In the Telegraph, Professor Sir John Edmunds, an adviser to the advisers during the Covid pandemic, discusses the Government’s response and expresses regret for not putting more effort into modelling the economic impact of lockdowns. Here’s an excerpt:
If asking someone how their pandemic was is a bit like asking “How was your war?”, it’s fair to say Sir John had a strange one. He is a modest sort – a scientist, not a natural talking head – but in 2020, he quickly became a kind of unlikely spokesman for science, regularly appearing on television and radio to give his take on the latest policy changes. He irritated ministers who felt he was using media appearances to push an agenda; that agenda appeared to change with the wind.
In an early interview with Channel 4 News on March 13th, he went head-to-head with Silicon Valley executive Tomas Pueyo who had modelled the virus’s spread and was calling for urgent lockdowns. Pueyo held his head in his hands as Sir John told presenter Cathy Newman: “The only way to stop this epidemic is indeed to achieve herd immunity.”
There were two possible strategies, he said at the time. “One: you can stamp out every single case in the world. Every single case in the world. And then, then you’re free. You can stop that epidemic without achieving herd immunity, but you must get every single case in the world. With a mild disease, that’s extremely difficult.
“The next phase when the genie is out of the bottle and the virus is all around the world, is spreading. The next phase, the only other way the virus is going to come to a stop, is achieving herd immunity.”
When, later on, he lobbied for stricter lockdowns, he was deemed a flip flopping hypocrite. He was vehemently against Rishi Sunak’s “spectacularly stupid” Eat Out to Help Out scheme, and called for lockdown to be extended in the summer of 2020. Britain was “taking a risk” while cases were still high. Meanwhile the Government, he says, couldn’t settle on a sensible strategy to get us out of lockdown. “The big mistakes were made in the summer. That failure to come up with a proper strategy and understand it.”
In early 2021, he warned that easing the third lockdown would be a “disaster”. Perhaps hindsight is a wonderful thing then – last May, he appeared to tell a medical conference of his worry that Britain had relied too heavily on “very scary” Sage findings. He wondered if the knock-on health effects and economic harm done by lockdowns could “in principle” have been taken into account when modelling. “In practice they were not,” he said. “The epidemiological model is only one component [of decision-making]. And I worried that we’d had too much weight.” …
Easing restrictions that summer made perfect sense, he says. “That was the other horrendous alternative – to stay in lockdown forever. I didn’t ever think that was feasible or advisable. So I think yes, we did have to ease those restrictions.”
But Eat Out to Help Out was a bridge too far. “That was actually spending Government money, and a lot of it – the best part of a billion pounds – actually stimulating the epidemic. For me that was absolutely obscene.” The scientists “had no sight of” Eat Out to Help Out before it was announced. “That was a shock to everybody, I think.”
Looking back, he regrets not putting more into modelling the potential impact of lockdowns. “I should have put more resources into modelling the macroeconomic effect. This was actually outside our official remit, though we did undertake some work in the area despite this and despite the enormous difficulties in linking epidemiological and macroeconomic models.
Worth reading in full.