SAGE

“Eye-Watering” SAGE Models Had “Too Much Weight”: Another SAGE Scientist Recants His Lockdown Zealotry as the Winds Change

The U.K. relied too much on “very scary” SAGE models to decide on lockdowns, according to the man behind some of those very projections who repeatedly called for longer lockdowns. MailOnline has more.

Just months after SAGE predicted 6,000 deaths per day and called for a Christmas lockdown in response to Omicron, Professor John Edmunds said the models were only supposed to be “one component” of decision-making but were leaned on too much by ministers.

He accepted the models failed to account for the economic harm and the knock-on health effects that lockdowns caused. 

Professor Edmunds admitted that these harms “in principle” could have been factored into models “but in practice they were not”.

His remarks come as Britons face the harsh reality of two years’ of shutting down the economy and health service, with the NHS grappling a backlog crisis that has seen one in nine people in England stuck on an NHS waiting list for treatment and inflation at its highest point in 30 years. 

The epidemiologist, who was among the most outspoken members of SAGE, said some of the death projections in the model were “truly eye-watering”.

Speaking at a medical conference on Tuesday, he said: “The epidemiological model is only one component [of decision-making] and I wondered and I worried that we’d had too much weight.”

He added: “There is of course an enormous economic impact from many of the interventions and other indirect impacts on psychological health and so on. Now these in principle could be included but in practice they were not.”

Professor Edmunds called for the first lockdown to be extended in summer 2021, warning Britain was “taking a risk” by unlocking while still logging 8,000 cases per day and that the decision was “clearly” political.

And he warned against easing the third national lockdown in early 2021, warning it would be a ‘”disaster” and put “enormous pressure” on the health service. 

Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth and all that – but you can’t help feel the recantation is very convenient as we move on from the pandemic and people start to look back with more objectivity at all the crazy, costly things that were done in the name of ‘science’ and at the behest of modellers.

Worth reading in full.

The Anxiety Pandemic Created by SAGE’s Project Fear

There follows a guest post by Dr. Mark Stephen Nesti, a Chartered Psychologist, Consultant Performance Psychologist and former Associate Professor of Psychology in Sport, who is very concerned about the long term ramifications of the societal anxiety deliberately generated during the pandemic to increase compliance. He is author of Meaning and Spirituality in Sport and Exercise – Psychological Perspectives.

Much has been said about how fear has been used to drive the narrative and help impose restrictions on personal liberty we have faced during the pandemic. In this article I would like to suggest that anxiety, rather than fear itself, has become the much bigger concern, and one whose effects will haunt us for years to come.

If we take a step back for a moment, we can see that psychological language has been in the spotlight throughout the last two years. Some sections of the media and various bodies of experts have undoubtedly used their influence to generate fear in the general public. Although fear can paralyse our thoughts and actions, I believe that what we have actually been subject to has been a deliberate attempt to generate massive levels of societal anxiety. As a psychologist, I believe that anxiety, rather than fear, will turn out to be a major health problem facing individuals in the years ahead. Due to a number of complex factors operating at personal and community levels, the incidence of clinical and sub-clinical anxiety has never been higher in the U.K. population. The data to support this claim are well known, and yet, we have just been through a situation where psychologists on SAGE supported by others have deliberately stoked anxiety to increase compliance around various Covid measures.

Why Did So Many Scientists Get COVID-19 So Wrong?

We’re publishing a review of Mark Woolhouse’s book The Year the World Went Mad: A Scientific Memoir by Guy de la Bédoyère today, a long-standing contributor to the Daily Sceptic. The book is gratifying for lockdown sceptics because it makes all the points we were making two years ago but is written by a member of the SAGE modelling team. Some will say, ‘Why didn’t you make all these points at the time?’, but to be fair to Woolhouse he has been a vocal critic of Government policy since early on. In August 2020 he called lockdown a “monumental mistake” that must not happen again. Here is an extract from Guy’s review:

