Experts have criticised governments in the western world for using “strong-arm” lockdowns, as they championed community level health services in keeping Covid-19 at bay.
Looking to the future on how the world will live with the virus, Dr David Nabarro, World Health Organisation (WHO) special envoy on Covid-19, drew to the importance of “good quality” public health with “excellent and well organised behaviour of people” who know how to stop the virus from spreading.
Speaking at Chatham House international affairs think tank webinar on Tuesday, he said: “If it’s all done through force, through restrictions, through instructions and through fines, it’s much harder.
“That will be the dilemma for society in the coming weeks and months.
“Can we do this without creating restrictions and having people chafe against what they feel are restraints on their individual liberty?”
He branded lockdown as an “extreme measure” and said the term is used to describe “what you do in a jailbreak, or something really horrible happening”.
Dr Nabarro believed that had the basics of community-based public health been applied in government responses in western Europe then it would have been easier to stop the virus from developing to “explosive” outbreaks.
He added: “It would’ve been much easier to avoid these incredibly damaging lockdowns that have such a nasty impact on so many aspects of human existence.”
His sentiments were echoed by David Heymann, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and head of the Centre on Global Health Security at Chatham House.
He said people needed to be trusted to do their own risk assessment through community level health services, giving Sweden and east Asia as examples where deaths have been kept down through this method.
He said: “People need to learn how to do their own risk assessment, as they’ve learned for HIV, as they’ve learned for TB (tuberculosis), and for other infections that have emerged.
“What that means is that governments need to stop with this strong arm of trying to keep people locked down in order to protect hospitals, by getting people vaccinated, by making sure they have decent programmes and by doing contact tracing.”
Prof Heymann slammed centralised contact-tracing systems, which the UK Government had originally planned with the NHSX app before abandoning it, saying that “this never worked anywhere in the world”.
He added: “You do it by having trust between the contract tracer and the person who is infected or the persons who need to isolate.
“When that trust exists it’s much easier to do the job and it’s much more effective.
“It can’t be done by telephone or by lack of face-to-face contact, it has to be done from community upwards, not from the centre downwards.”
When asked when international travel could resume, Dr Nabarro said “we will probably never” go back to exactly the way it was five or 10 years ago.
He said if governments were to reopen travel between countries it would be “one of the most potent ways” for Covid-19 variants to move around, and that nations had to deal with the risks as they have done before with other viruses.