Readers’ Exchanges with Professor Neil Ferguson

22 February 2021  /  Updated 23 February 2021

A reader sent Derek Winton’s article in Lockdown Sceptics criticising Imperial College’s modelling to Professor Neil Ferguson. His remarkable response in turn prompted a lot of responses from our readers. One, a regular contributor to the site, produced a line-by-line analysis which we’re publishing below.

I was interested to see Professor Neil Ferguson’s reply to one of your readers. I was surprised he had replied, but no less surprised that anyone had bothered to write to him.

Now, I think it’s a bit unfair to write to someone and then publish that person’s reply, especially if it hadn’t been made clear the reply would be published. However, it has been, and I suppose anyone in public life would have to be naïve to believe that anything they say is immune to being disseminated more widely.

I thought it would be interesting therefore to analyse the reply.

I presume you sent me this because you feel upset, angry, that no-one is listening, want to hurt me or change my mind. Or all of the above.

Here we have an assumption of motive. The writer, who is a woman, is depicted as having become emotional (“angry, upset”), seeing herself as a frustrated victim (“no-one is listening”), aggressive (“want to hurt me”) and manipulative (“want… to change my mind”). Therefore, the original email is dismissed as having come from someone who is behaving irrationally and antagonistically. This is not an especially surprising opening gambit because it is designed immediately to create the impression that the original writer has lost control in some way and therefore by implication that Professor Ferguson is in contrast a rational being who is still in control of himself.

What is odd is that the email he’s responding to just asked him whether he’d seen Derek Winton’s article, but Professor Ferguson, at this point, makes no mention of that. He has responded initially only by seeking to diminish the sender. However, he has only just started.

I and my colleagues and friends (John Edmunds, Jeremy Farrar, Marc Lipsitch, Christian Drosten, Patrick Vallance, Chris Whitty,…) get so many of these sort of emails that we barely notice anymore. Most get dumped into junk mail folders automatically nowadays.

This is an interesting paragraph. Firstly, it involves telling the sender that he, Professor Ferguson, is a member of a strong gang consisting of “colleagues and friends”. This means that the sender is attacking the gang, and here he reinforces the idea that the sender is talking rubbish by referring to the way that such emails normally get “dumped into junk folders”. The implication is therefore that even email client algorithms are able to detect such emails as automatically worthless.

Secondly, the listing of gang members is designed to be intimidating, reminding the writer that her assault is against a powerful cabal of highly-qualified people who by being ‘friends’ will therefore act together to protect each other. Such is their status that they don’t even “notice [these emails] any more”. This is an important way of maximizing the distance between the writer and Professor Ferguson.

But for a change, I thought I would reply to you. Not that I really expect it to change the alternative reality you seem to have got sucked into, but occasionally I feel I should try.

Here we have a paradox. Professor Ferguson has decided, despite having shown in two contexts that the “junk” email he has received has been written by someone who is being over-emotional and antagonistic, that he will reply “for a change”. Actually, we know that it isn’t entirely “for a change”. Professor Ferguson does indeed occasionally reply to some of what he receives, and he concedes this himself. Clearly then he does notice these emails.

Note that the writer is now depicted as someone likely to be dogmatic and intractable. Professor Ferguson states that he does not “expect” his reply to have any effect. Here he introduces the idea that the writer exists in an “alternative reality”. This of course is a vaguely science fiction allusion and suggests that the writer is in a parallel universe, and by using the pejorative term “sucked into” he suggests the writer has effectively been “conned”.

To start with may [sic] want to read this: https://www.climatechangecommunication.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/ConspiracyTheoryHandbook.pdf And ask yourself if a loved one started to exhibit those behaviours, would you be worried?

This tactic is immediately reinforced with the next paragraph, which is designed to imply that the writer has fallen under the spell of conspiracy theorists. This subtly therefore positions Professor Ferguson as a reliable voice of legitimacy and reason in contrast. For students of totalitarian regimes, Professor Ferguson’s tactic at this point is reminiscent of scenes from 1984 and also the sort of circumstances enemies of such regimes can find themselves in if they question the official line. It’s a subtle way of suggesting the writer has lost her reason.

Conspiracy theorists of course exist but suggesting that someone is susceptible to conspiracy theories is also a cheap and easy way of making them seem foolish and gullible. This is a useful mechanism for a protagonist who is about to move in with his own attack, and whose definition of rational thought is what he himself and his peer group think.

As to the article you refer to, it recycles the same old, same old misinformation. You may be surprised to learn that the Telegraph and Spectator have published over a dozen corrections in response to complaints from Imperial College about inaccurate articles. For instance, no-one ran the Imperial model for Sweden (other than us).

This is the last stage of the opening attack, with the final salvo being to reinforce the idea that anyone who queries Professor Ferguson and his “friends” is peddling the “same old misinformation”. You’ll note that so far Professor Ferguson has said nothing specifically to address the points raised. Essentially, the position he has adopted is that the emotional and antagonistic writer has forwarded only “misinformation”.

Since some of the points raised in Derek Winton’s article included drawing attention to Professor Ferguson’s apparent lack of relevant qualifications, and previous predictions based on modelling that turned out to be inaccurate (including Sweden), one might have expected at this point a more explicit response. However, by calling the article “misinformation” the suggestion is that everything within the article is by definition incorrect, false, and misleading.

More substantively, the Government never relied on just one model. The models written by LSHTM, Warwick University and Institut Pasteur Paris all agreed with “the” Imperial model. All used different code bases.

This is an interesting tactic. In this paragraph, despite up to this point attacking the writer and then rubbishing the article, Professor Ferguson now introduces the idea of absolving himself and his colleagues from exclusive responsibility for the Government’s actions. The Government, he says, took into account four models which “all agreed” with Imperial. He does not say how they agreed, either in content or recommendation.

And in fact, there was never “one” Imperial model, but several. We now have four different COVID models, again which all agree.

Like the previous paragraph, a claim without any specific explanation or substantiation but composed essentially to say he was right, not once but four times in order to reinforce his position. However, in what ways he was right he keeps to himself.

Government responses were never dependent on one model. They were driven by the reality that any disease which generates epidemics which double every 3-4 days and for which over 2% of those infected require hospitalisation will overwhelm any health system that exists.

In fact, a case could be made that the UK government took too little notice of our (not just Imperial – all the SAGE groups) modelling. In that they basically only acted when they saw hospitalisations and deaths growing exponentially.

I’ll treat these two paragraphs together. Here the purpose is to distance Imperial College, and therefore by implication Professor Ferguson himself, from the outcome of Government action by passing all responsibility to the Government. Now, in the strict sense of how a nation is ruled that is as it should be.

But note how Professor Ferguson says a case could be made that the Government took “too little notice” of the modelling. Had the Government done exactly what Professor Ferguson says it should have, then the situation he claims to have predicted would never have arisen, thereby exempting him for all time from ever having his predictions tested while he basked in praise for having been right. This is similar to Homer Simpson and his anti-tiger rock.

Of course, that didn’t happen. This enables Professor Ferguson to imply that Government incompetence is to blame for the actual numbers of hospitalisations and deaths because they “only acted” when they saw them rising “exponentially”. The tactic is of course a perfect one. “If only they had done as we said”, then we wouldn’t be in this mess.

In summary, Professor Ferguson’s reply to the writer of the email is as follows:

  • You’re being emotional
  • You’ve lost control of yourself
  • You’re being aggressive
  • You’re attacking me and my powerful and well-qualified friends, so watch out
  • Your email is electronic junk and the article you sent me is also junk
  • I and my friends are all correct, because we all added up the figures and got the same answer (whatever that was)
  • I’m right because if the Government had done as we had said things would have been different, and because the Government didn’t do as we said things have turned out as they have
  • Nothing that has happened is my fault or the fault of my friends, and we didn’t get anything wrong

It’s an enviable position to be in. Professor Ferguson has built himself an impregnable bunker in which by predicting a scenario that would never have happened (and did not happen) he can never be proved wrong. His reply essentially amounts to a declamation of how nothing he has said or done in connection with this matter can be queried. Anyone who does so must have something wrong with them or be troubled in some way. That he bothered to reply shows that it is important to him to assert this position.

Clearly, there’ll never be any dialogue or debate with him, and he will probably go to his grave with his certainty undented. In some professions, certainty is useful. In this one I am not so sure. The lack of humility is to be expected, but even if he does in quieter and private moments question himself, his reply proves that he is unlikely to admit it.

However, in science the only route to progress is doubt, not certainty. One cannot help but muse on scientific certainties of the past that were brushed aside when someone with the wit and imagination to see beyond came up with another solution or explanation. It would be very rare in history if anyone was to look back at this time and regard the certainties of, in this instance, our current epidemiological modelling as definitive, unequivocal, and cast-iron.


Neil Ferguson’s Original Correspondent Responds – and He Responds Again!

The Lockdown Sceptics reader’s response to Professor Ferguson was powerful

Dear Professor Ferguson,

I was surprised to get a reply to my email – but frankly amazed to read the content of the link you sent me.  Is that really the best you can do? Do you respond to other scientists’ theories by shutting them down by yelling ‘conspiracy theorist’? Instead of engaging with the central tenet of the argument, that your/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris model might be wrong, you call me a conspiracy theorist. That is very odd and suggests to me it’s you that have developed a very warped sense of reality and that maybe you do not understand what is going on in people’s lives. We look at ONS/NHS data every day on cases/hospitalisations/deaths, not wild theories.

So let me speak from personal experience. I have 21 year-old twins, studying at Bristol (Economics) and Montpellier (Year abroad) respectively. Their lives are relatively rubbish at the moment, no enjoyment of the university life for which my daughter at Bristol is paying £18K a year. My son is living under a curfew. But I accept, not a disaster. Their friend killed himself while incarcerated as a student last year. He was in despair.

Just this week we heard of the suicide of a lovely man my husband met at the gym, a Tunisian. He worked as a waiter, so I guess he had financial worries.

We help a Syrian Refugee family in the town. Two children, aged six and 12. In the summer we realised that all the progress they had made at their excellent primary school was slipping away and that the 12 year-old was losing his English (they speak Arabic at home) so we started doing lessons at our house for the mum and the two children. We realised that the boy was virtually illiterate. His parents had been so terrorised by the fear porn churned out by the government (acting on your/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris models) that they would not send the children back to school even though they were ‘allowed’, being in Years 1 and 6. He then started at the local High school, has got into fights, been bullied and I fear for his future. His life chances have been damaged by having his education denied to him by this government relying on the models mentioned above. Of course our weekly lessons had to stop. Online learning started. The family did not have a laptop. The Government agencies that get paid handsomely to do so could not provide a laptop, so we set up a charity to recycle laptops to deprived children.

We’ve helped him and 178 other children in our nice leafy middle-class Stratford-on-Avon. I wonder what it’s like in Middlesborough, Fleetwood, Great Yarmouth? Multiply my young Syrian friend’s experience by literally millions and you start to approach the truth (not a conspiracy theory!) of the world that you have been key in ushering in (and of course LSHTM, Warwick University and the Institut Pasteur Paris). So many young people’s lives will be poorer, in so many ways. My point is this is real world stuff, not theory (either your theory or a conspiracy theory)..

Me and my husband both have widowed mothers. His mum is 94 – one of the last years of her life has been lived in almost total isolation. She has 14 grandchildren who are (should read, were) very involved in her life, regularly travelling 2.5 hours+ to visit her in Suffolk. All stopped. She’s living life as a husk. Both her and my mother’s mobility have seriously declined, because they do not go out any more, due to lockdown (not the virus). My mum is I’d say typical of a lot of 87 year-olds. She’s reasonably intelligent, used to be a teacher. She lives alone in the house she’s lived in for the last 63 years. It is completely in the ‘back of beyond’.  The house sits atop a sea wall and the nearest land mass looking west is Ireland. The Irish Sea hits the house at high tide. She is miles from anywhere and has no part of community life. She isn’t online and gets all her news from the BBC (refusing a newspaper in case “it’s on it”– the virus). The house is for sale as it’s a mad place for an 87 year-old to live in but she won’t allow any viewings – you can guess why. Her mobility is also much reduced and she is desperately lonely. I haven’t seen her in over a year. This isn’t a conspiracy theory. It’s my mum’s life. She lives like this because of the messaging from the Government, acting as a result of modelling by you/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris. The aim of the Government was to terrify the population. I do hope you of all people do not think that this is a conspiracy theory.  I’ve read the relevant minutes from Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) on March 22nd 2020 which says among other things: 

A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened

The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent using hard-hitting emotional messaging

Use media to increase sense of personal threat

Perhaps you think the 47 signatories to this petition are also conspiracy theorists? The BIT feeds into SAGE – so count yourself as part of all this – and together they have set out to terrorise us – and you’ve done such a brilliant job that people like my mum (who has had her first vaccine) is unlikely ever to resume normal life again. Her house won’t sell and we’ll have the same horrendous problems trying to get carers for her as we did for my dad four years ago – except that unlike him, he had mum, she’ll be alone. Just telling you what real life looks like.

