 

What the data shows is that there is a significant drop off in mortality rates under the age of 65 and therefore outside of the top 4 priority groups already vaccinated. Whilst hospitalisations continue to be high for over 50s, it is worth noting that mortality is significantly lower and it is not clear from these graphs whether the data includes those with underlying health conditions which would already have been included in the vaccination programme. Given that the vaccine reduces substantially the risk of serious illness and deaths, we can expect to see a significant curtailment of serious cases and death in those categories where the vaccine has been offered and therefore in the overall hospitalisation and death rate.

It is worth noting that the Government appear to be about to propose a gentle pace in terms of the lifting of lockdown and the other measures so that the particularly effective measures involving social distancing will continue to remain in place until the vaccination programme has captured a wider spread of the population.

The data we have appears to point to us moving out of lockdown now being a low risk if the aim of such measures was, as declared, to primarily protect the NHS’s capacity and not to attempt a zero COVID policy.  It the aim had been zero COVID, we would have in any case needed to follow a radically different approach including full close of borders and total lockdown of the population without the significant number of exemptions currently available as well as stricter enforcement.  Whether we should have followed such a policy will no doubt be debated for many years to come but the take home message is that with older and more vulnerable generations now vaccinated and cases falling for the past 6 weeks, it does look like we should be able to move out of lockdown without a significant fear of having to return to such measures again.


[1] Cases | Coronavirus in the UK (data.gov.uk)

[2] Deaths | Coronavirus in the UK (data.gov.uk)