Strict lockdown regulations in the UK and a number of other European countries probably prevented an additional 3-million deaths, a new study by the Imperial College London says.
Scientists at the public research university believe that restrictions such as forcing populations to stay at home helped to bring the spread of the highly contagious virus under control.
Eleven countries implemented strict measures
They estimate that around 3.1-million deaths were averted by the tough policies in Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Belgium, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. In the UK alone, approximately 470 000 additional fatalities were avoided.
According to The Guardian newspaper, lockdowns slashed the average number of people that contagious individuals infected by a massive 81%.
Lockdown at the end of March reduced the reproductive number of the UK epidemic from 3.8 to 0.63, the scientists calculated. The reproduction number, sometimes simply referred to as ‘R’, is a way of rating a disease’s ability to spread and is the average number of people that one infected person will pass the virus on to.
A BBC report explains that if the reproduction number is higher than one, then the number of cases increases exponentially and it snowballs like debt on an unpaid credit card. But if the number is lower, the disease will eventually peter out as not enough new people are being infected to sustain the outbreak.
Non-pharmaceutical interventions had massive impact
To obtain its findings, the Imperial College scientists pooled data on COVID-19 deaths from the 11 European countries and worked backwards to calculate the extent of transmission several weeks earlier, to account for the time lag between infections and deaths.
“Our results show that major non-pharmaceutical interventions, and lockdown in particular, have had a large effect on reducing transmission,” the authors said in the study published in Nature, a weekly international journal publishing peer-reviewed research in all fields of science and technology.
“Continued intervention should be considered to keep transmission of SARS-CoV-2 under control.”
But we’re still a long way from herd immunity
However, the positive news in the study comes with a warning.
“Our model estimates that we are very far away from herd immunity,” said Axel Gandy, a professor of statistics at Imperial College and co-author on the study. Herd immunity is achieved when enough people are immune to a virus that outbreaks die out naturally. In the case of COVID-19, scientists believe upwards of 70% of the population would need to be resistant for herd immunity to kick in.
“It tells us we need to be very careful and not to release too much in one go, because then you have no control,” Gandy said. “We need to tread very carefully and do things slowly, so we can backtrack should they not work.”