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”Did Lockdowns Work? The Verdict on Covid Restrictions

”Our conclusion is clear: the world was sold a bill of goods about lockdowns. Covid lockdowns represent the biggest policy mistake in modern times.”
Steve H. Hanke
June 2023

Lockdowns were a costly failure, finds new IEA book

A new systematic review and meta-analysis published by the Institute of Economic Affairs finds that Covid lockdowns failed to significantly reduce deaths

  • The Herby-Jonung-Hanke meta-analysis found that lockdowns, as reported in studies based on stringency indices in the spring of 2020, reduced mortality by 3.2% when compared to less strict lockdown policies adopted by the likes of Sweden

  • This means lockdowns prevented 1,700 deaths in England and Wales, 6,000 deaths across Europe, and 4,000 deaths in the United States.

  • Lockdowns prevented relatively few deaths compared to a typical flu season – in England and Wales, 18,500–24,800 flu deaths occur, in Europe 72,000 flu deaths occur, and in the United States 38,000 flu deaths occur in a typical flu season

  • These results pale in comparison to the Imperial College of London’s modelling exercises (March 2020), which predicted that lockdowns would save over 400,000 lives in the United Kingdom and over 2 million lives in the United States

  • Herby, Jonung, and Hanke conclude that voluntary changes in behaviour, such as social distancing, played a significant role in mitigating the pandemic – but harsher restrictions, like stay-at-home rules and school closures, generated very high costs but produced only negligible health benefits

COVID-19 lockdowns were “a global policy failure of gigantic proportions,” according to this peer-reviewed new academic study. The draconian policy failed to significantly reduce deaths while imposing substantial social, cultural, and economic costs.

“This study is the first all-encompassing evaluation of the research on the effectiveness of mandatory restrictions on mortality,” according to one of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Lars Jonung, professor emeritus at the Knut Wicksell Centre for Financial Studies at Sweden’s Lund University, “It demonstrates that lockdowns were a failed promise. They had negligible health effects but disastrous economic, social and political costs to society. Most likely lockdowns represent the biggest policy mistake in modern times.”

The comprehensive 220-page book, published today by the London-based think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, began with a systematic review of 19,646 potentially relevant studies. For their meta-analysis, the authors’ screening resulted in the choice of 22 studies that are based on actual, measured mortality data, not on results derived from modeling exercises. A meta-analysis is considered the ‘gold-standard’ for evidence, as it combines comparable, independent studies to determine overall trends.

The authors, including Professor Steve H. Hanke of the Johns Hopkins University, also consider a range of studies that determined the impact of individual lockdown restrictions, including stay at-home rules to school closures and travel restrictions.

In each case, the restrictions did little to reduce COVID-19 mortality:

  • Shelter-in-place (stay at home) orders in Europe and the United States reduced COVID mortality by between 1.4 and 4.1 per cent;

  • Business closures reduced mortality by 7.5 per cent;

  • Gathering limits likely increased COVID mortality by almost six per cent;

  • Mask mandates, which most countries avoided in Spring 2020, reduced mortality by

    18.7 per cent, particularly mandates in workplaces; and

  • School closures resulted in a between 2.5 per cent and 6.2 per cent mortality


A second approach employed by the authors to estimate the effects of lockdowns on mortality combined studies that looked at specific lockdown measures (such as school closures, mask wearing, etc.) on how single non-pharmaceutical interventions were actually used in Europe and the United States. Using this approach, the authors estimate that lockdowns reduced mortality by 10.7 per cent in the spring of 2020 – significantly less than estimates produced by epidemiological modelling.

The study compares the effect of lockdown measures against the effect of ‘doing the least,’ rather than doing nothing at all. Sweden’s response to COVID was among the least stringent in Europe, but still imposed some legal restrictions and included an extensive public information campaign.

Voluntary measures, like social distancing and the reduction of person-to-person contact, effectively reduced COVID mortality in Sweden, a country that did not impose draconian legal restrictions. This is consistent with evidence early in the pandemic that voluntary action began reducing transmission before lockdowns.

The authors also conclude that legal mandates only limited a relatively small set of potential contagious contacts, and could in some cases have backfired by encouraging people to stay indoors in less safe environments.

If voluntary action, minor legal changes, and proactive information campaigns effectively reduced the transmission of COVID, lockdowns were unwarranted from a public health point of view. This negative conclusion is amplified by the significant economic and social costs associated with lockdowns, which include:

  • stunted economic growth;

  • large increases in public debt;

  • rising inequality;

  • damage to children’s education and health;

  • Reduced health-related quality of life;

  • damage to mental health;

  • increased crime; and

  • threats to democracy and loss of freedom.

The research concludes that, unless substantial alternative evidence emerges, lockdowns should be ‘rejected out of hand’ to control future pandemics.

