Did Lockdowns Save Lives?

COVID-19 and Ireland – Part 8

~Part 1~

In the last two articles we saw that there is a plethora of evidence which shows that lockdowns are not only ineffective at containing the spread and impact of covid-19 but also leave a trail of collateral deaths in their wake. And we are not yet finished with these so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions, or NPIs. Those who favour the use of such measures to deal with a supposedly deadly contagion have also argued that the lockdowns saved lives indirectly, in ways that were not expected or intended. In other words, the lockdowns saved lives that would otherwise have been lost even in the absence of a pandemic. For example:

  • Social distancing and other measures taken to contain the spread of the SARS CoV-2 virus also mitigated the spread of other contagious microbes. This led to a significant reduction in the number of deaths from diseases such as influenza and pneumonia.

  • There were significantly fewer vehicles on the roads during the lockdowns. This led to a reduction in the number of traffic fatalities.

  • Many businesses were shut down during the lockdowns, including the majority of construction sites. As a result, there were fewer workplace fatalities.

In Ireland, this argument has been made to account for the alleged fact that fewer people died in the Republic of Ireland in 2020 than in 2019 or 2018.

Other vested interests claim that the lockdowns have reduced influenza deaths and accidental deaths which compensate for the extra COVID-19 deaths and that this explains why the total or excess deaths are not higher in 2020. (Morrissey 7)

Note, in passing, that the Central Statistics Office (CSO) is now claiming that 31,765 deaths were registered in the Republic in 2020, compared to only 31,134 in 2019. It is difficult to square these figures with the data recorded by RIP.ie, which posted 31,276 death notices in 2020 and 32,397 in 2019 (Morrissey 3, data cleaned to remove deaths which occurred outside the Republic of Ireland and duplicate notices). If RIP.ie captures more than 98% of all deaths, as has been claimed by Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan, then the true number of deaths for 2019 and 2020 may be estimated at 33,058 and 31,905 respectively. I do not know how to explain the large discrepancy in the 2019 figures: there were 32,397 death notices according to RIP.ie but only 31,134 registered deaths according to the CSO. This seems to imply that about 1,263 people died in 2019 without their deaths being registered. We will return to this question in a subsequent article.

Meanwhile, is there any merit to the claims that the lockdowns saved lives collaterally?

Road Deaths in 2020

Road Deaths

During the lockdowns, the volume of traffic on Irish roads was significantly reduced, with estimates of the reduction varying from as little as 30% on average to as much as 70% during the first lockdown in the spring of 2020.

Statistics on road deaths in the Republic are compiled every year by the Road Safety Authority:

Last year (2020) saw an increase in road deaths. 148 fatalities compared with 140 in 2019. This data is provisional and correct as of 2 February 2021.

In the Republic, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) compiles annual summaries of vital statistics. These include breakdowns of all fatalities by cause of death. Curiously, the CSO’s annual reports for 2019 and 2020 give very different figures for road deaths. According to the CSO, there were 72 transport fatalities in 2019 and 90 in 2020. I have no idea why there is such a disparity between the figures provided by these two government bodies. Nevertheless, both sources record an increase in road deaths during the lockdowns.

Therefore, despite the fact that there were substantially fewer vehicles on the roads in 2020, eight more people died on the roads in 2020 than in 2019 according to the RSA. And if we use the CSO’s figures, there were eighteen more fatalities in 2020. Either way, the lockdowns were accompanied by an increase in traffic fatalities.

How could this be? I can only speculate. In the Republic of Ireland, most road deaths occur on rural roads and many involve a single vehicle. Speeding is probably the commonest cause of these single-vehicle deaths. Because there was significantly less traffic on our roads in 2020 compared to previous years, those drivers who were out and about often had the roads all to themselves. This may have resulted in an increase in speeding, leading to an increase in road deaths.