Woolhouse is committed to the idea that COVID-19 is a potentially dangerous and deadly disease, and I do not dispute that. It has patently been so for huge numbers of people, even if it has been far less severe for many more. But we knew from the outset that the dangers were far from equally distributed throughout the population. Woolhouse sets this against the harms caused by lockdown, first of all as I have outlined through the “fall-off in health care provision throughout the UK”, followed by education and the impact on the economy which itself is bound to impact on the NHS. Instead, of finding a balance, says Woolhouse, many scientific advisors were “all too willing to dismiss those indirect harms” with a fixation on the belief that their sole responsibility was the minimise “the harm done by novel coronavirus and nothing more”.

In my view he could have gone further and described that for what it was: irresponsibility on a scandalous scale, a kind of true engrained crassness that it is difficult to believe could carry so much weight and force. And these are the people we permit to direct our lives?

A personal experience of the stupidity we have had to deal with came for me almost a year ago. Keen to learn and understand more, I had some correspondence with some of the nation’s most prominent scientists. One, who shall remain nameless, appeared on the World at One and I questioned why he had adopted the line he had. His reply (April 2021) included this memorable sentence: “I had a lot I might have said in addition to what [the presenter] guided me to say – I’m sure your experience as a broadcaster will tell you that you are part of a narrative and your role is to fit in with the show (to a greater or lesser extent).”

I was staggered by the naivety that scientist exhibited about declaring it is his responsibility to go along with a journalist’s narrative and what that could, and did, lead to. Having worked for the BBC for almost 20 years I was already rattled by the appalling lack of objectivity and inquiry some of its hacks (with some notable exceptions) exhibited during the pandemic. But to discover a scientist of his status could be so foolish as to believe it was his duty to “fit in” with a show’s agenda was a new one even for me.

Worth reading in full.

SAGE Member Mark Woolhouse Was “Told to Correct His Views” After Criticising Witless and Unbalanced’s Infamous ‘Graph of Doom’

Senior epidemiologist and Government coronavirus adviser Professor Mark Woolhouse claims he was told to “correct” his views after he criticised what he thought was an “implausible” graph shown at an official briefing – Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty’s notorious Graph of Doom from September 21st 2020. Sky News has the story.

The Edinburgh University academic is deeply critical of the use of lockdown measures and says “plain common sense” was a “casualty of the crisis”.

Speaking to Sky News, Prof Woolhouse seemed concerned about a possible “big-brother” approach to the control of information about Covid.

He says he was told to watch what he was saying following a briefing given by Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) Sir Patrick Vallance on September 21st 2020.

Sir Patrick said at the time: “At the moment, we think that the epidemic is doubling roughly every seven days.”

Fifty thousand cases a day were being predicted by mid-October.

“There was a lot wrong with the projection,” Prof Woolhouse says. He calculated the doubling period as every 10 or 11 days, rather than seven, and, in his opinion, there was “no reason to expect the epidemic to accelerate suddenly”.

He observes: “If this projection had been extended for another week we would be talking about one hundred thousand cases per day. Another month would have given us close to half a million. Per day. An exponential projection will give you any number you like if you run it for long enough.”

Prof Woolhouse felt the predictions were “so implausible” that he was concerned about a loss of scientific “credibility”.

After seeing the graph, he says he “quickly posted what was intended to be a reassuring comment through the Science Media Centre saying it was highly unlikely that the U.K. would see so many reported cases per day by mid-October”.

“As it turned out, we barely reached half that,” he says in his new book on the pandemic called The Year the World Went Mad.

However, his “objections did not go down well”.

“After a flurry of emails I was invited to ‘correct’ my comments,” he says.

“The invitation was passed on to me by a messenger so I cannot be sure precisely where in the system it originated.”

Nor did not end there, he says. “A couple of weeks later I was asked to give evidence to a House of Commons Select Committee. This generated another flurry of emails over an October weekend from two senior Government scientists concerned that I might criticise the CSA’s graph before the MPs.”

