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The men who failed Britain At every turn Covid beat the British state. Will lessons be learned?

Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty (L), Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance. Credit: Dan Kitwood-WPA Pool/Getty

Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty (L), Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance. Credit: Dan Kitwood-WPA Pool/Getty


October 13, 2021   7 mins

I have a distinct memory of watching the first of the pandemic press conferences; the first time Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and Boris Johnson stood up behind those podiums in the wood-lined room and told us what was going to happen. It was March 3, 2020. They unveiled the “flatten the curve” plan — to slow rather than stop the virus’s spread, so that we would slowly build up population immunity while preventing the NHS being overwhelmed.

It seemed reassuring. I know this because I messaged something like “It seems like they might know what they’re doing!”  in a science-nerdy chat group that I’m part of. But my optimism was not echoed. “It seems like they’ve just killed all our grannies,” responded someone.

I recall this to make two points. Firstly, I can’t claim any sort of foresight. I didn’t see then, though perhaps I should have done, that the early response of the British government to Covid was disastrous and wrongheaded. Instead, I was falsely reassured by the confidence of the scientific advisers, Whitty and Vallance. 

But secondly, other people did see it. The failings were predicted. And not just by my friend: a large number of smart, numerate generalists outperformed public health experts repeatedly in predicting the course of the pandemic in those early months.

On Monday night, two House of Commons select committees released the findings of their report into England’s Covid response. The headlines yesterday were stark: the “worst public health failure ever”, “big mistakes”, “damning”. 

The individual mistakes — failure to protect care homes; failure to move quickly enough on lockdowns; failure to build testing infrastructure and more — are certainly worthy of criticism. But having read the report, I want to talk about what strikes me as the overarching theme: being too bloody clever by half.

Let’s return to early March 2020, when I was falsely reassured by the Whitty/Vallance/Johnson press conference. The “flatten the curve” strategy that the three men introduced involved slowly introducing public health measures one by one. The idea was to carefully control the R value – the number of people that each infected person would, on average, give the disease to. The idea was to keep it at just above one, so that the disease would slowly spread through the population rather than either burning through it or dwindling down.

In paragraph 87 of the report, the committee writes: “It is striking, looking back, that it was accepted that the level of Covid-19 infection in the UK could be controlled by turning on particular non-pharmaceutical interventions at particular times.” 

“Striking” is certainly one word for it. This was a novel disease. We knew almost nothing about its behaviour. On March 6 2020, I went to a gig at Alexandra Palace. Looking back now, it should not have been allowed to go ahead — but because the consensus at the time was that the disease was spread by fomites, by touching surfaces, the only advice was to keep washing our hands. In fact, it is spread largely through the air. 

So we had a completely wrong idea how the virus behaved, but we nevertheless had a confident plan to control it very precisely by now banning large gatherings, then closing schools, then encouraging working from home. We were trying to thread a needle blindfolded.

This sort of overconfidence in highly uncertain science crops up over and over again. As well as flattening the curve, the phased introduction of distancing measures had another purpose: it was not believed that the public would accept long-term restrictions on their freedom. “There is a risk,” Whitty told the public in one of the early press conferences, “that if we go too early, people will understandably get fatigued and it will be difficult to sustain this over time.” 

This was also the official Sage position: “Sage agreed that a balance needs to be struck between interventions that theoretically have significant impacts and interventions which the public can feasibly and safely adopt in sufficient numbers over long periods.”

It’s not clear what this claim was based on. Other behavioural scientists questioned it, with 200 of them signing an open letter to the Government asking for the evidence. But what evidence were they hoping to receive? What comparable situation have we ever faced? A few small-scale experiments about people obeying instructions under laboratory conditions probably can’t tell us anything at all about what people would be willing to do in order to save hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens, very possibly including their own elderly relatives. Nonetheless, we based highly counterintuitive policy decisions — not imposing strict lockdowns even as the disease was spreading and killing, despite seeing it being successful elsewhere — on this apparently unevidenced belief.

And let’s be clear: the coming hundreds of thousands of deaths were very much known about. The report rightly says that we over-relied on a plan for pandemic flu. That was a huge mistake, and it led us to strange things like moving to “delay” the virus rather than “contain” it, and stopping community testing. 

That meant that we had no idea how widespread the virus was. “The UK was reduced to understanding the spread of Covid-19 by waiting for people to be so sick that they needed to be admitted to hospital,” says the report. “For a country with a world-class expertise in data analysis, to face the biggest health crisis in a hundred years with virtually no data to analyse was an almost unimaginable setback.”

