Was the Leicester lockdown necessary ?

Every time there is an increase in coronavirus cases in a local area, a local lockdown seems to be inevitiable, as we have seen in recent weeks. However, the question has to be asked – do they actually serve any purpose other than being seriously damaging to local businesses and the community? One month on from the first such lockdown in Leicester, we now have enough data to make an assessment.

Matt Hancock announced the new lockdown measures for Leicester would start from Tuesday 30th June. Note though that, given a 5-7 day period before symptoms develop, the earliest time at which we could observe any effect of the new lockdown measures in new cases data would be about the 5th July.

The graph shows the development of new cases by test date using the 7-day average (as testing is subject to day-of-the-week effects).  New cases peaked on the 24 June implying infections peaked 5-7 days earlier, at least 10 days before the new lockdown was even announced. By the 4th July, still before lockdown could have shown any impact, new cases were down by 28%.

Quite a few new cases were found from tests on 5th & 6th July meaning the average ticked up a little. Although it might be tempting to suggest that uptick was caused by the lockdown itself, more likely it simply reflected the intensive testing efforts going on. In any case, it is clear that infections were decreasing well before the lockdown measures were announced, a conclusion backed up by the NHS 111 triage data.

Of course the real concern with outbreaks is that really serious cases will result in hospitalisation or even death. Local hospitalisation figures are not publicly available but the Public Health England Rapid Investigation Team report on 29th June 2020 confirmed that admissions had “remained steady at between 6 and 10 new COVID-19 confirmed admissions per day over the last 4 weeks.” In other words, at the time Matt Hancock made his announcement, there was no indication that local health services were likely to be overwhelmed; and they never became remotely so, despite the terrifying-looking charts showing surges of new cases. (As Freddie Sayers pointed out on these pages at the time, most of those new cases were young people).

As with elsewhere, this is partly increased testing identifying a greater number of hidden cases (the report’s authors acknowledge that they can’t be sure there’s been any surge at all), but it could also be to do with protests, relaxing lockdown rules, or many other things. Whatever the reason, it should mean that the “frightening surge” of case numbers in Leicester won’t translate to a commensurate surge in hospitalisations and deaths.

Deaths are a lagging indicator, happening on average perhaps 20 days after infection. The 7-day average for Leicester hospitals did increase to just under 2 deaths per day by 24th June. Deaths then decreased from the 26th June (albeit with some fits and starts) to an average well below 1 death per day by the end of July.

It is impossible entirely to exclude the possibility that the local lockdown helped cases come down faster than would otherwise have been the case, though there is little indication of that in the data. What we can say with some certainty is that the lockdown restrictions were not required to get the situation in Leicester under control.

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