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Edinburgh study shows future measures must avoid prolonging the pandemic

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have concluded that long-term deaths will increase as a result of blanket lockdown measures being reintroduced, having reanalysed government data. In a broad study involving thousands of scientists, the report also suggested that shutting schools would only increase the number of long-term deaths.

Published in the British Medical Journal, the team – led by Professor Graeme Ackland – reanalysed modelling from Imperial College London, crucial in determining the UK government’s decision to go into lockdown. Researchers chose to combine this research with the College’s simulation model, inputting case data as it came in from government.

The University of Edinburgh team found that the Imperial model was largely effective in suppressing an overload of cases at once (widely dubbed ‘flattening the curve’) so as to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed, as was the case in Spain and Italy in March and April of this year.

However, the report warns that without an effective vaccination programme in place, any future lockdown measures may only result in more long-term deaths rather than short-term.

The report goes on to urge a more targeted approach to measures, based on the varying vulnerabilities of different groups in society, as opposed to the ‘blunt instrument’ of lockdown, as referred by the head of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce Kate Bingham.

The report was coordinated by the Royal Society and involved computer experts working from home to make Imperial’s model more widely accessible. Thousands of scientists, working from home, then rewrote and processed the data through supercomputers, as part of the society’s Rapid Assistance for Modelling the Pandemic (RAMP) initiative.

Speaking to the university’s press office, Professor Ackland warned that ‘mitigating a COVID-19 epidemic requires very different strategies from an influenza epidemic’ adding that measures would need to be targeted with ‘more focus on shielding elderly and vulnerable people’.

The news pours more ice on government plans to reopen society once again, which has seen vulnerable people shielding for months, even as governments in Westminster and Holyrood have gradually eased restrictions for most people. 

However, Professor Ackland urged governments to keep schools open despite the need for further measures such as a ‘circuit breaking lockdown’ arguing that the closing of schools in the initial wave ‘left us more vulnerable to subsequent waves of infection’ that would disproportionately target the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.

The study focused on the total number of deaths and did not focus on any subsequent effects of lockdown, several of which cannot be easily quantified, such as overall worsening of people’s mental health, and many which can, but cannot necessarily, be attributed to the virus itself, such as a rise in suicide rates, as well as calls to domestic abuse hotlines.

The study also has its limitations, in assuming the immediate lifting of all restrictions, and assuming the inability to vaccinate the general population for the next few years.

In any event, this study highlights the morbid calculations both regional and central governments are making in determining the economic value of life, and the level of subsequent restrictions to be introduced and eased in different parts of the country. It is highly unlikely that any new measures will be accepted universally, making matters much harder for those in power.

Image Credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr