When Is Lockdown Justified?

Keywords: COVID-19, lockdown, liberty, models, evidence, uncertainty, epidemiology, public policy


How could the initial, drastic decisions to implement “lockdowns” to control the spread of Covid-19 infections be justifiable, when they were made on the basis of such uncertain evidence? We defend the imposition of lockdowns in some countries by, first, looking at the evidence that undergirded the decision (focusing particularly on the decision-making process in the United Kingdom); second, arguing that this provided sufficient grounds to restrict liberty, given the circumstances; and third, defending the use of poorly empirically constrained epidemiological models as tools that can legitimately guide public policy.


Anderson, Roy M., T. Déirdre Hollingsworth, Rebecca F. Baggaley, Rosie Maddren, and Carolin Vegvari. 2020. “COVID-19 Spread in the UK: The End of the Beginning?” The Lancet 396, no. 10251: 587–590. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(20)31689-5.

Armocida, Benedetta, Beatrice Formenti, Silvia Ussai, Francesca Palestra, and Eduardo Missoni. 2020. “The Italian Health System and the COVID-19 Challenge.” Lancet Public Health 5, no. 5, e253. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(20)30074-8.

Atkinson, Paul, Nina Gobat, Suzannah Lant, Hayley E. Mabelson, Caitlin Pilbeam, T. Solomon, Sarah Tonkin-Crine, and Sally Sheard. 2020. “Understanding the Policy Dynamics of COVID-19 in the UK: Early Findings from Interviews with Policy Makers and Health Care Professionals.” Social Science & Medicine 266, 113423. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2020.113423.

Bartik, Alexander, Marianne Bertrand, Zoe Cullen, Edward L. Glaeser, Michael Luca, and Christopher Stanton. 2020. “The Impact of COVID-19 on Small Business Outcomes and Expectations.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117, no. 30: 17656–17666. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2006991117.

BBC. 2020. “Coronavirus: UK Schools, Colleges and Nurseries to Close from Friday.” 18 March. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-51952314 (accessed 29 August 2021).

Begley, Sharon. 2020. “Influential Covid-19 Model Uses Flawed Methods and Shouldn’t Guide U.S. Policies, Critics Say.” Stat News, 17 April. https://www.statnews.com/2020/04/17/influential-covid-19-model-uses-flawed-methods-shouldnt-guide-policies-critics-say/ (accessed 31 August 2021).

Birch, Jonathan. 2021. “Science and Policy in Extremis: The UK’s Initial Response to COVID-19.” European Journal for the Philosophy of Science 11, no. 90: 1–27. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13194-021-00407-z.

Boseley, Sarah. 2020. “New Data, New Policy: Why UK’s Coronavirus Strategy Changed.” The Guardian, 16 March. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/16/new-data-new-policy-why-uks-coronavirus-strategy-has-changed (accessed 1 March 2021).

Brennan, Jason. 2018. “A Libertarian Case for Mandatory Vaccination.” Journal of Medical Ethics 44, no. 1: 37–43. https://doi.org/10.1136/medethics-2016-103486.

Broadbent, Alex. 2020. “Lockdown Is Wrong for Africa.” Mail & Guardian, 8 April. https://mg.co.za/article/2020-04-08-is-lockdown-wrong-for-africa/ (accessed 30 August 2021).

Cartwright, Nancy. 1983. How the Laws of Physics Lie. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Childress, James F., Ruth R. Faden, Ruth D. Gaare, Lawrence O. Gostin, Jeffrey Kahn, Richard J. Bonnie, Nancy E. Kass, Anna C. Mastroianni, Jonathan D. Moreno, and Phillip Nieburg. 2002. “Public Health Ethics: Mapping the Terrain.” Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics 30, no. 2: 170–178. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-720x.2002.tb00384.x.

Chin, Vincent, Noelle I. Samia, Roman Marchant, Ori Rosen, John P.A. Ioannidis, Martin A. Tanner, and Sally Cripps. 2020. “A Case Study in Model Failure? COVID-19 Daily Deaths and ICU Bed Utilisation Predictions in New York State.” European Journal of Epidemiology 35, no. 8: 733–742. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10654-020-00669-6.

Cochrane, John. 2020. “An SIR Model with Behavior.” The Grumpy Economist, 4 May. https://johnhcochrane.blogspot.com/2020/05/an-sir-model-with-behavior.html (accessed 31 August 2021).

Correia, Sergio, Stephan Luck, and Emil Verner. 2020. “Pandemics Depress the Economy, Public Health Interventions Do Not: Evidence from the 1918 Flu.” SSRN, 5 June. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3561560.

Dahlquist, Marcus and Henrik Kugelberg. 2021. “Public Justification and Expert Disagreement over Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions for the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Journal of Medical Ethics. Published online first: 12 October. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/medethics-2021-107671.

Davies, Nick, Adam Kucharski, Ross Eggo, and John Edmunds. 2020. “The Impact of Aggressively Managing Peak Incidence.” Report from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), 11 March. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-impact-of-aggressively-managing-peak-incidence-11-march-2020 (accessed 5 January 2022).

Edeling, Wouter, Hamid Arabnejad, Robert C. Sinclair, Diana Suleimenova, Krishnakumar Gopalakrishnan, Bartosz Bosak, Derek Groen, et al. 2020. “Model Uncertainty and Decision Making: Predicting the Impact of COVID-19 Using the CovidSim Epidemiological Code.” Preprint. Research Square. https://doi.org/10.21203/rs.3.rs-82122/v3.

Farrar, Jeremy and Anjana Ahuja. 2021. Spike: The Virus vs the People – the Inside Story. London: Profile Books.

Feinberg, Joel. 1984. Harm to Others: The Moral Limits of Criminal Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ferguson, Neil M., Daniel Laydon, Gemma Nedjati-Gilani, Natsuko Imai, Kylie Ainslie, Marc Baguelin, Sangeeta Bhatia, et al. 2020. “Report 9: Impact of Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) to Reduce COVID-19 Mortality and Healthcare Demand.” Report from Imperial College COVID Response Team, 16 March. https://doi.org/10.25561/77482.

Flanigan, Jennifer. 2014. “A Defense of Compulsory Vaccination.” HEC Forum 26, no. 1: 5–25. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10730-013-9221-5.

Friedman, Joseph, Patrick Liu, Christopher E. Troeger, Austin Carter, Robert C. Reiner Jr., Ryan M. Barber, James Collins, et al. 2021. “Predictive Performance of International COVID-19 Mortality Forecasting Models.” Nature Communications 12, no. 1, 2609. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-22457-w.

Frowe, H. 2020. “Is Staying Home Really about Saving Lives?” CAPX, 14 May. https://capx.co/is-staying-at-home-really-about-saving-lives/ (accessed 25 August 2021).

Fuller, Jonathan. 2021. “What Are the COVID-19 Models Modeling (Philosophically Speaking)?” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 43, no. 47: 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40656-021-00407-5.

Gardiner, Stephen. 2006. “A Core Precautionary Principle.” Journal of Political Philosophy 14, no. 1: 33–60. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9760.2006.00237.x.

Gupta, Sumedha, Kosali I. Simon, and Coady Wing. 2020. “Mandated and Voluntary Social Distancing during the COVID-19 Epidemic: A Review.” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 28139. https://doi.org/10.3386/w28139.

Hansson, Sven Ove. 2003. “Ethical Criteria of Risk Acceptance.” Erkenntnis 59, no. 3: 291–309. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1026005915919.

IHME COVID-19 Health Service Utilization Forecasting Team (Christopher J.L. Murray). 2020. “Forecasting the Impact of the First Wave of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Hospital Demand and Deaths for the USA and European Economic Area Countries.” Preprint. medRxiv, 26 April. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.04.21.20074732.

