Guest Notes

Covid notes

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

The Pied Piper of Pandemic Porn

‘Fool me once,’ say Americans, ‘shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’ The saying keeps echoing endlessly in my mind as I watch governments, parliaments and media give continuing credence to Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London as a leading world authority on epidemics, pandemics and infectious diseases. I wouldn’t give him the time of the day with his track record.

Professor Carl Heneghan and Dr Tom Jefferson of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University appear to have had enough. Clearly exasperated, they train both barrels on the continuing hold of modellers on the British government: ‘Why is it that the government is once again in the grip of doom-mongering scientific modellers who specialise in causing panic and little else?’. Just to make sure that everyone knows who they are talking about when they express surprise and concern that ‘the government is still relying on mathematical modellers who have a 20-year track record of getting things wrong,’ they add: ‘Does anybody remember the 2005 H5N1 – or “bird flu” – influenza pandemic? You would be forgiven for having no recollection because there was no such pandemic, despite the warnings of Professor Neil Ferguson and his team. It is just one example among many predictions that Prof. Ferguson has got wrong.’

Let’s look back in wonder at some of those spectacular failures of doomsday predictions and work our way to the present. In a 2002 article in Nature, Ferguson estimated up to 50,000 human deaths from the UK mad cow disease, ‘with the upper bound increasing to 150,000 once we include exposure from the worst-case… scenario.’ By 2013, 177 deaths were recorded from it. Yet the frightening prediction led to the slaughter of thousands of cattle. Michael Thrusfield, an animal diseases specialist, subsequently savaged Ferguson’s modelling as ‘not fit for purpose’. In 2005, Ferguson warned that up to 200 million people could die from avian flu that Heneghan and Jefferson referred to; 455 people had died by 2019. I remember the 2005 bird flu example in particular because I was surprised by them as a senior UN official based in Tokyo at the time. With the 2009 swine flu, against the 65,000 deaths in the UK predicted by the ICL model that led to the government wasting £1.2bn on flu remedies (déjà vu, anyone?), there were 457.


Which brings us to the mad professor’s antics this year. In The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman wrote caustically of Philip II of Spain: ‘No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.’ Or perhaps Ferguson is more reminiscent of this character in Dickens’ Bleak House: ‘Sir Leicester is generally in a complacent mood. … When he has nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness. It is a considerable advantage to a man, to have so inexhaustible a subject.’ Certainly an enviable trait in these days of enforced solitude.

The coronavirus circus exploded with an ICL study of 16 March which described Covid-19 as ‘a virus with comparable lethality to H1N1 influenza in 1918.’ Just so we are clear on the hyperbole: the Spanish flu killed over fifty million, which if scaled to today’s global population would amount to 200-250m dead. Without tough measures to contain the outbreak, Ferguson infamously projected a death count of 510,000 in the UK and 2.2m in the US. On the prevailing mitigation strategy, the UK toll would still be 250,000. Like any good astrologer, Ferguson now credits the lockdown he advocated as having saved tens of thousands of lives in the UK alone.

Now let’s look at Sweden. Two ICL-inspired studies were published six months ago: Henrik Sjödin et al. on 7 April, and Jasmine Gardner et al. on 15 April. The former said Sweden’s ICU capacity would be overwhelmed by between five and thirty-fold. It was never exceeded at all. Gardner predicted that ‘the current Swedish public-health strategy will result in a peak intensive-care load in May that exceeds pre-pandemic capacity by over 40-fold, with a median mortality of 96,000’ by 1 July 2020. As of 20 September, Sweden’s Covid deaths were 5,865. Without compulsory lockdowns and with much activity as normal, 99.94 per cent of all Swedes and with just 237 dead under the age of 60, 99.998 per cent of Swedes under 60 have survived.

Now imagine, if you will, Sweden had followed Ferguson’s recommendations in full and ended up with the same number of deaths. Does anyone doubt that Ferguson and his acolytes would have claimed to have saved 90,000 Swedes from the Covid grim reaper? Just so is our very own Dan Andrews claiming credit for containing the virus while disowning responsibility for worsening it through gross incompetence in the first place.

So how has Ferguson explained Sweden? On 25 April, he told UnHerd TV that Sweden was still seeing day-on-day increases in death and infection rates, whereas the UK’s had fallen. In early June he conceded that Sweden had achieved a comparable suppression of coronavirus without the UK’s draconian restrictions. He explained its success by pointing to more government-citizen trust there that produces higher voluntary compliance with physical-distancing guidelines. Ferguson’s denials of his models being responsible for Sweden’s wildly exaggerated predictions would have carried more weight had he distanced ICL from the mimicked studies in April. His explanation for Sweden’s success would have been more credible if he’d spoken out against the widespread criticisms of Sweden’s lonely and courageous policy in the April-July period. By now it’s seen for what it is: ex post facto rationalisation in a desperate effort to salvage some credibility from the wreckage of his threat-inflating projections.

Ferguson may well be remembered by Britons for titillation value, as the man who broke his own lockdown rules for a shag or two. History will judge him far more harshly for the trail of devastation his dangerously flawed model has wreaked across the world, rivalling some of the worst atrocities of recent times in the tally of lives, livelihoods and freedoms destroyed.

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