So, yes, sticking to the flu plan was a disaster. But if you read the flu plan, it wouldn’t have worked any better for flu. The disaster that arrived was completely foreseen, yet it confidently said we couldn’t do anything about it, so we shouldn’t try. It said that planners should “aim to cope with a population mortality rate of up to 210,000–315,000 additional deaths” within 15 weeks of a virus arriving, and should “plan for a situation in which up to 2.5% of those with symptoms die”. 

The lowest number there, 210,000 over 15 weeks, works out at 2,000 deaths a day. At the peak of the second wave, the seven-day rolling average of deaths briefly – for nine days, in fact — broke 1,200 a day. 

That period was horrifying, but the pandemic flu plan was to “cope” with at least 2,000 deaths a day for 15 weeks. That appears to have been based on the idea that we, the British public, were so profoundly wedded to liberty that we would rather let the equivalent of the entire population of Norwich die in three months than have the nightclubs closed. 

More than that, in fact, it was important to keep them open so that people didn’t get depressed: “Large public gatherings or crowded events where people may be in close proximity are an important indicator of ‘normality’ and may help maintain public morale during a pandemic.” The possibility that people might not want to attend large public gatherings if it might kill them or their family, or might value the lives of their elderly relatives highly enough to stay home for a few weeks rather than watch them die in their thousands, was not considered..

Over and over again, the British response was one of unwarranted confidence in highly uncertain outcomes. We were, of course, dealing with a largely unprecedented situation. But that meant that the evidence was necessarily weak. 

So statements such as “There is very limited evidence that restrictions on mass gatherings will have any significant effect on influenza virus transmission” (from the pandemic flu plan) were on the one hand true, but also basically meaningless. There’s very limited evidence either way. 

But the common sense attitude would be that being in a large group of people probably helps the virus to spread. And given that the alternative, which the plan explicitly endorses, is at least 210,000 people dying in 15 weeks, it seems incredible that the approach was “well, there’s no evidence that it works, so we might as well not try”.

There are other areas where this overconfident, clever-clever approach backfired. For instance, Matt Hancock told the committee that in the early months, they were advised that “testing people asymptomatically might lead to false negatives” so you shouldn’t do it. Of course, it would also lead to lots of true positives. But the fear of a hypothetical second-order effect — like Jenny Harries’s claim last March that wearing masks could increase the risk of infection, because it would make people more confident — overshadowed the very obvious and real risk of disease. It’s like the plan was based around not wanting to be obvious, but always being clever and counterintuitive.

And the reliance on the pandemic flu “flatten the curve” plan meant that there was no modelling of the impacts of a lockdown. Dominic Cummings told the committee: “You are going to have to lock down, but there is no lockdown plan. It doesn’t exist. Sage haven’t modelled it.”

Often, simply plotting an exponential curve on a graph might have done better than the more complex forecasts the Government used. Vallance told a press conference that we were “four weeks” behind Italy, when simply looking at the number of deaths showed that we were 14 days behind. And when other countries locked down, with some success, we didn’t learn from their example, because we had a plan, and we were confident in it.

And, of course, border closures. Naively, you’d think that stopping people coming into the country would reduce the likelihood of the disease coming here. But overconfident modelling told scientific advisers that it wouldn’t, so they trusted that, rather than thinking “OK, but if the model is wrong then we’ve completely messed up.”

This isn’t to place all of the blame on Whitty, Vallance and Sage — or to exonerate the politicians. There was plenty of cowardice and dithering on the part of the Government, not least (as the report shows) when they ignored scientific advice to impose a short “circuit breaker” lockdown in autumn 2020, presumably because they feared being unpopular. 

But the valuable lesson, I think, is not “we should have done X” or “we should have done Y” specifically, but that we should be less confident in our ability to predict highly complex situations. And more than that: we should look at the possible results of being wrong in our attempts to predict those highly complex outcomes. If you’re 60% sure that lockdowns won’t work, then that implies there’s a 40% chance they will, and that implies that you think there’s a 40% chance of saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Instead, it seems like the whole way through, the thinking was “it probably won’t work so let’s not try”.

I didn’t foresee any of this. I should have: it was all there in the pandemic flu plan. Others, smarter and more conscientious than me, did, or at least foresaw that disaster was a realistic probability. But the takeaway should be not “in the next pandemic, we need to protect care homes” — although we should — but “in the next pandemic, we should stop trying to be so damn clever”.


Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.

TomChivers

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Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

“But my optimism was not echoed. “It seems like they’ve just killed all our grannies,” responded someone.”

