WHO advice on lockdowns – In the News

Confusion has been raised over a World Health Organisation envoy’s advice to governments on the use of lockdowns to control the spread of COVID-19.

Dr David Nabarro, the WHO’s special envoy on Covid-19, has been widely quoted in the media as challenging the use of lockdowns due to their economic impact. 

His comments were initially published on a blog for the organisation 4SD, of which Dr Nabarro is Strategic Director. Here, he described a “Middle Way” for handling the pandemic, which relies on local public health to implement a robust system of testing, contact tracing and isolation. He wrote that lockdowns have a role to play in interrupting the transmission of coronavirus, but that lockdowns alone will not achieve elimination:

“From time to time it will be necessary briefly to restrict movement locally to enable suppression of outbreaks.  [NB Building public health capacity is not the same as implementing lockdowns.  It is about building up the capability of public health services to interrupt transmission in localities.  Experience around the world shows that this capability is key to a successful COVID responses. Lockdowns just freeze the virus in pace they do not lead to elimination].”

In a follow-up interview with the UK magazine The Spectator on 8 October, Dr Nabarro said he believes lockdowns should only be used to buy authorities time to set up effective public health systems. Dr Nabarro’s main criticism of lockdowns was related to the global economic impact, particularly for poorer people in society. 

Some international media reported on this interview as meaning that the WHO had changed their stance and now condemned the use of lockdowns to control the pandemic. However, other reports have offered a longer-term view, reflecting previous statements from Director General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, where the use of lockdowns was advised as “only part of the equation”.

In some reports, links have been drawn between Dr Nabarro’s comments and the Great Barrington Declaration, a statement released on October 4 by a coalition of international public health experts, which calls for an end to lockdowns. The declaration was sponsored and hosted by the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian think-tank funded by billionaire Charles Koch’s conservative Koch Foundation. Many of the declaration’s claims are disputed by experts.

In New Zealand, local media reflected the importance of contextual differences between countries when considering the use of lockdowns. Newshub quoted Kiwi experts who defended the use of lockdown in NZ.

Dr Margaret Harris, spokesperson for the World Health Organisation, in an interview with RNZ this morning, tried to dispel confusion over the WHO’s position on lockdowns. She said the WHO is saying that countries need to “do it all” – not solely rely on lockdowns.