When asked where the message telling him to “correct his views” came from, he says he simply doesn’t know the source, but it was “not from a random person”.

Clearly angry, he insists it “wasn’t my views that needed correcting, it was the projections”.

Then almost the exact same thing happened at the end of October, he says, ahead of the November lockdown.

The article includes a number of other fascinating and revealing anecdotes from Prof Woolhouse’s book and is worth reading in full.

SAGE Stood Down, Signifying End of Pandemic

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has been stood down in a clear sign that the Government believes the Covid crisis is over. The Telegraph has more.

Although the group “stands ready if required” it will no longer meet regularly, the first time it has halted its ongoing response since January 2020.

The decision was taken after the Government acknowledged that Britain has entered a new phase of its response, and follows the lifting of all remaining legal restrictions in England as part of Downing Street’s Living With Covid plan.

The devolved nations have their own scientific advisory groups and are emerging from the epidemic on slightly different timelines.

The Telegraph understands that the Government will continue to receive Covid advice from other expert bodies, such as the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), as well as from Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Advisor and Sir Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer.

Professor Carl Heneghan, Director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford said:

The standing down of SAGE signifies the end of the pandemic in the U.K. This is a remarkable turnabout of events given that just before Christmas, SAGE advisors were warning infections could hit two million per day and were pushing for further restrictions. The Government will need to review whether SAGE is fit for purpose when it comes to pandemics. Particularly given its lack of clinical input and its overreliance on modelling – which we now know is no more than ‘guesswork’ – and its tendency to fixate on a particular set of assumptions.

SAGE Scientist Makes the Wrong Inference on Masks

A few weeks ago, the Guardian published an article in which various ‘experts’ revealed what they got wrong during the pandemic. Anyone hoping to read ‘lockdown – I was wrong on lockdown’ will be disappointed, although Professor Allyson Pollock of Newcastle University did admit she should have spoken out against school closures.

Our old friend Neil Ferguson was humble enough to list three things he got wrong, although none of them, strangely, makes any reference to Sweden. Recall that Ferguson’s team forecast up to 90,000 deaths in Sweden without mitigation. Yet two years later, the official count stands at only 16,000.

You might assume this would have led Ferguson to revise his beliefs concerning the efficacy of lockdown. After all, his model made a clear prediction concerning, and that prediction simply failed to materialise. Alas, no. All three of his self-confessed errors concern relatively minor details of epidemiological modelling.

Another familiar name among the Guardian’s line up is Devi Sridhar – chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh. Yet once again, her big admission suggests no real updating of beliefs on her part.

Sridhar previously advocated ‘Zero Covid’ – something that was never tenable in a large, dense, highly connected country like the U.K. But the wrongness of her ‘Zero Covid’ stance isn’t what she wants to own up to.

Instead, Sridhar feels that she overestimated how willing Britons would be to comply with Korea-style contact tracing, which involved tracking people’s movements via GPS. She presumably believes that contract tracing is what made the difference in Korea, even though Japan achieved the same outcomes by doing nothing.

But put Ferguson and Sridhar to one side. The most egregious paragraph in the article is the one under Professor Susan Michie’s name. Here’s what she had to say:

Early on, my reading was that the evidence on the effectiveness of face masks in community settings was equivocal. The emphasis on droplet transmission raised a concern that infected people may touch their face masks and then touch surfaces, thus providing a transmission route … When evidence showed that the major route for transmission was via aerosol rather than droplet, the case for masks became hugely stronger.

I don’t know about you, but I’d say Michie has it entirely backwards. If the major route for transmission was via droplets, then masking would make sense. After all, masks can actually stop droplets. What they can’t stop is tiny airborne particles, which simply go through or around them. Here’s what Fauci said in a leaked email from February of 2020:

The typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out virus, which is small enough to pass through the material. It might, however, provide some slight benefit in keep out gross droplets if someone coughs or sneezes on you.

So Michie drew precisely the wrong inference. When it became clear that Covid spreads via aerosols rather than droplets, the case for masks became hugely weaker.