“I didn’t see then, though perhaps I should have done, that the early response of the British government to Covid was disastrous and wrongheaded.”

So instead of letting the grannies take their 3% chance of mortality with covid by using the Swedish method of letting the people use their judgement – Boris’s government went with plan ‘B’ – to destroy the education, mental health, future job prospects of all the children, youth, and young adults. That not being enough they then set out to, via the miracle of Lockdown and unrestrained money printing to pay the idled workforce – created Inflation to wreck the pensions and savings of the Middle Aged and older people.

That still not being sufficient for the Lockdown mad tyrants of Boris’s puppet masters, they set out to destroy small businesses, destroy the commercial property market, reduce ridership enough that Public Transport will never recover by ‘Work From Home’, destroy public health by closing the NHS to all but Covid patients, and basically create the coming Great Depression, AND Destroyed completely ALL Freedoms the British people once had, and very unlikely will ever return them.

Not that more Grannies were saved anyway, as taking Lockdown States in USA compared to Minimal lockdown states you soon see the lockdowns did not effect mortality at all. Taking Sweden v.s. the EU as a whole, not locking down seems to actually have reduced mortality.

No, Chivers, you have not convinced me that ‘Trusting The Science’, as the covid response was said to be doing, worked at all. (I never masked, am not vaxed, and have horse de-wormer in my medicine cabinet, and a ‘Live Free Or Die’ bumper sticker on my Truck, so I guess I am just another “True Believer” like you, although from opposite sides of the issues.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Yes, convince swathes of the population that indeed money DOES grow on trees and that you don’t need to work. And if you do work, the vast majority don’t need to see your clients, your students or your co-workers, except on a screen. If they’ve got a screen.

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I think if the government told us that, if you pack a couple of thousand people into an auditorium, some will end up in intensive care, and it’s likely that someone will die, I would not have attended.

Was there any need to ban such events? I would have thought that they simply would not have taken place.

The British population isn’t thick

mike otter
mike otter
2 years ago
Reply to  rodney foy

I used to think the same over the last 60+ years but Covid has shaken both this belief and the idea that humanity, at least as far as Britons go, is mainly good with a few bad apples. Hopefully future events will prove me wrong.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago
Reply to  rodney foy

From the point of view of the person holding the event, a government ban is a good idea. If your event flopped ‘because people didn’t turn up’ your insurance company is unlikely to have to pay you anything, for all that you got insurance. If, however, you insured your event — though do check the wording in your insurance policy — you are likely due compensation from your policy holder if the government cancelled the event on you.

Last edited 2 years ago by Laura Creighton
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I’ve long thought that the various mortality outcomes in different countries will prove to have a lot more to do with demographics than with government measures.

Barry Stokes
Barry Stokes
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Correct. Plus of course the ever present elephant in the room, those of different ethnicities who live cheek by jowl…..large families in tight communities. No implied racism intended just the plain and simple truth.

Andy Moore
Andy Moore
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

The interesting thing I find with the people who say we should have locked down sooner, is that they never say when it should have happened. The data that we can see now indicates that infections were falling prior to each lockdown. The other thing they never say is what level is acceptable for the deaths caused by lockdowns, that’s if they accept there will be additional deaths.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
2 years ago
Reply to  Andy Moore

At least one week earlier, 17 March, when France locked down. We were booked to fly to London on 17 March but stayed in France because they were locking down. Locking down a week earlier would have halved the UK deaths in the first wave. I have seen no evidence that infections were falling before the lockdown but they fell rapidly after every lockdown. China had already shown that a strict lockdown could eliminate Covid and it need not last long, though it required vigilence. The second failure was sitting on the fence. It should either have been stricter and short, to eliminate as in China, or experimented with to see which aspects of the social distancing would keep R below 1. The rapid decline after the lockdown started showed it was reducing R to well below 1 so there was room to adjust. Better still it should have been used to buy time to set-up protection of the vulnerable. Ring fencing the vulnerable and their carers would have removed the need to lockdown everyone. Sweden is often quoted but even there some social distancing was required – the question is how much. More with a cavalier population, less with a cautious population.