Do you get it? You might live a nice comfortable life as an academic. I too want for nothing (apart from normality). I am sufficiently well off to shield my three children from the coming, shall we call them, difficulties.  It’s the ‘left behind’, the marginalised, the poor, the lonely elderly, the millions upon millions of dirt poor people in the developing world that keeps me awake at night. So yes, I’m angry. But you call me the conspiracy theorist! Do you not see reports like this: 270 million marching towards starvation (perhaps they too are infected with conspiracy theories?). This isn’t the virus that’s caused this, it’s lockdowns. First World lockdowns have a terrible impact on the the Third/Developing world – I don’t think that’s in contention.  Surely you can see that? Even if you didn’t foresee it as a consequence.

Or this in the Lancet: 94 million children at risk of not getting their measles vaccine (perhaps the Lancet is in on the conspiracy?)

Maybe if you, Whitty, Valance, Drosten, Farrar and Edmunds are all merrily putting communications in your junk folder you really are totally unaware of what is happening in the real world? Pause: think: what if they are right? What if only half of what I say is right? I thought scientists were supposed to welcome their theories being challenged? I thought that’s how they are tested. You describe me as being “sucked into” an “alternate reality” – and that is precisely my beef – you are the one living in a land of modelled theories – I am the one asking you to look at my reality – the ‘on the ground Real World’ data. What has happened in countries which didn’t/couldn’t lock down? Yes, look at Sweden, though it obviously pains you do to do so. How to explain its death rate? Or Texas? Or Brazil? Or Belarus? How is that a conspiracy? Is the FT in on the conspiracy? Worldometers? Perhaps the health reporting agencies are in on it too! 

I might not be an epidemiologist but it’s fairly obvious to me that your model (and that of Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris) is out by several orders of magnitude and the fact that you resort to calling people who disagree with it “conspiracy theorists” only serves to illustrate how far down the rabbit hole you have fallen. Oh, and what is wrong in pointing out that you have made the self-same error with Swine Flu, Bird Flu, Foot and Mouth? Or do you dispute those figures when you say I’m quoting the “same old misinformation”? Are all those reporting your past predictions v the actuality also in on the conspiracy?

I loathe this Government and its key players in this, the worst mistake the world has ever made. You – I would say that you are obviously a decent human being and I wonder if you do not see that you are going to be hung out to dry by those chancers running this operation.  Just look at their record – the failed Test and Trace, the corruption, the care home deaths, the infection rate in hospitals – you have hitched your star to the worst Government we have ever had but unfortunately it will forever be your name attached to ‘The Science’ that drove them. If you can’t see that then you are not as clever as we all were led to believe. You and Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris have made the biggest mistake of all time and in my view the sooner you accept it and try and proffer some sort of explanation the better. The truth might be able to be suppressed in our society now so bereft of free speech, but it will come out – starting in other countries.

I find it unfathomable that you/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris were listened to, the Pandemic Preparedness Plan thrown away and we embarked on lockdowns, with the rest of the world following. Perhaps you could do some good at this late stage by trying to get the mass-testing/False Positive Rate sorted out (by following the WHO’s guidelines, for instance) otherwise we are never going to get out of this mess. My husband drew this up – from Government data.

Sorry for the long email. The conclusion I’ve reached that it’s you that is living in some parallel universe if you think that I am the conspiracy theorist. The world lies in tatters because of your/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris theory.

If you’ve got this far, thanks for reading

XXXX


Professor Ferguson’s second answer to the Lockdown Sceptics reader was more conciliatory than his first

Dear XXXX

I would start by asking whether you really think I and my colleagues are unaware of the social and economic consequences of societal restrictions? Every life lost is a tragedy, whatever the cause. And I absolutely agree that this pandemic – and the measures adopted – have hit the poorest hardest.

