England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, has said that the lockdown or social distancing may last a year. He should wait for data before making such economically damaging comments.
(a) The Lancet of 30 March suggests that the death rate for those under 60 who have been clinically diagnosed with Covid-19 is 0.32 percent (or three per 1,000) and 11 percent for those over 801
(b) data from two research groups in California suggest the infection rate may be (i) 50 to 80 times or (ii) 28 to 55 times higher than the official case count2
So, if, following the Californian studies, we (very conservatively) assume the infection rate is 20 times higher than officially recorded, then the death rates per infection amount to 1.5 per 10,000 for the under 60s, and one per 200 among the over 80s. It’s against those numbers that questions about the lockdown policy should be judged.
However, since the studies cited above are preliminary and since the data may not apply globally, or to the UK in particular, a priority should be a UK survey to find the deaths per infection, subdivided by age. Only then should the professor speak, or rather, advise the Government so that it may speak, and only then when the economic effects of a prolonged lockdown are understood.
The subdivision by age may be particularly important. For example, I’ve heard that 90 per cent of deaths are among the aged and that most of them have pre-existing health conditions. If so, the net effect of Covid-19 will be to end lives a few months prematurely, leading to a trivial effect on annual death rates. Likewise, we need to know the extent to which those who have contracted Covid-19 may catch it again, or carry it.
The Government says it will be guided by the science. Without data, however, there is no science. Instead of bleating when Sir Keir Starmer or others ask about an exit timetable, the Government should say that the timetable cannot be developed in the absence of data, as above, and that data is being collected as fast as possible.
That said, one could support the present policy in so far as it is intended to avoid the NHS being overwhelmed. Even so, Sweden’s relaxed approach has lead to a lower death rate than the UK’s3, perhaps because of lower population densities. Who knows?
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