John Potts
John Potts
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

Let’s look at the figures that would have been used to support a UK lockdown on 17 March. The following is the state of Europe on 16 March, according to the Guardian web edition.
Elsewhere in Europe, which the World Health Organization described as the centre of the pandemic, France has 4,500 cases and 91 deaths, Germany has 11 deaths and more than 5,700 infections, the Netherlands has 20 deaths and 2,270 infections, Switzerland has 14 deaths and 2,200 infections, and the UK has 21 deaths and 1,144 (infections).
16 March 2020, Guardian
You write “at least … 17 March”, so let’s now take the figures for 9 March, again according to the Guardian web edition:
The country’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, told the House of Commons 319 cases had been confirmed as of Monday morning (GMT) and it was announced that a fourth and a fifth victim had died.
Guardian 9 March 2020
Can you imagine the Government telling the nation it had to lock down – businesses, schools, most shops, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, football grounds, transport, social gatherings etc all closed – because there were 319 cases in the entire UK?
Do you think anyone would have accepted that at the time? Not now, with hindsight, but then, on 9 March?

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Not to mention the massive land grab that took place by those who could afford (thank you stamp duty holiday) and the intrenchment of the disempowering medical model that finds us utterly bewildered & useless in the face of a seasonal virus. And we’ve learned nothing as everyone struggles back to work, coughing & spluttering while assuring us all that they’ve tested negative for covid; oh! That’s alright then.

R Baron
R Baron
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

If one looks at the table of mortality per country (per one million), GT, no country has a number than beats China’s, the response of the Middle Kingdom was the best (even if one allows for cheating, and not just in China), essentially because she had been hit by similar if not identical viruses in the past, does possess the knowledge how best to respond.
Instead of pi$$ing around with something the two comatose scientific advisors came up with, we should have copied China’s response as much as possible. As the fluffy animal says ‘simples’.

Last edited 2 years ago by R Baron
D Glover
D Glover
2 years ago
Reply to  R Baron

China is the word that doesn’t appear once in Chivers’ piece. All this blame piled on the government and its advisors, nary a word about the culpability of China.

R Baron
R Baron
2 years ago
Reply to  D Glover

Who’s culpable hasn’t been established yet, DM, you seem to be blissfully unaware of dr. Anthony Fauci’s involvement in the gain of function research conducted in Wuhan, funded by the American money.

D Glover
D Glover
2 years ago
Reply to  R Baron

Are you some kind of Chinese apologist? Do you think research is done in Wuhan at the behest of evil Americans without the CCP even being aware of it?

David Owsley
David Owsley
2 years ago
Reply to  D Glover

I think Baron is more adding to those to blame rather than removing China from the list. We KNOW it was China but they were ably abetted by those who are lambasting us still about masks and pseudo vaccines.

R Baron
R Baron
2 years ago
Reply to  David Owsley

Quite, David, both parties (and there may other players also involved) are guilty as charged, hence we will very likely never hear the truth.

R Baron
R Baron
2 years ago
Reply to  D Glover

You reckon someone trying to tell the truth on China is a China’s apologist? Hmmm
Look here, all the yapping by people like you, but business moves along happily close to an apologist way. What you make of it then?
https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202110/1236182.shtml

D Glover
D Glover
2 years ago
Reply to  R Baron

Fair enough. I thought you were accusing me of having never heard of Fauci. I have, but even if he gave money to the Wuhan institute the virus remained very much Chinese property. The story is not about America, and it’s not about the UK either. This started in China, and they will be observing how the world reacts. Sars1 and Mers are both far more dangerous than Sars2 , so we were let off lightly this time.

David Slade
David Slade
2 years ago
Reply to  R Baron

You wish to copy a genocidal technocracy that puts it’s people under mass surveillance; imprisons religious minorities; suppresses democracy and threatens its neighbours with invasion and annihilation?

Not really worth it just for want of taking extra care around granny is it?

R Baron
R Baron
2 years ago
Reply to  David Slade

Read this, it’s freshly from the press, tens of thousands of Westerners live in China, they seem to be content.
https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(20)30800-8/fulltext
You have any evidence of the genocidal acts (say) few pictures taken on a mobile? Virtually everyone on China has one of the gadgets, why hasn’t anyone captured what you are alleging, what you reckon?
Compared to the freedoms the Chinese enjoyed when Mao was in charge today’s conditions must feel like a heaven. Compared to the freedoms the Americans used to have no wonder they revolt, but for a closed mind like yours it seems too much to comprehend.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  R Baron

Touching belief in the truth of China’s stats!

R Baron
R Baron
2 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

You reckon then our stats are better, do you?

paul.collyer
paul.collyer
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Agree with much of this but Sweden’s main tool was “Work from home if you can”. Only in this last couple of weeks has that advice been removed.

stephen archer
stephen archer
2 years ago
Reply to  paul.collyer

That’s just not true, but it was an important part. There was an array of measures in place. Just as important was closing down theatres, concert halls, museums, restricting tables in restaurants, 2m social distancing, hand hygien, avoiding crowded public transport, but shops and shopping malls were open with limits which in practice didn’t have to be enforced.

