Devi Sridhar: Lockdowns 'are not the answer'

Britain should have followed the example of east Asia and the Pacific in suppressing the virus and returning to a ‘semblance of normal life’, a leading public health expert has warned.

Saturday, 10th October 2020, 1:40 pm
Updated Saturday, 10th October 2020, 2:29 pm
Devi Sridhar believes we sholuld look to suppress the virus.
Devi Sridhar believes we sholuld look to suppress the virus.

Devi Sridhar, professor of public health at Edinburgh University, said that continual lockdowns are not the way to bring Coronavirus under control – and instead, countries should look to suppress it and manage its spread through effective contact tracing.

Scotland had a “zero covid” policy and was close to suppressing the disease in the summer months, but cases have risen rapidly since September.

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Writing in The Guardian, she pointed to countries such as Taiwan, New Zealand and China, where the virus originated, but has seen just 4,634 deaths.

She said: “Daily life within these places has largely returned to normal. Compared to other countries, they have faced minimal economic damage. In fact, Taiwan never even had a lockdown, while lockdown measures in Vietnam, New Zealand and China were early, short and sharp.”

She said the mistake had been that the UK initially treated the virus “like flu” and allowed it to run through the population.

She added that rather than replacing harsh lockdown measures with a functioning testing and tracing strategy, switching from quarantining the population to only quarantining those who had been exposed to the virus, the UK lifted restrictions without an effective fallback.

She said: “The answer cannot just be locking down continually, given the large economic and social costs this involves. A recent Lancet peer-reviewed paper, which I co-authored, examined international lessons from easing lockdown and identified three key elements that are essential for bringing the virus under control.

“Most important is a robust system for testing, tracing and isolating, where test results are returned within 24 hours, at least 80 per cent of people’s contacts are reached and there is high adherence to a rule of 14 days’ isolation for those exposed to the virus. Strong public health guidance on avoiding the virus at any age is needed, encouraging people to get outside as much as possible, to avoid indoor, crowded and poorly ventilated spaces, and to use face coverings and distancing wherever possible. And we need strict border measures to prevent the virus from being reimported, instead of our current system that is lax and poorly monitored.”

She said instead of implementing strict border measures like New Zealdn, which is closed to all but returning citizens of its country, the UK Government had encouraged people to take foreign holidays, re-introducing the virus to the UK from elsewhere.

She said: “Herd immunity” is illusory – we have no idea whether immunity from Covid is long-lasting, so it’s unlikely we’d reach a position where people who were shielding could safely emerge. After decades, we don’t have herd immunity to cholera, yellow fever, polio, measles, TB, malaria or plague. Public health measures were used to control their spread until vaccines or elimination strategies were developed.

“This pandemic is still in its first or second chapter. Waiting for the virus to magically disappear, allowing it to run its course through society, or imposing continual lockdown measures without a clear strategy beyond waiting for a vaccine are all suboptimal choices that will damage our health, our economy and our society.”

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