Workplace Deaths in 2020

Workplace Deaths

In the Republic, the Health and Safety Authority is charged with keeping track of fatalities in the workplace. Their Annual Review of Workplace Injuries, Illnesses and Fatalities 2019–2020 does not make for pleasant reading:

There were 53 work-related fatal incidents in 2020. This is an increase from the 47 fatal incidents in 2019, and the highest number of fatal incidents since 56 were recorded in 2015.

These results are eerily similar to the road-death statistics. Despite the shutting down of many factories and construction sites in 2020, there was a 12.7% increase in workplace deaths. And even in the construction industry, the number of fatalities increased from 12 to 15. The only significant decrease occurred in the transportation and storage sector, which saw a drop in the number of fatalities from 6 to 2.

What is the explanation of these curious statistics? Again, I can only speculate. Between 2016 and 2020, approximately half of all workplace fatalities in Ireland occurred in Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing. For the most part, the lockdowns did not affect this sector of the economy. Because they are involved in the production of food, agriculture and fishing were considered essential businesses under the lockdown legislation and were allowed to remain open:

Of 53 work-related fatal incidents, 23 (43.4%) occurred in Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing alone, while 15 (28.3%) occurred in Construction. For Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing, this follows a similar pattern to recent years with half of all fatal incidents in the five-year period since 2016 occurring in this sector. (Annual Review of Workplace Injuries, Illnesses and Fatalities 2019–2020 7)

Another factor to take into account is the number of fatalities among the self-employed, who continued to work through the lockdowns:

More than half of all fatal incidents in 2020 occurred to self-employed people (28), with 12 fatalities occurring to employees and 13 to non-workers. (Annual Review of Workplace Injuries, Illnesses and Fatalities 2019–2020 7)

Respiratory Deaths in 2019 and 2020 (CSO)

Influenza

In recent months, the mainstream media have been reporting that influenza appears to have vanished from the face of the world? Some people have even claimed that measures like mask-wearing, social distancing, and hand and surface sanitation are responsible for this unforeseen blessing. Is this true? Can we trust these reports?

Turning again to the CSO’s Vital Statistics Yearly Summaries, we see that there were 51 influenza deaths in 2019 and 99 in 2020—an increase of 94%. Clearly, influenza did not disappear from Ireland in the wake of covid-19. What’s more, the lockdown measures do not appear to have mitigated the impact of influenza.

The figures for pneumonia are a little more heartening. There were 980 deaths in 2019, but only 792 in 2020—a decrease of 19%.

There was also a 9% reduction in the number of deaths due to “Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease” from 1767 to 1601. But as these are non-infectious diseases of the lungs (eg asthma, COPD), it is debatable whether measures taken to mitigate the transmission of a contagious pathogen could be responsible for this reduction.

Other diseases of the respiratory system saw a similar reduction in the number of deaths: from 1009 in 2019 to 912 in 2020.

As a whole, therefore, deaths due to all respiratory diseases fell from 3,807 to 3,404—a drop of about 11%. But the very fact that these figures include an increase in influenza deaths is sufficient to refute the claim that the lockdown measures had a part to play in this reduction. This only serves to prove what we already know: lockdown measures are ineffective at reducing the spread of contagious diseases. In the next article in this series, we will try to explain why this should be the case.

Northern Ireland

What of Northern Ireland? Do the relevant statistics from the Province north of the border confirm or contradict those from the Republic?

The Health and Safety Executive of Northern Ireland is responsible for compiling the statistics on workplace fatalities in the Province. Their annual reports cover successive twelve month periods from 1 April through 31 March. For the period from April 2019 through March 2020, they recorded a total of 11 workplace deaths, down 2 from the previous period’s 13. Fatalities in the agriculture sector saw a significant reduction from 7 to 1, whereas in the construction sector there was an increase from 3 to 4. As the agricultural sector was largely unaffected by the lockdowns, the 86% drop in fatalities in that sector cannot be put down to the introduction of any NPIs.