While getting scientists to reflect on their mistakes is a useful exercise, not all of those to whom the Guardian spoke have really grappled with what went wrong. We can debate exactly how much effect masks and lockdowns have, but it’s clearly less – a lot less – than we were led to believe. Will the ‘experts’ ever admit this?

Is this the First of Many SAGE Modellers to Recant?

Professor Mark Woolhouse, a member of SPI-M, the modelling group on SAGE, has written a book – The Year the World Went Mad – in which he expresses deep regret about the fact that he and the Government’s other scientific advisors got almost everything completely wrong. The lockdown sceptics were right, in other words, particularly those who favoured ‘focused protection’ over universal restrictions. Harry de Quetteville in the Telegraph has more

“We knew from February [2020], never mind March, that the lockdown would not solve the problem. It would simply delay it,” Woolhouse says, a note of enduring disbelief in his voice. And yet in government, “there was no attention paid to that rather obvious drawback of the strategy”.

Instead, lockdowns – which “only made sense in the context of eradication” – became the tool of choice to control Covid. The die was cast in China, which instituted ultra-strict measures and, unforgivably in Woolhouse’s book, was praised by the World Health Organisation for its “bold approach”. “The WHO,” he suggests, “got the biggest calls completely wrong in 2020. The early global response to the pandemic was woefully inadequate.”

Watching on, the rest of the world found itself following the same template, even though no work had been done to assess the costs of lockdowns. After swine flu, modellers had studied the knock-on consequences of many elements of infection control, but they had never envisaged “an instruction for most of the population to stay at home”.

So in March 2020, Britain issued the most dramatic civilian order since the war, with no idea what the harms might be. Why?

Even today, Woolhouse says, from his office at the University of Edinburgh: “I don’t have a good answer for you. It was a frustration from the beginning.” What he does know is that while extremely detailed modelling was being done “on what the epidemic itself might look like and the harms that novel coronavirus would cause… on the other side of the scales, we had pretty much nothing at all. There was never at any stage, even by the following year, any form of analysis of the harms caused by lockdowns. Were they even considered? I haven’t seen any evidence that they were and that is very, very troubling.”

All this despite a report on lockdown’s wider consequences sent to SAGE by the Office for National Statistics as early as April 2020, assessing how many years of quality life would be lost to lockdowns. The best guess was that suppressing the virus would cost three times more years than the disease itself.

In part, this finding emerged because the ONS report reflected on the relative costs of lockdown to different parts of society – in this case, to the young as well as to the old. In retrospect, this seems like an uncontroversial thing to do. But Woolhouse, from his position on the inside as government policy was formed, saw something very different: the disease being described as a universal killer, when it was clear from the beginning some were very much more at risk than others.

“The first good data on this started to emerge in late February 2020,” he says. And as Britain endured the first Covid wave, this data was borne out in the facts. Those over 70 had at least 10,000 times the risk of dying as those under 15 years old. “This is a highly discriminatory virus,” Woolhouse says, still exasperated today. “It’s ageist, it’s sexist, it’s racist. And we certainly knew [that] before we went into lockdown.”

Yet the Government decided that telling half the population that they were at extremely low risk would dilute adherence to the harsh rules it was imposing, and instead ramped up the threat warnings. “We are all at risk,” noted Michael Gove in March 2020. “The virus does not discriminate.” But it did then, and it does now.

“I heard [the official] argument caricatured as: everyone died, but at least no one was saved unfairly,” notes Woolhouse. Policy became a form of epidemiological communism, with imposed equality, even if it was equality of misery. “BBC News backed up this misperception by regularly reporting rare tragedies involving low-risk individuals as if they were the norm,” notes Woolhouse.

As usual when a sinner recants, there is much rejoicing in the Daily Sceptic’s editorial offices. But it is hard not to say at the same time: “We f***ing told you so.”

You can buy Mark Woolhouse’s book here.