Iris C
Iris C
2 years ago
Reply to  stephen archer

Was it advisory or legislation?

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago
Reply to  Iris C

Advisory. But people in Sweden take this advice quite seriously. Stephen is missing what I think is the most important bit — we locked down the elders, real hard, as in shelter-in-place and do not leave your home, by advising them to do that. (And, at least around where I live there were designated times when we encouraged the elderly to use the parks to walk in. People stayed away from them.)
Which meant that people like me spent a lot of time picking up take out lunches, and doing the shopping, and arranging for house cleaning — and just sitting a good 3 meters away from their open doors just talking to people who were all lonely, and had been imprisoned for months.
It was easier to do this in Sweden than places where multi-generational households is the norm, and even here there was a good deal of moving old people who normally live with their families to summer homes, and motels/hotels that had no business anyway and the like.

Iris C
Iris C
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Is this the worst crisis in 100 years? That is very questionable. Death is the only criteria for judging such a thing and, taking our population as a whole there have been less than 1% dying from Covid (and remember that is within one month of being diagnosed and with Covid being “mentioned” on the death certificate).
The government committees were largely made up of opposition MPs who clearly want to cause trouble and they used conjectured statistics to condemn, i.e. how many would have lived if we had been closed down earlier, which no one could know, and wearing masks saves lives. When masks are put on and off, handled and shoved in pockets or used day after day, they could just as easily be spreading the virus.

George Stone
George Stone
2 years ago
Reply to  Iris C

Of the number of deaths per year, within the past 50 years,2020 was not even in the top 10 for the highest number of deaths, despite the relentless population growth.

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
2 years ago

No, in the next pandemic we should be more honest with the public, stop trying to manipulate them with pseudo-scientific garbage like behavioural psychology, solicit public opinion, promote a diversity of expert opinion in public debates, be less arrogant and admit that we don’t know what is best.
The same people who were surprised that the public weren’t content to let as many people as inhabit Norwich die were, by and large, the same people who were astonished (and disappointed) by the EU referendum result. This is not a coincidence. Our elites have failed: the BMA has failed, the Lancet has failed, the Wellcome Trust has failed, Sage has failed, Oxford and Cambridge have failed. And the unifying cause of their failure is their arrogant disrespect for ordinary people, believing it is better to try to manipulate them from above than to get them on board in a national project.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jonathan Ellman
AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

I suspect the Government was frightened of the prospect of hospital corridors filled to overflowing with desperately sick grannies and grandads. They were bounced into protecting the most at risk (and their own reputation) by COVID alarmists. They set up Nightingale centres that were not needed.
COVID alarmists predicted 500,000 deaths in a short period. They were wrong. The Government over reacted and Anti-Lockdown and Anti-vax believers were emboldened.
Rather like Climate Change… it’s happening but hysterical ‘over prediction’ of harm has generated far more resistance than support.

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

I suspect that deaths haven’t reached 500,000 because of the measures taken. My question is whether they could have trusted the British people to be sensible, rather than using force? I suspect the answer is yes.

Also, many people think that the restrictions harmed more people than Covid. Possibly, but I’m not yet seeing figures to back this up. Is there such an analysis?

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago
Reply to  rodney foy

That’s quite certainly wrong. It is proven that infections were falling prior to the lockdown date in all three cases in the UK. Because hospitalisation and deaths occur 7-14 days after infection, there is a lag in the fatality numbers which shows that lockdown in all three cases occurred as death numbers were spiking – clearly the political pressure under those circumstances must have been immense. However, in all three cases, the infection rate had already started to drop at the point when the lockdown orders were actually given.

Andy Moore
Andy Moore
2 years ago
Reply to  rodney foy

I believe that when you apply the model which gives you the 500,000 UK deaths to Sweden then they should now have around 85,000 deaths instead of the current 14,000. There was a large study done by Imperial that put death occurring around 24 days after the date of infection, measure this against each lockdown timeline and it shows that infections were falling prior to each of them; In fact if you look at the NHS data on infections you will see that they peaked on the 29 December, which is a week before lockdown. Although it is early days the latest few weeks of ONS figures show that excess deaths are higher that the 5 year average and only a round 2/3 if the difference are Covid related. Like I say it’s early days and we won’t know the full effects for some years to come.

