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The authors hope the study will contribute to the debate regarding school and workplace closures and other dimensions of lockdowns in Europe and beyond. Image: Gareth Willey/Shutterstock

Full lockdowns ‘may be unnecessary’ as study finds voluntary actions played vital role in cutting COVID deaths

Voluntary curbs on movement and travel before governments first imposed national lockdowns helped cut Covid death rates almost as effectively as the lockdown measures themselves, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Exeter Business School tracked different government interventions in 13 European countries – including the UK – during first national lockdowns from March to May last year.

They then predicted each measure’s impact on death rates by measuring the decline in deaths after 16-21 days, the estimated sum of the COVID-19 incubation period and the time between symptom onset and death.

The researchers found lockdowns across 13 European countries made daily death rates fall by 14 percentage points, but choosing to go out less before lockdowns were in place was almost as effective, causing a 9.2 percentage point decline in deaths.

The authors also focused on how school closures, travel restrictions and other measures helped death rates to decline.

They found that restrictions on travel (national and international) saw deaths fall 7.6 percentage points, cancelling large public events caused a 5.7 percentage point decline and closing workplaces had a 4.7 percentage point impact.

By contrast, school closures and stay-at-home orders had a far less significant impact, causing deaths to decline by just 2 and 2.8 percentage points respectively.

The research shows that voluntary measures to reduce mobility before lockdown were more effective in reducing the death rate than any individual government closure measure.

The study tracked the different government interventions using the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, which provides dates and intensities for multiple categories of government policies across the globe.

Decline in mobility before national lockdowns were put in place was measured using Google’s Community Mobility Reports, which assess physical mobility.

These findings were then compared to a pre-crisis base level within each country.

The authors hope the study will contribute to the debate regarding school and workplace closures and other dimensions of lockdowns in Europe and beyond.

Lead author Professor Julian Jamison, Professor of Economics at the University of Exeter Business School, said: “Our results suggest that strict wide-ranging formal shutdowns – which are especially burdensome and sometimes infeasible for low-income individuals and populations – may be unnecessary to control the spread of the disease.

“Rather, a combination of people voluntarily and flexibly protecting themselves (enhanced by the provision of concrete actionable guidance) along with targeted centralised measures such as intercity travel restrictions and banning large public events, can curtail the exponential growth of the pandemic while avoiding the major human and economic costs of full lockdowns.”

The countries included in the study were Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.

Comparing the impact on COVID-19 mortality of self-imposed behavior change and of government regulations across 13 countries is published in Health Services Research.

Date: 8 July 2021

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