SAGE Doom-Mongers Warn of Wholly Notional Variant that Could Kill a Third of Those it Infects

In a last-ditch effort to persuade the Government not to lift all Covid restrictions in the coming weeks, SAGE has raised the alarm about the prospect of a new mutant strain emerging. MailOnline has more.

Documents released today from the panel’s last meeting, just a day after the PM revealed he intended to scrap all the leftover curbs in England, warned that any sudden change to the rules carries the potential to accelerate the pandemic and trigger a “rapid” rise in cases.

One paper discussed by SAGE, which delved into potential scenarios that could emerge over the next few years, dismissed the milder nature of Omicron as being a “chance” event and argued that it’s a “common misconception” that viruses evolve to become weaker.

It warned of a “realistic possibility” that a variant could spawn that is just as lethal as other coronaviruses known to strike humans, such as MERS, which has a 35 per cent case fatality rate. Mutations are more likely while circulation of the virus is high, the panel said.

Referencing the document in its minutes, SAGE warned that the scenario – which they’ve already floated before – remained a “valid” possibility. But the report also admitted that it was equally realistic that the virus will mutate to become less lethal over time.

Experts told MailOnline the estimate is an attempt to maintain the “project fear campaign” despite SAGE having “no way of estimating the likelihood of a deadly new strain appearing that is vaccine resistant”.

It comes as Britain’s Omicron wave continues to fizzle out, with official figures showing the outbreak shrunk on all three fronts again today. The U.K. logged another 47,685 cases, 158 deaths and 1,280 admissions linked to the virus.

Three new papers from the influential group’s last meeting on February 10th were put into the public domain today while three others were published last Friday, including one warning dropping the remaining restrictions would “increase anxiety”.

The PM’s announcement last week was widely seen as a desperate ploy to appease hardline anti-lockdown Tory backbenchers and fend off a flurry of no-confidence letters following a spate of allegations about illegal lockdown parties in Downing Street.

Mr Johnson’s blueprint will be checked over by ministers this weekend before being announced on Monday when Parliament returns from recess.

He has already faced vocal opposition to his plans, with senior NHS leaders calling on No10 to park plans to ditch free testing and the legal requirement for the infected to self-isolate.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of NHS Confederation – which represents health boards, said “now is not the time to take risks”, saying the Government should not “wave a magic wand” and pretend the virus has disappeared.

Let’s hope Boris holds his nerve. You’d hope so, given how many times his scientific advisors have cried wolf in the last 12 months.

The contrast with Denmark is telling. There, restrictions were lifted at the start of the month based on modelling from its Government scientific advisers and with the support of all political parties. Who your Government scientists are and what they say can make all the difference. The fact that we’ve been lumbered with the lockdown fanatics and incorrigible (and perennially wrong) doom-mongers on SAGE goes a long way to explain why extricating ourselves from the over-the-top pandemic measures has been such an uphill struggle.

Worth reading in full.

Cabinet Coup Stopped Boris Cancelling Christmas

Boris deserves little credit for the decision not to impose tighter Covid restrictions over Christmas. On the contrary, he was planning to do the bidding of SAGE hysterics until an intervention by David Frost, Rishi Sunak and Jacob Rees-Mogg. The Mail on Sunday has more.

Boris Johnson was forced to abandon his plans to cancel Christmas after a revolt by furious Cabinet colleagues who warned that the idea was “insane”, anti-lockdown Ministers have told the Mail on Sunday.

They described how a three-pronged attack by former Brexit Minister David Frost, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg forced the Prime Minister to ignore demands by his scientific advisers for families to be banned from mixing over the festive period.

Their account of how close the country came to another lockdown in December can be revealed now for the first time, at the end of a week in which the Cabinet’s anti-restriction Ministers have been vindicated.

Plan B restrictions such as compulsory face masks in indoor venues have now been lifted in England and new economic data predicts the UK will have the fastest growth of any of the world’s leading economies this year.

Allies of Mr Johnson contest the claims that the PM was determined to lock down the country, insisting that he kept an open mind throughout the discussions.