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Andy Moore

By the way, I wasn’t saying that lockdown was the right thing to do. But any measures that keep people coming into contact will obviously reduce the spread, and sooner will be better than later.

I think it’s hard to read much into the figures. Different people come to different conclusions from the same data. Some people use data to support preconceived ideas. (I’m not saying that includes you.) I’m sure I’ve been guilty of that.

Maybe it’s possible to argue that lockdowns don’t keep people apart sufficiently for some reason or other, or that you will get herd immunity eventually (I suspect that’s dangerous!), but I don’t know about any of that.

I’m leaning towards the Swedish model as being better, unless I find data that goes against this. I suspect it’s in people’s nature to cooperate better if they are trusted. And maybe that would have reduced the awful consequences of lockdowns

Andy Moore
Andy Moore
2 years ago
Reply to  rodney foy

Sorry I didn’t mean to imply you were. Personally I believe it was the public’s change in their own behaviour which brought down the infection rate.

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Andy Moore

That’s possible. The figures go up and down, and depend on variable degrees of testing. Then people try to explain them.

I like the ZOE C-19 app data, because it doesn’t depend on the amount of testing

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

It’s not impossible that more people died directly from Covid because we locked down. I’m not saying it’s likely, just that it’s possible and it’s worth thinking about. A very large proportion of deaths were from nosocomial infections in hospitals and care homes. I suspect we’ll never know the true proportion but as late as February 2021 Captain Sir Tom Moore contracted the disease in hospital. Had we focussed on shielding the vulnerable instead of blanket lockdowns, we might have done better all round with fewer deaths, less economic damage, less damage to children’s education and so on.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

Agreed. The one thing that is forgotten very quickly in these debates is that there is one thing about which SAGE, Vallance, Whitty etc were correct about from the very beginning: lockdowns do not prevent infections, they merely delay them until a later date. And in the specific case of Covid, the original lockdown, supposedly for three weeks but actually three months, had the perverse effect of preventing herd immunity developing in late spring 2020. Had this been permitted to happen as per the pandemic planning advice that the government had originally taken, it is very likely that the winter 2020/21 lockdown could have been shorter and involved fewer deaths. As it is however, the UK population was still mostly susceptible to Covid infection as winter approached.

To re-emphasise: what I am saying here is the same thing that the government’s own advisors were telling the government in early 2020 about lockdowns, and that advice has been vindicated by the evidence.

Andy Moore
Andy Moore
2 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

If the infections were falling before the lockdowns how can the lockdown take the credit for the fall and how can you say that the advice given has been vindicated?

David Owsley
David Owsley
2 years ago
Reply to  Andy Moore

he means those advising NOT to lockdown

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Maybe delaying the spread until vaccines can be rolled out is the right approach, but not necessarily with lockdowns. The herd immunity approach will kill a lot of people, so voluntary measures may be better

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago

I go along with these thoughts. It’s possible, but hard to know for sure.

What scares me is that pandemics have been predicted for years, including coronavirus. Another one could be just around the corner. Are we any nearer to knowing the best approach? We need comprehensive enquiries ASAP.

I suspect there wouldn’t be the same degree of lockdowns, and we may be even better at developing vaccines

stephen archer
stephen archer
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Regarding Nightingale hospitals, they could have been a good idea if implemented and used differently. Sweden too had these set up quickly and like the UK they weren’t used. Instead the health authorities realised at the time it was thought better to use the normal hospitals and cancel all other treatment in the wards converted for Covid patients. The Nightingales were scaled for ICU but they didn’t have the qualified staff for these. If they’d used military medical personnel and volunteer retired medical staff they might have been able to treat a lot of the less critical cases with oxygen, steroids, remdesivir (and maybe Ivermectin!!) allowing a reasonable level of treatments and operations to continue in the hospitals, and avoiding or relieving the catastrophic collapse of essential healthcare still evident in the UK. Sweden was not unaffected but probably to a much lesser extent than the UK.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago
Reply to  stephen archer

The military field hospital in Göteborg was used. Just not much. I think they would have done better to open the mothballed military hospital at KĂ€ringberget in Göteborg, but there are many things I don’t know about how that decision was made, and there may be factors that made that impossible.

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

You misleadingly say “COVID alarmists predicted 500,000 deaths in a short period.”. Not true. That was a simple calculation based on 80% of the population (50 million) times the suspected death-rate at the time – 1%.
It wasn’t a prediction of what would happen, it was an estimate of what would happen if no action was taken.