But I wonder what you think motivates me and my (many hundreds of) fellow scientists who have been working on this pandemic for over a year? It certainly isn’t publicity or a desire to impose draconian rules on society. Nor do I have any love of lockdown restrictions myself, personally or ideologically. I don’t know anyone who does. Rather, we are trying to learn as much as possible about the epidemiology of this virus and how best to limit its health impacts.

The judgement call on the balance between compulsory measures and voluntary recommendations is a political one, but the effectiveness of each is likely culturally specific. Sweden made one set of choices, Denmark and Norway another. The result is that Sweden has had fewer restrictions overall, but has had 3-4x the per capita death toll of its neighbours. Our death toll is higher still not because we over-reacted, but because we introduced measures too late last March, and then repeated the mistake last autumn. And because of factors which were just bad luck – the level of seeding last February and the new variant last November.

As for the UK, what are you really suggesting the Government should have done back in December in response to the new variant and the overwhelming levels of hospital demand seen in London and elsewhere? Let people continue to go about their normal business as thousands died at home or on hospital corridors, as is happening in Mexico? 

And to reassure you, we track the pandemic globally. And have a significant research programme comparing how different countries have responded. I am a bit surprised you point to Brazil as a success story though. And if you highlight Belarus, why not China?

I am also aware that there is a continuum between scepticism and outright conspiracy theory craziness. But some of the “facts” you and the lockdown sceptics throw out are tending towards the latter category. Remember the claims that there would be no second wave and that we were just experiencing a “casedemic”?

False positive rates are not a major issue at present. We are aware they will need to be accounted for more in future though. Also, while every suicide is tragic, there is no evidence that the suicide rate has increased in the last year. I am actually much more worried about all the cancer diagnoses and treatments which were postponed in the last few months due to Covid-related NHS demand.

I certainly agree there are many lessons to be learned from this pandemic – including regarding test and trace (especially early on) and care homes. I do not see myself as a Government cheerleader. Indeed, one of the depressing aspects of the discourse around this pandemic is the politicisation of science.

Best,

Neil


The reader replied.

Dear Neil,

Thank you for your considered response.

I suspect you epidemiologists are told that there will be economic and other consequences of the lockdowns but I, and many others, think you have got the balance wrong. The precautionary principle has overtaken acceptable risk. I was quite taken aback by your link to the conspiracy theory website, which does make me worry that reasonable suggestions are being rebuffed by you and people like you as “crazy conspiracy theories”. I hope you would concede that I have made some valid points to you about the outcomes of lockdowns.

You asked in your first reply what would I have done, dealing with a disease that would see 2% in hospital. Nowhere in the world have cases continued to grow “exponentially”, regardless of the level of NPIs imposed.  My point is (and I rely on real world data to support it) that you and your colleagues have concentrated on the 2% to the enormous disbenefit of the other 98% and society in general. We might argue what the IFR is but whether it’s 10 in a 1,000 or two in a 1,000, the BBC and government ministers have focused too much on the (let’s settle for four in 1,000) fatalities rather than 996 recoveries. The result is a terrorised population, lacking the ability to get the risks into perspective and the very real long term threat that people will never get back to normal for fear of flu or other seasonal illnesses. We can’t all live forever.

How can you argue against the fact that other countries do illuminate what could happen if a different approach to NPIs were taken? That NPIs (or lack thereof) made very little difference to Covid health outcomes and that the disease didn’t grow exponentially in those countries, such as Vietnam, India and Japan? Are you suggesting all the data I’ve been looking at – Euromomo, the FT, Worldometers – are somehow presenting false information? How does that make me and other sceptics (not deniers, obviously!) conspiracy theorists? It does rather suggest an over sensitivity on your part. 

