Background: During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Kingdom experienced one of the highest per-capita death tolls worldwide. It is debated whether this may partly be explained by the relatively late initiation of voluntary social distancing and mandatory lockdown measures. In this study, we used simulations to estimate the number of cases and deaths that would have occurred in England by 1 June 2020 if these interventions had been implemented one or two weeks earlier, and the impact on the required duration of lockdown.

Methods: Using official reported data on the number of Pillar 1 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 and associated deaths occurring in England from 3 March to 1 June, we modelled: the natural (i.e. observed) growth of cases, and the counterfactual (i.e. hypothetical) growth of cases that would have occurred had measures been implemented one or two weeks earlier. Under each counterfactual condition, we estimated the expected number of deaths and the time required to reach the incidence observed under natural growth on 1 June.

Results: Introducing measures one week earlier would have reduced by 74% the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in England by 1 June, resulting in approximately 21,000 fewer hospital deaths and 34,000 fewer total deaths; the required time spent in full lockdown could also have been halved, from 69 to 35 days. Acting two weeks earlier would have reduced cases by 93%, resulting in between 26,000 and 43,000 fewer deaths.

Conclusions: Our modelling supports the claim that the relatively late introduction of social distancing and lockdown measures likely increased the scale, severity, and duration of the first wave of COVID-19 in England. Our results highlight the importance of acting swiftly to minimise the spread of an infectious disease when case numbers are increasing exponentially.


This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Cite as

Arnold, K., Gilthorpe, M., Alwan, N., Heppenstall, A., Tomova, G., McKee, M. & Tennant, P. 2022, 'Estimating the effects of lockdown timing on COVID-19 cases and deaths in England: a counterfactual modelling study', PLoS ONE, 17(4), article no: e0263432. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0263432

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Last updated: 16 June 2022
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