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago

I’m with you on “arrogant disrespect for ordinary people” and “get them on board in a national project”

Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
2 years ago

Sorry, Jonathan, but al the organisations you mention …. were right….but for a different reason: this is that they all are reliant financially or other on the health industry which is doing very well out of the decisions made by the western governments..
(poor Tom Chivers, he still has not done his homework on covid… may be one day he will get it…)

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
2 years ago

That’s a good point, if a little cynical. I should perhaps have added ‘the public’ after ‘failed’.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

As did Sweden – but then Swedish politicians have a healthier history of being more honest with their ‘subjects’ and therefore being respected by them ………….which I think is the failing of most governments err lying regularly…..

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago

Tom, mate, your granny – like all of us – is going to die of something. I’ll wager she’ll probably die before you or me. But The mortality rate is 100% and shows no signs of faltering.

You talk about locking people up, stopping them from travelling, cancelling events, and manipulating their fears and their better natures into disempowering, destructive, alienating behaviours that hurt real people. There are still people in care homes who have not seen their relatives for 18 months. Others have died alone, lonely and confused. I know people who did not leave their house for months on end, and prevented their kids from playing out. Inner city council closed parks, denying people fresh air. Millions will probably die sooner than they would have because of the disruption to the so-called health service. Many more have lost their income and will be dependent on the state for years to come, perhaps until they die. I could go on and on. Meanwhile the billionaires have got even richer and our society has become even more riven with divisions seeded by those in whose interests it is to keep ordinary people weak, fearful, timid, misinformed, and divided.

Why? Because good but misguided people trust naive people who purport to know “the science” but who do not have a rounded worldview that allows them to see the woods for the trees (Whitty being a prime example). You are very right that we should stop trying to be so damn clever. That means all of us getting our heads out of our what’s app groups, off Zoom, and back into reality. And the next time our pathetic puppet-like governments try something on – for whatever reason, including “climate emergency” or “protect our supply chain” or whatever it is they claim to be the crisis-de-jour in order to protect the interests of the billionaires who are clearly & directly influencing them – we all say: no, I will stand for truth, I will not comply. Then we can take our lives, our reality, and our control back from the incredibly clever stupid people who try but fail to govern us, and the incredibly clever psychopathic people behind them who try to dominate our world. They know what’s coming.

David Slade
David Slade
2 years ago

I am concerned about the embracing of this idea that lockdown was sensible and should have been done earlier and that prevarication over liberty (the horror!) was a mistake.

Does Tom really want to live/raise his children in a world so monomaniacal in its pursuit of disease that at the first sign of it, it ditches hard learned lessons of history and becomes a totalitarian state for the duration (at least) of the threat? If the enemy is at the gate – in a war – and your future freedoms are at stake, you make such a trade off. You can’t do so for disease as that sets the precedent that will destroy your own freedoms.

As annoying as some scientists find it, pandemic management should not be just about stopping one particular pathogen – it should be about minimising disruption to society, keeping people calm and generally physically and mentally healthy (I’m not sure how lockdowns and fear campaigns can be anything but anathema to this); and making a cost benefits analysis of anything you do beyond that.

Personally, I’m glad that for a brief time our government showed it understood this and didn’t lockdown. I am angry that it relented too quickly to the technocrats and did so. And I am terrified that it’ll do so again – because it’s believed the sociopathic wing of the scientific community for whom the country is their Petri dish to do with as they please.

David Owsley
David Owsley
2 years ago
Reply to  David Slade

the previous and proven plan WAS about minimising disruption to society, unfortunately abandoned as soon as TPTB realised they could grasp more control.

D Oliver
D Oliver
2 years ago

What strikes me about this is that Chivers is still looking at one question only: how do we minimise Covid? As if by doing so through Chinese style lockdowns would lead to Nirvana.

The actual question is: how do we minimise total harms across the population given the problem we face? The answer is not a scientific decision but a public policy judgement which is driven by values and informed by science. And which will be answered differently by everyone.

Last edited 2 years ago by D Oliver
robasghar
robasghar
2 years ago
Reply to  D Oliver

Tom expresses disdain for scientific advisers who would factor in the human desire for liberty and social connection. That makes an otherwise smart man a bit less pleasant to read — and difficult to trust.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  D Oliver

