The leak in November last year of plans for a lockdown in England to the media about one week before restrictions came into force has been linked by researchers to a jump in COVID-19 cases caused by people rushing to socialize before the deadline, a study says.
“There was a surge in new infections starting a couple of days before the lockdown — and running for about a week or so after the lockdown was implemented,” said lead author Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia.
A three-tier system, with varying degrees of restrictions, was introduced in England in mid-October last year.
On Oct. 30, multiple media outlets, including the Times, Daily Mail and Sun, reported that the government planned to announce a national lockdown the following Monday, prompting the launch of a leak inquiry.
The lockdown eventually came into force on Nov. 5 and ended on Dec. 2.
Using data procured from 315 local authorities, the researchers observed that case numbers were increasing up to about Oct. 24, after which they appeared to stabilize, even declining in tier 3 areas.
However, over the “notice period” between the news becoming public and the start of lockdown, case numbers started to rise again until they reached a peak on about Nov. 10.
The observational study — which had not been peer-reviewed — found that the boost in infections was largely seen in tier 1 and tier 2 areas, where there were more opportunities to socialize compared with tier 3 regions.
The surge was most notable in the 20-to-24 and 25-to-29 age groups, although there was an effect in all age groups up to 60, Hunter said.
“Those of us over 60 are boring old farts who stay home all the time,” he said.
Using Google mobility data, the researchers noted an increase in visits to non-grocery retail and leisure venues just prior to the start of lockdown.
The spike was not observed in tier 3 areas, where a key difference was that hospitality venues could only open if operating as a restaurant.
This finding, combined with the atypical surge in infections in young adults, suggested that there had been increased socialization ahead of the lockdown.
“I believe it probably almost certainly is,” Hunter said. “You can’t say that’s absolute proof, but I think it’s excellent strong supportive evidence.”
“If that is the case, then whoever leaked that indirectly would have been responsible for increased cases and, and almost certainly increased deaths,” he said.
Ahead of last month, infections in areas that were previously in tier 1 were pretty much at the same level as they were on Nov. 1, so, after about one month which largely included the lockdown, “we were back to square one,” Hunter said.
Tier 2 regions did a little better — the infection rate was lower, but not by much. Tier 3 areas — which did not see a spike ahead of the lockdown — saw a dramatic decline, he said.
However, in London, and the southeast and east of England, cases started rising in the week before lockdown ended, which was later attributed to a faster-spreading variant.
“So ... that surge towards the end was almost certainly driven by the new variant,” Hunter said.
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