A shock interview in yesterday’s Observer with Imperial College modeller Neil Ferguson revealed the true story behind Britain’s lamentable failure to halt the Covid 19 epidemic.
“It was during one of my regular lockdown knock ups with my best friend’s wife that I realised what we’d been doing wrong,” said Ferguson. “The data we’d been using related only to people who’d caught the disease, which usually happens many days after contact. What was needed was data from before this key event, and more data from after they’d got better, or not. Without knowing what people had been doing and who they’d been doing it with, in the weeks before, and how the human biological feedback mechanism, or body, as we scientists call it, would react in the weeks following the illness, we couldn’t hope to get a grip on the situation. The only thing to do was to wait until millions died, and then go on telly to explain why we were right all along. ‘You really haven’t a clue. You’re just fumbling about in the dark,’ as my colleague, who wishes to remain anonymous, aptly put it.”
[The interview was conducted by the Observer’s science editor, Robin McKie, who is to science journalism is what the BBC’s Roger Harrabin would be to environmental reporting if Roger was really really bad at his job. The high point of McKie’s career was his invitation to serial Microsoft loony “Professor” Steven Emmott to explain why the world was about to end at a well-publicised talk at London’s Science Museum, a talk no word of which ever leaked out. Soon after this event the director of the Science Museum, Chris “cryological borehole” Rapley suddenly resigned and took up a well-earned rest as professor of climate science at University College, London.]
Where was I? Never mind. Here is the first half of the article, with no snips, and even a few snippets added that McKie left on the cutting room floor.
It opens predictably enough:
Exactly one year ago, the epidemiologist Neil Ferguson first realised the full extent of the threat that Covid-19 posed to the UK. Calculations by his team at Imperial College London had already revealed that the National Health Service faced being inundated by people suffering from the newly emerged respiratory ailment.
Well, yes. If there’s one thing a sophisticated epidemiological model is really good at, it’s predicting that a newly emerged respiratory ailment will inundate the NHS. It happens every autumn, and it’s called ‘flu.
Worse news was to follow.
What could be worse than the NHS being inundated? Answer: (implied but not spelt out) destroying the country’s economy to stop the NHS being inundated.
“We knew things were serious in February but around 10 March we began to get really reliable data about hospital admissions – and that is when we recognised the fact that Britain was a lot further into the epidemic than any of us had previously grasped.”
Yes, the first nine days of March were fraught, touring the country with a copy of the yellow pages knocking on hospital doors, but by the 10th, answers were coming in. Hospitals were reporting they were full of sick people, and Ferguson was beginning to add up how many.
Over the next few “very tense” days, Ferguson and his colleagues recalculated just how quickly the epidemic was growing and how dangerous were the prospects that the sick and the dying might overwhelm our hospitals. They concluded that there had been an almost threefold underestimate of the true scale of the level of infections in the country.
“We were wrong, as usual, but three times less wrong than we ‘d been for every virus over the past twenty years of predicting viral infections. Clearly it was time to up our estimates.”
“By 14 March we realised that London hospitals were likely to be overwhelmed within weeks unless action was taken,” recalls Ferguson. Two days later, Boris Johnson ordered a fairly light, voluntary lockdown, which was followed, abruptly, by a far more draconian set of restrictions on the 23rd. Britain was now under a full lockdown, from which it has emerged for only a few brief periods over the past year.“It was the time between 10 and 15 March that was absolutely critical in terms of fundamental policy decisions being made,” Ferguson told the Observer last week.
“It was then that I made the fundamental decision that I absolutely had to get in a regular spot of extra-marital lockdown nooky or the country wouldn’t pull through.”
The colossal upheaval to the British way of life can therefore be traced directly to the modelling carried out over those few days, calculations that would lead to him being enshrined, in the public’s eyes, as the figurehead of lockdown. What is also clear is that those dramatic measures were not sufficient to curtail deaths to a few tens of thousands of people, as had been hoped. One year on, the nation has recorded figures that show that more than 125,000 have died from Covid-19 to date. So what went wrong? Why have so many British people died?
The UK was unlucky in some respects, says Ferguson. “The new variant – which has probably been responsible for around half of our Covid deaths to date – could not have been predicted,” he argues. “It certainly played a part in the high death rates.”
“Well, it could have been predicted I suppose,” he added, “By anyone who’d done a basic course in virology, or looked up “virus” on Wikipaedia. But our thing is maths, or math, as the Guardian call it. And if the new variant hadn’t killed half the people, there would be twice the people still alive than there are, innit?”
However, there were also major failures, and one of the most important of these lay in our inability to scale up testing for the disease. “It was tragic how slow we were at increasing testing for the virus. We should have started testing in hospitals and GPs [surgeries] much earlier than we did. We would then have had a much clearer picture of how quickly infections were coming into the country. As a result, we would have almost certainly locked down earlier – and perhaps would have adopted very different strategies, such as more draconian restrictions on international travel.
“Because once one person with Covid had come into the country, there was nothing to stop other people with Covid coming in, until there were thousands of them, if not millions. Unless,” and he paused, as if suddenly struck by an idea, “unless people already in the country have been catching it from each other.”
For his pains in pressing the urgency of the crisis facing Britain and for calling for strict lockdowns, Ferguson became a target for considerable vilification from commentators in the rightwing press and from those who were convinced Covid-19 was a fake and a conspiracy aimed at curtailing individual liberties. He was called Professor Lockdown; bots were set up to bombard him with hundreds of thousands of emails a day; and he was subjected to innumerable hacking attempts. The sheer weight of the aggression was “emotionally debilitating”, he recalls.
“And the fact that some of these bots had received Nobel prizes for their botting didn’t make it any less hurtful,” he added.
“I got a fair bit of abuse and it was quite stressful at times, not just for me but for my colleagues. It was part of a campaign to undermine the science behind the country’s Covid policy, and it was carried out by those who have taken an ideological stance opposing the lockdown.
“I can understand there are people for whom the last year has been a catastrophic experience because of the impacts that control measures have had on their lives. And for many of them it must be difficult to resist the disinformation which is ubiquitous on social media. However, it does not help when some mainstream newspapers publish comment columns that push that same disinformation about science – the Telegraph and the Spectator being notable examples.
“I can only suggest that some of these thousands of scientists and doctors who’ve been making my life a misery would do better to get their noses out of the rightwing gutter press and go indulge in some illicit lockdown humpy with a bit of highly-qualified academic tail.”
Such attacks are nothing new, Ferguson acknowledges. For several decades, climate scientists who have warned about the dangers of global heating have had to deal with similar vilification: targeted, highly personalised attacks mixed with the cherrypicking of evidence in order to try to discredit research.
“This is not a new phenomenon but it is something we are going to have to face up to in coming years,” he warns. “I’m already preparing my defence for the forthcoming public enquiries. I’m hesitating between the Phil Jones ‘Come any closer and I’ll top myself’ approach or the more Mannly: ‘I’ve been interviewed by dozens of expert science correspondents and completely vindicated every time I threatened to sue.’ What do you think?”
Well, what do you think?