LOCKDOWNS are “unlikely to be causing harms more extreme than the pandemic itself”, according to researchers.

Public health scientists writing in the journal BMJ Global Health challenged the claim made by lockdown sceptics that the “cure is worse than the disease”, arguing that no country which imposed lockdowns and also kept Covid cases low experienced excess mortality “which is what we would expect if lockdowns were independently causing large numbers of short-term deaths”.

The analysis, carried out by researchers from Australia, Denmark and the US, comes amid warnings that the lifting of restrictions across the UK - especially in England - will cause a surge in infections at a time when the NHS is also balancing record waiting lists for treatment delayed during the pandemic.

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The authors note that New Zealand and Australia, which imposed a strict border controls early in the pandemic and squashed community outbreaks with a series of short localised lockdowns, “experienced no excess mortality during 2020”.

The World Mortality Dataset - a comprehensive breakdown of annual deaths from all causes by country - shows that Covid restrictions “may reduce annual mortality by 3–6% from eliminating influenza transmission alone”, with data from Peru showing that lockdowns also tended to cut car crash deaths in the short-term.

HeraldScotland: Source: BMJ Global HealthSource: BMJ Global Health

By contrast, countries such as Brazil, Sweden, Russia and some parts of the US which imposed few Covid restrictions “have had large numbers of excess deaths throughout the pandemic”.

They note that in Manaus, Brazil - which was engulfed by the P1 variant - “Covid-19 spread was largely unmitigated and as of 15 March 2021 more than 10% of the entire population aged over 85 years had died of Covid-19”.

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However, the authors note that the UK has experienced both prolonged lockdowns and high excess deaths.

They write: “Comparing the UK and Sweden, for example, does not show a clear benefit of lockdowns in terms of excess mortality (the UK imposed three national lockdowns, yet both countries had very severe impacts)...[but] what is clear is that locations that locked down without experiencing large epidemics of Covid-19 (eg, Australia, New Zealand) did not have large numbers of excess deaths.”

The UK has been repeatedly criticised for “leaky” border controls, being to slow to lock down, and for failures in test, trace and isolate regimes.

Scotland has recorded more than 8,500 excess deaths since the beginning of 2020.

The authors concede that while there is “abundant evidence that mental health has declined”, it is “extremely challenging” to link that directly with lockdown interventions as opposed to the stresses of the pandemic itself, including the burden of bereavement and anxieties over personal risk of infection.

They add that there is “consistent and robust evidence from many countries that government interventions to control Covid-19 have not been associated with increased deaths from suicide”.

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Evidence also does not “reliably or consistently” support the claim that lockdowns - as opposed to large Covid outbreaks - limit access to healthcare services.

They write: “There is clearly an association between large outbreaks of Covid-19, government interventions and reductions in attendance for vital no-Covid health services, and thus the connection between lockdowns and missed contact with health systems is very well established.

"However, this association may be related to lack of capacity of healthcare services or impacts of the pandemic itself.”

The authors acknowledge fears that missed cancer screenings could lead to excess cancer deaths in future , but caution that while lockdowns may “disincentivise people from going to routine screenings” so would “overwhelmed health services or a high perceived risk of infection at health facilities.”