Workplace Fatalities in Northern Ireland (2020)

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) collects data on traffic collisions and their effects. These Road Traffic Collision Statistics are the main source of information on road fatalities in the Province. Curiously, the number of road deaths has remained very consistent over the past few years:

  • 55 in 2018
  • 56 in 2019
  • 56 in 2020

In their 2020 Key Statistics Report, the PSNI attributes an overall reduction in the number of collisions to the reduction in traffic volume due to the lockdown measures:

There was a total of 4,223 injury road traffic collisions recorded, resulting in 56 fatalities, 596 people seriously injured and 5,835 slightly injured. While the number of fatalities was unchanged, total collisions and casualties showed a reduction of around one-quarter on the previous year.

Lockdown measures in relation to Covid-19 were introduced on 23rd March 2020. The reduction in collisions and casualties should be seen in the context of overall traffic volumes which were estimated to have more than halved at the outset of lockdown and continue to show reductions throughout 2020.

The lockdowns, then, may have contributed to a reduction in the number of traffic accidents and in the number of non-fatal injuries sustained in traffic collisions, but they clearly did not save any lives.

Road Fatalities in Northern Ireland (2020)

The Health & Social Care Northern Ireland (HSCNI), or Public Health Agency, is the body which keeps track of respiratory diseases in the Province. Their latest report, Surveillance of Influenza in Northern Ireland 2019/2020, describes the influenza activity in Northern Ireland for the 2019/20 season from week 40 of 2019 to week 20 of 2020. The authors concede, however, that the overlap of symptoms associated with seasonal influenza and covid-19 have complicated matters:

COVID-19 has impacted on various influenza indicators presented in this report, particularly in the latter part of the season. Data presented in this report should therefore be interpreted with caution ... Trends observed after week 10, 2020 through syndromic surveillance systems should be interpreted with caution due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 caused an increase in the use of ILI [Influenza-Like Illness] codes and other similar codes, particularly in the early stages of circulation in Northern Ireland. This caused a rapid increase in activity in many of the syndromic respiratory indicators, followed by a rapid decrease in rates in some systems as COVID-19 specific codes were introduced into health care IT systems and changes were made to the way potential COVID-19 patients were managed. (Surveillance of Influenza in Northern Ireland 2019/2020 3 ... 9)

It is uncertain whether any firm conclusions can be drawn from a report which does not clearly discriminate between different respiratory illnesses, including covid-19. Nevertheless, the authors do state that influenza continued to circulate throughout the Province in 2019/2020:

Moderate levels of influenza activity were seen in the community in Northern Ireland in 2019/20, with influenza A(H3) being the predominant virus circulating throughout the season. Peak influenza activity was seen early in the season. Increased activity among the surveillance systems and excess all-cause mortality was also seen towards the end of the season, and was associated with COVID-19 activity. More testing for influenza was performed in 2019/20 compared to previous seasons as funding was provided for local influenza testing to be performed by all four of the local HSCT [Health & Social Care Trust] laboratories. A medium impact of influenza on the health service was experienced, with the peak admissions of influenza to and ICU/HDU [High-Dependency Unit] similar to those observed in 2018/19, though the peak was earlier and the predominant strain was influenza A(H3). (Ibid 28)

Surveillance of Influenza in Northern Ireland 2019/2020 (Figure 10)

In 2019/2020, respiratory illness as a whole accounted for the same percentage of all deaths as in 2018/2019, though the 2019/2020 included deaths attributed to covid-19:

The proportion of registered deaths with respiratory keywords (associated with influenza, including; bronchiolitis; bronchitis; influenza; and pneumonia) to all-cause death registrations was 28% (3,157/11,262), similar to 2017/18 (28%). The proportion of weekly registered deaths with respiratory keywords peaked at 35% (125/353) in week 1, 2020, compared to 36% in week 7, 2018/19 (Figure 10). (Ibid 20)

Summary

The conclusion is inescapable: the lockdowns and other NPIs did not save any collateral lives.

And that’s a good place to stop.


References

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