Yes, I overlooked the cancers/other missed health treatments (so many other horrors to mention). A year down the line, do you not consider that the cure is going to be worse than the disease, in cancer/missed treatments alone, quite apart from the other societal/economic/libertarian damage

By the way, which ‘fact’ in my email makes you think I am on the side of conspiracy theory craziness?  I think that we should have lived with a greater degree of risk and that in fact you have opened a Pandora’s Box of fear and risk aversion which is going to be a constant plague. Though with a trashed economy, I’m not sure how it’s going to be paid for, if we are to have annual lockdowns. I think that we should have dealt with it differently, by following the Pandemic Preparedness Plan, by shielding the vulnerable (think: Great Barrington Declaration). It might have seemed an impossible task but it is nothing compared to what we have done. We’ll never agree that the NPIs delivered a step change in outcome – but as I said, those who disagree with you can point to countries which didn’t use them/used them lightly and observe that the death rates were much the same as those who did lock down. I guess my point is that if your (and all the other institutions you mention) model were to be tested against these countries, your modelled response would be very far apart from what actually happened. Is that calling it wrong? Or just out by several factors. 

We’ve infantilised the population, created an enormous health crisis and trashed the economy. We’ve turned a once-in-40-years health crisis into a cataclysmic health/economic/political/societal disaster. I agree I don’t know what part your input played in these decisions, but I know that you are so frequently on our airwaves some people think you were pretty instrumental.

But thank you for your time in engaging with me.

Best wishes

XXXX


Niall Ferguson’s Second Correspondent from Lockdown Sceptics!

Following the exchange above, another reader sent an email to Professor Neil Ferguson. And, again, he replied. Here is their exchange in full.

Neil,

Someone sent you an article written by Derek Winton and you replied to that person by sending him/her a handbook about conspiracy theories.

So – anyone who disagrees with you must be a conspiracy theorist? Is that it?

But the Derek Winton article made no reference at all to any conspiracy or conspiracy theory. 

It is possible you know to take a different view from you without thinking that you are part of some conspiracy. 

Your reply referred to above doesn’t come across at all well. You might want to consider proffering an apology for it. 

All the best,

XXXX


The Professor replied, with a couple of references that suggest he may have Googled “Lockdown Scepticsand “no Second Wave” or “Casedemic” before replying.

Dear XXXX,

Reductionist rhetoric such as “anyone who disagrees with you must be a conspiracy theorist?” rather makes my point. It is not just anyone.

Science is about alternative perspectives, debate and being prepared to change ones view. My views are driven by the data and analysis of it – not just that from Imperial, but from researchers globally. Like most other people working on the virus, I learn new things every week, and that sometime involves rejecting previous beliefs.

However, the Winton piece was an ideologically motivated rhetorical rant, not a serious scientific discussion. Criticising 15 year-old C code is never going to be scientifically persuasive, because the science never depended on that (or any other) code. Never mind the bizarre but persistent minority belief that the world locked down because of the results from one modelling study.

That post came from a mindset that has predetermined what the truth is, feels that the “mainstream” world is not listening, and seeks to use polemic rather than actual scientific research to change others’ minds. That ticks quite a few of the conspiratorial thinking boxes. Admittedly not to the same degree as the emails I receive accusing me of being a minion of Bill Gates in wanting to implant microchips in people. But that is not saying much.

That is not to say I don’t think it’s legitimate to disagree about whether the social and economic costs of Covid measures are “worth it”. Or indeed about whether compulsory measures or recommendations should have been adopted. Neither of those issues are fundamentally scientific ones. 

What is dangerous “alternate reality” nonsense is using rhetoric and cherry-picking of the science to try to deny the threat posed by the virus. To give a couple of not too historic examples:

https://dailysceptic.org/2020/09/01/latest-news-121/

https://dailysceptic.org/dr-clare-craig-false-positive-pseudo-epidemic-coronavirus-testing-pcr-lateral-flow/

This last year has been a tragedy for the world, and the consequences will be with us for decades. The response of the scientific community has been a silver lining though. We have learned more about this virus in a shorter time than I could have conceived would be possible. That we have multiple vaccines now available is a remarkable achievement – and one which will benefit the control of many other diseases. And, unlike much of the rest of the response to the pandemic, that research has been a truly global and co-operative effort.

Instead of futilely trying to undermine the work of thousands here and abroad, perhaps try celebrating  human ingenuity in the face of adversity. The pandemic has been a random, terrible event. It is no-one’s fault – and while every country has made mistakes, most decision-makers (and the doctors and scientists behind them) have been trying to do the best they can, faced with very difficult decisions.

