The contrast between the evidence sessions of Prof. John Edmunds (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, SAGE modeller) and Prof. Carl Heneghan at the Covid Inquiry yesterday was absolutely shocking and raises huge questions about the professionalism of the Inquiry.
The King’s Counsel in the morning spent hours questioning Edmunds in a friendly, at times obsequious manner, as he explained how misunderstood the modelling was, how it wasn’t needed to justify lockdowns – as the indicative Basic reproduction number (R0) and Indicative Fatality Rate (IFR) were enough – to justify earlier and harder lockdown measures. Yet, according to Edmunds, the modelling would still be needed in the future. Truly an “all things to all men modelling” – useful when needed to justify future lockdowns, yet hides in the corner when retrospectively scrutinised and compared with real-world data. Three key flaws in the Covid modelling have been highlighted:
- Over-estimation of the effect of mandatory NPIs versus under-estimation of the effect of voluntary NPIs.
- Over-estimation of ICU per hospitalised rates, where the Imperial College team doubled the rate of hospitalised patients going into ICU to 30% based on flawed data from China.
- Failure to take into account the impact of prior and innate immunity in the population, especially children and the asymptomatic.
These aren’t flaws that can be explained away by saying the scenarios changed with the reality of lockdowns. For example, ICU rates are unaffected by shelter-in-place orders and school closures.
The dangerous implication here is that the Covid Inquiry is lining us up for future restrictions based on indicative RO and IFR, a lockdown hair-trigger switch that gives more authority to the modellers.
The soft-ball questioning and praise from the Inquiry continued as the discussion moved to Summer 2020, circuit breakers and the elision from “flatten the curve” to “zero Covid”.
Then the Inquiry moved on to the Downing Street Summit, where other voices – counsel highlighting as the ‘let it rip’ brigade – were invited at short notice. The big reveal was that Angela McLean, who has replaced Sir Patrick Vallance as Chief Scientific Officer, referred to Carl Heneghan as a “f*ckwit” in a contemporaneous WhatsApp chat, while Edmunds challenged Heneghan’s epidemiological knowledge. In my view, the Inquiry raising the point in this way is indicative of a lack of professionalism.
The Inquiry was also keen to include another pet villain – Doctor Death – the sobriquet applied by McLean to refer to Rishi Sunak, for the perceived crime of pushing for Eat Out to Help Out to reinvigorate the pub and restaurant industry, and providing a much needed morale boost to the nation.
The questioning continued for hours, covering the narrative classics of Long Covid, why the Vaccine rollout should have been broader, etc., all carried out in a cosy relationship included Baroness Hallett’s freely-given praise for Edmund, Ferguson and the whole modelling team.
By contrast, the interrogation of Carl Heneghan started out with a blatant attempt to undermine his credentials, strongly re-buffed by Carl, setting a tone for the only adversarial evidence session I have seen at this Inquiry so far. Any discussion that strayed from the narrative was met with aggressive and hostile demands for ‘yes/no’ answers.
Counsel objected to Carl’s answer rightly pointing out the danger of lockdowns to care homes, as he wanted to concentrate on focused protection and the misrepresentation of it by Counsel as hermetically sealing up the old and vulnerable. The minimum of critical thinking could have told Counsel that it was about reducing risk where it was highest, rather than across the board.
Carl was challenged on his views on the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) – he broadly agreed with it, he explained, but didn’t sign at the time as he needed more evidence on the details as you would expect, before Counsel dived into the Downing Street conference call.
Carl was challenged on his definition of ‘Endemicity’ on that call (presumably Edmunds’ gotcha epidemiological point), with Counsel demanding that the spread of infection be “broad and predictable” for it to qualify as endemic, when seasonal spikes shown on a graph means it wasn’t. This was rebuffed in a strong response from Prof. Heneghan, emphasising the seasonal pattern of endemic respiratory viruses and the variability of testing data and evidence on the ground.
Carl’s response to being challenged on the “f*ckwit” comment was dignified and professional, indicating it signified a lack of professionalism from the author as well as a lack of willingness to engage in debate, and an assumption of certainty where there was great uncertainty. He further pointed out that the entire lockdown response was driven by modelling and failed to take into account empirical data or the reality on the ground. Counsel scuttled along to that favourite fallback of the lockdown zealots – Long Covid – where Carl educated the Inquiry by telling it there was no greater risk of lingering disease from Covid than from any other seasonal respiratory disease.
At this point, Counsel decided to end the very short proceedings, presumably to shield the carefully constructed narrative to live another day.
It was hard not to notice the stark contrast in the attitude and approach to the two witnesses and it raises further serious questions on the ability of this long and expensive public inquiry to professionally and impartially challenge the decision making that led to lockdowns.
Kieran Saxon is a member of UsForThem.