COVID-19 policies might result in more life-years lost than saved

Lockdown policies have had a direct impact on people’s willingness – and ability – to access health and social services.
- Professor Paul Dolan
covid-19 London 747 560

The life-years saved from Covid-19 deaths that have been averted as a result of lockdown measures may be fewer than the life-years that will be lost from deaths resulting from curable diseases, according to a research paper published by LSE. 

“Lockdown policies have had a direct impact on people’s willingness – and ability – to access health and social services, which is likely to lead to a direct increase in morbidity and mortality rates from curable diseases such as cancer and strokes,” say the paper’s authors, Pinar Jenkins, Karol Sikora and Paul Dolan. 

The paper, published in the European Journal of Clinical Oncology, states that around three million people in the UK missed cancer diagnostics due to the lockdown. “As little as a four-week delay was associated with an increased mortality in seven cancer types,” it states. “Recent research suggests that a delay in patient presentation and diagnosis for cancer would lead to 25,812 life-years lost if the delay is one-month long and 173,540 life-years lost if the delay is six-months long." 

Using these figures, restrictions need to have prevented at least 21,693 deaths from Covid-19 (assuming an average of eight life-years saved per person) to have justified the policy decision in terms of a maximisation of life-years saved. 

“The reality is that the number of life-years saved per person will have been far fewer than that,” state the authors. “According to ONS statistics, the majority of deaths from Covid-19 have occurred in older people and people with pre-existing health conditions, and it is expected that deaths in the 85+ age group would have occurred later in the year, saving life months not years.”

Moreover, “cancer deaths represent only one, albeit important, indirect effect of lockdown measures. In considering the impact of any policy, we need to capture all its possible ripple effects and not just the initial splash when the pebble of intervention hits the water.”