At the Covid Inquiry we’re all being given the chance to see the Ideology of lockdown being wheeled out almost every day in what seems like a mission to make sure that ‘next time’ the only solution is a harder, faster and more rigorously enforced lockdown.
Back in 2020, like most of us I heard the statistician Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter being interviewed constantly. He struck me as one of the few professional scientists and commentators capable of nuanced thought and who also had a firm grip on the need for quality evidence and its dispassionate interpretation.
As it happens, I corresponded with him several times during those gloomy months that turned into years. He always replied and he always answered my questions carefully and considerately. For that I will always be grateful.
He was on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme yesterday. The presenter Evan Davies interviewed him. Professor Spiegelhalter came out with a line that ought to be resonating round the Covid Inquiry but doubtless won’t. In his view, because deaths peaked in early April 2020, thanks to the voluntary reduction in travel and social contact, infections must have been falling before the March 23rd lockdown kicked in. If so, then it must follow that the lockdown, which so many at the Covid Inquiry seem to be claiming should have been brought in earlier, would have made no difference. Or, am I missing something?
Here’s part of the exchange:
David Spiegelhalter: I think personally, the biggest most interesting thing is, which is in a sense unanswerable, is whether voluntary measures would have been enough because you know we know that deaths from Covid peaked in early April in fact, 2020, which means that infections must have been falling before the mandatory lockdown on March the 23rd.
Evan Davies: But hold on, run that past me again, so you were saying the deaths peaked at a time that would imply that it was already falling before the lockdown?
DS: The number of infections I think would have been falling before March the 23rd, probably about in the week beforehand because you know, the week before March the 16th there were lots of you know requests to reduce travel and all sorts of voluntary ..
ED (interrupts): We had a soft lockdown …
DS: Yes, we had a soft one and it’s always going to be an open question whether if that had been made harder but not actually mandatory what effect would have been.
ED: I mean, look, several years on now David, we talked to you all the time during the pandemic, sort of on-the-go commentary. What have you reflected over the years about what might have been done differently, better, or how you think about it?
DS: Well, there are some things that, you know, have been recognised, sending people back to care homes, and in particular the lack of testing for people not knowing what was going on, a huge amount was spent on Test and Trace and I always wonder whether that could have been done better, and in particular could have been evaluated better. I think there should have been far more experimentation. They finally got around to randomising schools, different policies for sending kids home in 2021. I found out they’d been sending kids home unnecessarily. And so as a statistician I really, really regret that there wasn’t more evidence being gathered about the effectiveness of what we’re all doing.
You can listen to the show yourself right here. Spin through to about 50 minutes in. I have heard enough of David Spiegelhalter since 2020 to know that he is a man worth listening to. But so often what matters more with someone worth listening to is having enough people prepared to listen.