Ioannidis, John P.A. 2020. “The Totality of the Evidence.” Boston Review, 26 May. https://bostonreview.net/science-nature/john-p-ioannidis-totality-evidence (accessed 25 August 2021).

John, Stephen D. and Emma Curran. 2021. “Costa, Cancer and Coronavirus: Contractualism As a Guide to the Ethics of Lockdown.” Journal of Medical Ethics. Published online first: 19 March. https://doi.org/10.1136/medethics-2020-107103.

Kucharski, Adam J., Timothy W. Russell, Charlie Diamond, Yang Liu, CMMID nCoV Working Group, John Edmunds, Sebastian Funk, and Rosalind M. Eggo. 2020. “Early Dynamics of Transmission and Control of COVID-19: A Mathematical Modelling Study.” Preprint. medRxiv, 18 February. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.01.31.20019901.

Lau, Hien, Veria Khosrawipour, Piotr Kocbach, Agata Mikolajczyk, Justyna Schubert, Jacek Bania, and Tanja Khosrawipour. 2020. “The Positive Impact of Lockdown in Wuhan on Containing the COVID-19 Outbreak in China.” Journal of Travel Medicine 27, no. 3: 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1093/jtm/taaa037.

Li, Ruoran, Caitlin Rivers, Qi Tan, Megan B. Murray, Eric Toner, and Marc Lipsitch. 2020. “The Demand for Inpatient and ICU Beds for COVID-19 in the US: Lessons from Chinese Cities.” Preprint. medRxiv, 16 March. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.03.09.20033241.

Moss, Peter, Gavin Barlow, Nicholas Easom, Patrick Lillie, and Anda Samson. 2020. “Lessons for Managing High-Consequence Infections from First COVID-19 Cases in the UK.” The Lancet 395, no. 10227: e46. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30463-3.

Prime Minister’s Office, UK. 2020. “Prime Minister’s Statement on Coronavirus (COVID-19): 23 March 2020.” https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-address-to-the-nation-on-coronavirus-23-march-2020 (accessed 25 August 2021).

Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Revised edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Riou, Julien and Christian L. Althaus. 2020. “Pattern of Early Human-to-Human Transmission of Wuhan 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), December 2019 to January 2020.” Euro Surveillance 25, no. 4: 1–5. https://doi.org/10.2807/1560-7917.ES.2020.25.4.2000058.

SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies). 2020a. “Addendum to Seventeenth SAGE Meeting on Covid-19, 18 March 2020.” https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sage-minutes-coronavirus-covid-19-response-18-march-2020 (accessed 30 August 2021).

———. 2020b. “Addendum to the Tenth SAGE Meeting on Covid-19, 25 February 2020.” https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sage-minutes-coronavirus-covid-19-response-25-february-2020 (accessed 25 August 2021).

———. 2020c. “Potential Effect of Non-pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) on a Covid-19 Epidemic in the UK 26th February 2020.” https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/887550/03-potential-effect-of-non-pharmaceutical-interventions-npis-on-a-Covid-19-epidemic-in-the-UK.pdf (accessed 25 August 2021).

———. 2020d. “Precautionary SAGE 1 Minutes: Coronavirus (COVID-19) Response, 22 January 2020.” https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/precautionary-sage-minutes-coronavirus-covid-19-response-22-january-2020 (accessed 26 August 2021).

Schroeder, S. Andrew. 2021. “How to Interpret Covid-19 Predictions: Reassessing the IHME’s Model.” Philosophy of Medicine 2, no. 1. https://doi.org/10.5195/philmed.2021.43.

Sorell, Tom. 2003. “Morality and Emergency.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 103, no. 1: 21–37. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.0066-7372.2003.00062.x.

Van Basshuysen, Philippe and Lucie White. 2021a. “The Epistemic Duties of Philosophers: An Addendum.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 31, no. 4: 447–451. https://doi.org/10.1353/ken.2021.0023.

———. 2021b. “Were Lockdowns Justified? A Return to the Facts and Evidence.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 31, no. 4: 405–428. https://doi.org/10.1353/ken.2021.0028.