Best,

Neil


Our reader then replied to him.

Dear Neil,

Thanks for your email in reply to mine. I am grateful to you for taking the time. I know you are busy. 

Some lockdown sceptics have made predictions that haven’t come to pass. But is that not also true of Imperial College modelling as Derek Winton has said?

You may say that the reason your team’s BSE projection on which he comments never came to pass is because the Government of the day took the projections of that team seriously and took drastic measures to mitigate the disease’s impact.

But what about your telling the Guardian in 2005 that up to 200 million people could be killed by bird flu? Few precautionary measures were taken to mitigate the impact of Avian Flu and yet the number of deaths is a tiny fraction of that figure. 

And in 2009 an Imperial College modelling team of which you were a member significantly over-estimated the likely death toll from Swine Flu.

Again nothing approaching a lockdown was imposed. I accept these things don’t mean your subsequent work should be dismissed, but by the same token I don’t think you can dismiss the central arguments of the lockdown sceptics – that the lockdown policy will ultimately do more harm than it prevents – just because some of their predictions turned out to be inaccurate. 

Correct me if I have this wrong but I don’t think that the adverse health/educational/social/political/other effects of lockdown have featured in modelling with which you have been involved. Could be your view is that that’s not your bailiwick – is that how you see it?

(In fairness to you, I do see on looking again at your email to me that –  whatever your modelling work says – you accept that there is room for debate on the question of the social and economic harms that Lockdown might cause – though you don’t refer to the harm to health it might/does cause.)

If you have a moment I’d love to know how you respond to the evidence that the most severe policies – such as stay-at-home orders and business closures – are not more effective at reducing overall transmission than the more modest policies put in place in countries like Sweden and South Korea. I’m thinking of the work of John Ioannidis and his colleagues at Stanford in particular:

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/eci.13484

In addition, there is the evidence that laypersons like me can see with our own eyes.

Such as the fact that Florida which didn’t lockdown again in the autumn/winter has a lower Covid death toll than some states that did and overall the average number of Covid deaths in those US states that haven’t issued stay-at-home orders is lower than in those that did.

Isn’t it at least arguable that had we kept to our Pandemic Preparedness Strategy we wouldn’t have significantly more Covid deaths than we’ve had in England after three lockdowns? And that we’d have far lower levels of collateral damage? 

Some of the criticism directed at you is deplorable, vitriolic stuff which I find utterly unacceptable. Reprehensible in fact. I am not with the people who put out that kind of material. 

I would like to see reasoned debate instead. 

I would like to see you talking to Sunetra Gupta, Carl Heneghan and John Ioannidis for example.

In fact, I would love to see a proper grown up debate between the leading scientists on both sides of this issue on the BBC or Channel 4.

I bet if you proposed it to the Beeb they’d have a good look at putting it on. (I can’t know whether any of the people I refer to above would want to show up – don’t know them.) 

Take it easy. 

Many thanks. 

Cheers,

XXXX


Professor Ferguson, who must, by this stage, have had a fairly good idea of where his response was going to end up, replied:

Dear XXX,

Can I point out that I never “predicted” 200m would be killed by bird flu. The Guardian article you refer to was reporting this Nature paper – https://www.nature.com/articles/nature04017

What we looked at was what might unfold if bird flu (H5N1) gained the ability to spread from person to person. A threat which still exists, but not something we can predict the likelihood of happening (or ever tried). As I explained to journalists at the time. 

That paper was a small part of a global research effort to improve preparations for a novel influenza pandemic which was stimulated by the emergence of H5N1. Pandemic planning has been a top priority for the UK Government since that time, with a novel pandemic being top of the UK Government risk register.

In relation to Swine flu, I think you are referring to the Dept. of Health reasonable worst case planning scenario which was agreed by SAGE in 2009. Multiple groups input into that, and it was never a prediction (rather it was closer to the upper bound of a confidence interval) – as the name implies – given the data available in April 2009, it quantified the worst case the UK Government might need to plan for. As more data became available, the uncertainty range narrowed and the upper bound on the confidence interval came down, leading the RWC to be revised down. That is how science works. 

I would also note that SAGE has never revised the RWC for Covid agreed last March, largely because the severity we estimated for the virus turned out, unfortunately, to be basically spot on.

Best,

Neil