Shropshire Star

Recalling the shock of Britain's lockdown three years on

It was like going back in time to the 1970s, when the prime ministers of the day would routinely brief the nation on the latest crises.

Boris Johnson announces the first lockdown

Clearly out of his comfort zone, Boris Johnson spoke a sombre, methodical tone as he warned about the dangers of the coronavirus overhwhelming the NHS.

"From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home," he said.

It is three years today since the Government imposed the UK's first lockdown, a concept which until a few months ago had been the preserve of gung-ho American action films.

And now, the normally cheery, liberty-loving Prime Minister was imposing the most draconian constraints on our freedoms since the Second World War.

During the months before, reports had filtered through about the strange measures imposed in Communist China, with pictures of eerie, deserted streets, and anguished-looking people cooped up in grim tower blocks. But this was surely the over-reaction of an authoritarian state. It couldn't happen here – could it?

Mr Johnson's announcement was followed by a brief flurry of people flocking to the pub for one last time before the restrictions kicked in. Many pubs, bars and restaurants would never open again.

What followed was a surreal experience unlike anything most people in the UK had experienced before. Anybody wandering the streets was liable to be stopped by police and asked why they were out the house. All shops bar those deemed 'essential' were ordered to stay shut. Long queues built up outside supermarkets as tough social-distancing measures were imposed. A wave of panic-buying saw shops run out of toilet rolls and soap, while profiteers created an online black market of essential supplies.

It marked the beginning of 16 months of work-from-home orders, school closures and border closures.

It later emerged Johnson was hesitant about introducing the measures too early, fearing a time-limit on the public's willingness to cooperate. There was debate inside government about whether a strict lockdown, which would delay the spread in the short term, or a more laissez-faire approach which would help build up a 'herd immunity', was the most effective approach to fighting the virus.

The initial lockdown lasted for three months, and the public were surprisingly compliant. But support took a battering in May, when it emerged top government adviser Dominic Cummings had been spoken to by police for travelling to Durham within days of restrictions being announced.

The Cummings scandal had severe repercussions for both the man himself, and the Prime Minister, who would later himself be found to have breached his own rules. Cummings didn't help his cause with an unapologetic press conference from the garden in Downing Street, and claiming that he drove to Barnard Castle to 'test his eyesight'.

The following months were marked by attempts to relax the rules, and imposing 'social distancing' measures as pubs, restaurants and shops were allowed to reopen. As was the case around the world, it became apparent that while lockdowns would suppress the infection – and death rates – while in place, infection rates would quickly shoot up the moment they were lifted.

Attempts to introduce regional tiers depending on infection rates had limited success, as people started travelling between different areas. In some areas, pubs were allowed to open for dining only, resulting in landlords serving up platefuls of pork scratchings in an attempt to get round the rules. This reached a state of farce in October when police in Manchester started measuring the diameter of pizzas to determine whether they constituted a 'substantial' meal.

A month-long national lockdown in November was followed by another attempt at local tiers, but this coincided with the emergence of a new, more infectious variant. The tier system effectively collapsed at the end of the year when 75 per cent of the country found itself subject to the strictest measures, and a third national lockdown was called.

December, though, also saw light at the end of the tunnel as 90-year-old Coventry grandmother Maggie Keenan became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer vaccine to fight the virus. A mass inoculation programme saw the threat recede, and most restrictions were lifted by July 2021.

Three years on, debate still rages about how effective the lockdowns actually were. That it contained the virus while the vaccines were developed is not in doubt, but critics point out that Sweden, which had no formal lockdown policy, did not suffer a notably worse overall death rate compared to other European countries.

Prof Robert Dingwall, who helped draft the UK’s pandemic plans more than 20 years ago, is sceptical. He says any lives saved came at a high price in terms of other areas of health care.

"During the pandemic, the obsession with a single disease and a single cause of death has led to and will continue to lead to death from other causes downstream," he says.

"This includes untreated cancers, diabetes, heart disease, poverty-related deaths, addictions, as well as harm and premature deaths from the societal and economic damage caused by those policies."

He questions whether the warnings about hospitals being overrun was over-estimated.

"Hospitals only ever approached capacity and the Nightingale facilities were never used," he says. "We still do not have evidence that lockdown made any difference to death rates compared with a more voluntary approach adopted in Sweden. No evidence has been published subsequently to justify a lockdown strategy - this was all based on assumptions."

He says little real data was gathered about which aspects of the lockdown worked, and which didn't, leaving us little better informed for future pandemics.

Prof Amitava Banerjee, a data science expert at the University of London advised chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty at the start of the pandemic, says without the first lockdown there would have been thousands more deaths.

“The first lockdown was necessary," he says. "There was little credible alternative for protecting the high-risk population such as those with heart disease and lung disease. We did not have good treatments and we did not have a vaccine for Covid.

"But by the second lockdown, we should have been able to think more broadly about the indirect effects of lockdown on mental health and cancers among other things which were unforeseen.

"However, lockdowns were still needed to make sure we had hospital capacity.”

Dr Nick Tindall, a retired GP who is chairman of the Cottage Care day centre in Newport, says it was the elderly who had suffered most. Many, until very recently, had still been very reticent about getting back to normality.

He paid tribute to how those in the care service had adapted to the constantly changing rules.

Dr Tindall says elderly people's confidence also took a dent.

"They were told, quite rightly, that they were the most vulnerable in our community and there was more fear among individuals," he says.

"I think we are gradually getting back to a feeling of normality."