Van Basshuysen, Philippe, Lucie White, Donal Khosrowi, and Mathias Frisch. 2021. “Three Ways in Which Pandemic Models May Perform a Pandemic.” Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics 14, no. 1: 110–127. http://dx.doi.org/10.23941/ejpe.v14i1.582.

Verity, Robert, Lucy C. Okell, Ilaria Dorigatti, Peter Winskill, Charles Whittaker, Natsuko Imai, Gina Cuomo-Dannenburg, et al. 2020. “Estimates of the Severity of the COVID-19 Disease.” Preprint. medRxiv, 13 March. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.03.09.20033357.

Vorms, Marion and Ulrike Hahn. 2021. “In the Space of Reasonable Doubt.” Synthese 198, suppl. 15: S3609–S3633. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02488-z.

Walker, Patrick, Charles Whittaker, Oliver Watson, Marc Baguelin, Kylie E.C. Ainslie, Sangheeta Bhatia, Samir Bhatt, et al. 2020. “Report 12: The Global Impact of COVID-19 and Strategies for Mitigation and Suppression.” Report from Imperial College COVID Response Team, 26 March. https://www.imperial.ac.uk/mrc-global-infectious-disease-analysis/covid-19/report-12-global-impact-covid-19/ (accessed 25 August 2021).

Walzer, Michael. 1988. Emergency Ethics. Colorado: U.S. Airforce Academy.

White, Lucie and Philippe van Basshuysen. 2021a. “Privacy versus Public Health? A Reassessment of Centralised and Decentralised Digital Contact Tracing.” Science and Engineering Ethics 27, no. 23: 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-021-00301-0.

———. 2021b. “Without a Trace: Why Did Corona Apps Fail?” Journal of Medical Ethics 47, no. 12: 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1136/medethics-2020-107061.

WHO (World Health Organization). 2020a. “Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Situation Report—3.” 23 January. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/Coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200123-sitrep-3-2019-ncov.pdf (accessed 25 August 2021).

———. 2020b. “Pneumonia of Unknown Cause—China.” 5 January. https://www.who.int/csr/don/05-january-2020-pneumonia-of-unkown-cause-china/en/ (accessed 25 August 2021).

Winsberg, Eric, Jason Brennan, and Chris Surprenant. 2020. “How Government Leaders Violated Their Epistemic Duties during the SARS-CoV-2 Crisis.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 30, no. 3–4: 215–242. https://doi.org/10.1353/ken.2020.0013.

———. 2021. “This Paper Attacks a Strawman but the Strawman Wins: A Reply to Van Basshuysen and White.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 31, no. 4: 429–446. https://doi.org/10.1353/ken.2021.0029.

Wu, Joseph T., Kathy Leung, and Gabriel M. Leung. 2020. “Nowcasting and Forecasting the Potential Domestic and International Spread of the 2019-nCoV Outbreak Originating in Wuhan, China: A Modelling Study.” The Lancet 395, no. 10225: 689–697. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30260-9.

Zhou, Peng, Xing-Lou Yang, Xian-Guang Wang, Ben Hu, Lei Zhang, Wei Zhang, Hao-Rui Si, et al. 2020. “A Pneumonia Outbreak Associated with a New Coronavirus of Probable Bat Origin.” Nature 579, no. 7798: 270–273. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2012-7.

Zhu, Na, Dingyu Zhang, Wenling Wang, Xingwang Li, Bo Yang, Jingdong Song, Xiang Zhao, et al. 2020. “A Novel Coronavirus from Patients with Pneumonia in China, 2019.” New England Journal of Medicine 382, no. 8: 727–733. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMoa2001017.

How to Cite
White, L., van Basshuysen, P., & Frisch, M. (2022). When Is Lockdown Justified?. Philosophy of Medicine, 3(1). https://doi.org/10.5195/pom.2022.85
Philosophical Perspectives on Covid-19

Funding data