Jonas Herby, co-author of the study and special adviser at the Center for Political Studies (CEPOS), an independent classical liberal think tank based in Copenhagen, Denmark, said:

“Numerous misleading studies, driven by subjective models and overlooking significant factors like voluntary behaviour changes, heavily influenced the initial perception of lockdowns as highly effective measures. Our meta-analysis suggests that when researchers account for additional variables, such as voluntary behaviour, the impact of lockdowns becomes negligible.”

Professor Steve H. Hanke, co-author and professor of applied economics and co-director of the Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise at Johns Hopkins University:

“When it comes to COVID, epidemiological models have many things in common: dubious assumptions, hair-raising predictions of disaster that miss the mark, and few lessons learned.”

"The science of lockdowns is clear; the data are in: the lives saved were a drop in the bucket compared to the staggering collateral costs imposed."


Notes to Editors

You can download a copy of Did Lockdowns Work? The verdict on Covid restrictions.

  • Meta-analysis is a technique to standardise existing research and allow different results to be analysed consistently, like-for-like. The authors will continue to research and evaluate the effects of lockdowns.

  • Initial research for this study included a systematic and comprehensive analysis of 19,646 pieces of academic literature that could have potentially addressed the topic. Of these, only 22 contained data that could be converted into standardised, comparable measurements for meta-analysis.

  • The study considers the impact of eight measures: (1) stay at home requirements, (2) business and school closures, (3) limits on gatherings, (4) travel restrictions, (5) mask mandates, (6) public event cancellations, (7) public transport closures and (8) internal movement restrictions;

  • The study’s empirical findings contradict epidemiological estimates early in the pandemic, which generally argued that strong and varied restrictions would significantly reduce COVID mortality.

  • The first version of this study was published as a Johns Hopkins working paper on 21 January 2022 and generated significant attention in American media, as well as in both the U.S. Congress and the White House. This study is an updated, peer-reviewed, version which clarifies and builds upon portions of the original research and responds to constructive criticism levelled against it.


About the authors:

Jonas Herby is a special adviser at the Center for Political Studies (CEPOS), an independent classical liberal think tank based in Copenhagen, Denmark, where his research focuses on law and economics. Until mid-April 2020, Jonas had been confident that restrictions were effective and even published two reports where he assumed that the restrictions in Denmark were the direct cause of the differences in death tolls between Denmark and Sweden. But after observing that the first Covid waves peaked almost simultaneously in Denmark and Sweden, his interest in the effect of Covid restrictions grew. His interest turned into skepticism, and he has since then published numerous articles and reports on the subject. Herby holds a master’s degree in Economics from the University of Copenhagen and has studied one year as a special student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

Lars Jonung is professor emeritus at the Knut Wicksell Centre for Financial Studies, Department of Economics, Lund University, Sweden. He served as chairperson of the Swedish Fiscal Policy Council 2012-13. He was Research Advisor at DG ECFIN, European Commission, Brussels, 2000-2010. Inspired by the threat of a bird flu pandemic, he initiated in 2006 a model-based study of the macroeconomic effects of a pandemic on the European economy. The basic conclusion was that a pandemic would take a huge toll in human suffering but it would not cause a major economic downturn. This result was based on the implicit assumption that no restrictions on business, trade, and the movement of workers were enforced. In Swedish public debate, he opposed the use of lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, using the evidence from his earlier work. Eventually, he teamed up with Steve Hanke and Jonas Herby to prepare this IEA book. Prior to moving to Brussels, Jonung was professor in economics at the Stockholm School of Economics, Stockholm. He served as chief economic adviser to Prime Minister Carl Bildt in 1991-94. His research covers monetary and fiscal policy, inflationary expectations, the euro, and European integration. He holds a PhD in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles, 1975. He is the author of several books in English and Swedish.

Steve H. Hanke is a Professor of Applied Economics in the Department of Environmental Health & Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University (rated as the top department for environmental health science by U.S. News and World Report’s academic rankings), and the Founder & Co-Director of The Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise. He is a Member of the Charter Council of the Society for Economic Measurement. He is also a well-known currency reformer and a currency and commodity trader. Prof. Hanke served on President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, has been an adviser to five foreign heads of state and five foreign cabinet ministers, and has held a cabinet-level rank as a state counsellor in both Lithuania and Montenegro. He has been awarded seven honourary doctorate degrees and is an Honourary Professor at four foreign institutions. He was President of Toronto Trust Argentina in Buenos Aires in 1995, when it was the world’s best-performing mutual fund. Currently, he serves as Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Advanced Metallurgical Group N.V. in Amsterdam. In 1998, he was named one of the twenty-five most influential people in the world by World Trade Magazine. In 2020, Prof. Hanke was named a Knight of the Order of the Flag.