But other insiders have painted a detailed picture of how political pressure from Cabinet colleagues ultimately persuaded him to overrule dire warnings from experts.

The drama started on December 15th when the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Chris Whitty, used a press conference to warn that the NHS faced being overwhelmed because of the “absolutely phenomenal pace” at which the new Omicron variant was spreading.

Prof. Whitty also claimed that there would be an “inevitable increase in hospitalisations”, because cases were doubling every two days. Although there was evidence from South Africa, where Omicron had first been identified, that the variant was actually linked to a substantial reduction in the number of patients ending up in hospital, the adviser urged “really serious caution” over those reports.

Prof. Whitty, in tandem with Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and experts on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), stands accused by senior Whitehall figures of taking a selective approach to the data which was emerging at the time.

As one insider said: “When the early evidence from South Africa suggested that Omicron cases were rising dangerously fast, Whitty and the scientists took it seriously, saying ‘the South Africans are very good at data’.”

The actual evidence showed that it wasn’t translating in hospital admissions or into deaths. Despite this, the advice was to lock down.

“But when subsequent data then indicated that rates of hospitalisation and deaths were not increasing, their stance changed: they argued that the data was highly unreliable, and we should look instead at the increase in our own hospitalisation rates.”

The anti-lockdown Ministers – known as Covid ‘hawks’ – were particularly angered by Prof Whitty’s advice to limit social mixing in the run-up to Christmas, which they knew would have an immediate impact on the hospitality industry.

When Prof. Whitty made his remarks, Mr. Sunak was 5,000 miles away in California, having flown out the previous day for his first holiday in two years.

Fearing that the Prime Minister would cave in to the scientists and cancel Christmas, the Chancellor rang Mr. Johnson to urge restraint; he then made immediate arrangements to fly back to London.

Mr. Sunak, who has been the most consistent opponent of Covid restrictions since the pandemic first broke out, arrived back in the UK on Friday December 17th.

He went straight in to No 10 to see the Prime Minister, who was, it is claimed, preparing to use a press conference that weekend to impose new restrictions on social interactions.

Worth reading in full.

Should All Predictive Modelling Be Banned?

Today we’re publishing a piece by James Lewisohn, who says the problem with complex predictive models is they’re too unreliable to be trusted, but he’s not convinced they’re reliably unreliable enough to be banned.

What are the world’s worst inventions? Winston Churchill famously regretted the human race ever learned to fly. I don’t (I’m looking forward to my next holiday too much). Instead, observing the destruction wrought by government pandemic responses predicated upon projected Covid cases, I’m beginning to regret mankind ever invented the computer model.

I have form here. I spent the early years of my career building financial models, hunched over antique versions of Excel on PCs so slow the software might take twenty minutes to iterate to its results – which, once received, were often patently wrong. I developed a healthy mistrust for models, which frequently suffer from flaws of design, variable selection, and data entry (“Variables won’t. Constants aren’t,” as the saying goes).

Models allow outcomes to be presented as ranges. In business, it’s often the best-case outcome which kills you – early-stage companies typically model ‘hockey stick’ revenue growth projections which mostly aren’t realised, to the detriment of their investors. In pandemics, though, beware the worst case. In December, SAGE predicted that Covid deaths could peak at up to 6,000 a day if the Government refused to enact measures beyond Plan B.  The actual number of Covid deaths last Saturday: 262. 

SAGE’s prediction was its worst-case analysis, but the fact that the media (and then the Government) tends to seize upon the worst-case is nothing new. In 2009, Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, to his subsequent regret, published a worst-case scenario of 65,000 human deaths from that year’s swine flu outbreak (actual deaths: 457). As Michael Simmons noted in the Spectator recently: “The error margin of pandemic modelling is monstrous because there are so many variables, any one of which could skew the picture. Indefensibly, Sage members are under no obligation to publish the code for their models, making scrutiny harder and error-correction less likely.”

Worth reading in full.