Yes, he looks at one question only, and only through the blinkered perspective of one country’s experience. To read this, you’d think that Covid was peculiar to the UK. How about comparisons with other countries? My impression is that (pending a vaccine) a novel pandemic virus such as this would have had its way regardless of government intervention. Let people decide what’s right for themselves and for granny. They will usually make the right judgement, if only for reasons of self-interest.
It’s a good general rule that government interventions tend to make things worse.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew D
Norman Powers
Norman Powers
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Ironically, the poster child for keeping COVID out at any cost (New Zealand) managed to keep it out right up until their vaccination campaign started.
Comparisons between countries are rarely done by lockdown proponents, mostly because such comparisons very quickly show that neither lockdowns, nor masks, nor anything else governments do really seems to have much effect. There’s a desperate desire to believe it does, but they don’t survive inter-country comparisons.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

true – but then NZ is a unique situation with a govt that tends to be more honest than most and therefore more trusted. Plus being a small island/population /civilised political system etc etc. Lockdowns could only work in similar situations – each country should have worked out the best scenario for their particular situation BEFORE a pandemic arrived !!!!!!! Twill be interesting to see what those ‘best practices’ look like in a few years!!

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  D Oliver

Completely right, although maybe that wasn’t the question he set out to answer. I’d like to see him answer it

Last edited 2 years ago by rodney foy
Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago
Reply to  D Oliver

Absolutely spot on. The blunt truth is this is a virus, it can, and did, mutate, no-one knew exactly how this would pan out. The nearest we could get to knowing what might happen is to use the data from the Spanish flu outbreak post WWI .
We had masks, vaccines, PPE, lockdowns, antibiotics/antivirals.
The post war population had Vicks. We may yet see Covid continue for the next three years as did the Spanish flu, lessening in cases per day and weakening. But who knows?

Sheryl Rhodes
Sheryl Rhodes
2 years ago
Reply to  D Oliver

This is exactly what I have been saying since the beginning—back when I thought there would be vigorous, free discussion and debate about the novel challenges we were facing. The firehose of top-down opinions and edicts, however, immediately conflated “following the science” with whatever the strictest lockdown policies were being implemented.
Why did not EVERY pronouncement from authorities begin with an acknowledgment that there were severe trade-offs that had to be weighed against every restriction?

andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago

Chivers seems to have bought into the whole “lockdown good” mantra and is curiously free of critical thinking, certainly in this article. I did not get halfway before I was reminded why I tend not to read his articles.
I was depressed, but not surprised, at the media narrative yesterday. It was pushing the “should have locked down hard and early” line that has worked oh so well for Australia and NZ. They are now struggling badly to get back to any sort of normal and have become fearful, conditioned societies. It is present here too to a degree – has anybody looked at the BBC HYS sections on covid articles?
Agree with posters who have said that there has been an abject failure to weigh up costs / benefits of restrictions and an reluctance to confront the overall impact they have had. It is not just about “the science” which is why I found myself a little chilled by what Vallance was saying yesterday

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
2 years ago
Reply to  andrew harman

Yeah, this article is like reading something from a parallel universe in which the data and facts are totally different. The psychology of it is fascinating and bizarre. Somehow Chivers looks at the last 18 months and agrees that lockdowns can eliminate COVID and they should have been done much faster? That’s not what the data shows at all.

they were advised that “testing people asymptomatically might lead to false negatives” so you shouldn’t do it. Of course, it would also lead to lots of true positives

I think this paragraph has a thinko in it. Surely “false negatives” should read “false positives”. Nobody thinks mass testing of people with no symptoms can automatically lead to false negatives, and the argument that it can lead to lots of false positives is a simple one based on the exact same Bayesian arguments Tom is normally so keen to explain to us all. To not have a very high rate of FPs requires very high incidence or an astronomically precise test, and for long periods in most countries there has been mass testing with neither.

Often, simply plotting an exponential curve on a graph might have done better than the more complex forecasts the Government used

Viruses do not grow exponentially, which is why the models don’t simply plot an exponential curve on a graph. Man, I think the modellers really suck but at least they don’t do that. Epidemics show logistic growth, always, as with any biological process in a resource constrained environment. The discovery that the full course of epidemics (including the decay period) always follows a Bell/Gompertz like shape is the founding observation of the field of epidemiology!
The total irrationality around claims of “exponential growth” are one of the biggest problems that led to drastic over-reactions. Nothing in biology grows exponentially until that growth suddenly drops to zero! You may be able to find temporary periods in which growth is exponential but that growth will always slow down and go sub-exponential at some point, usually very quickly, and short periods of exponential-like growth can be found in many non-exponential functions. Just drawing such a curve and saying “that’s what will happen” is idiotic, it’s not even close to being the full picture.

Peter Whitehead
Peter Whitehead
2 years ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

Yes, any exponential “curve” quickly becomes virtually a straight line and heads for infinity. To believe otherwise is ignorance – our so-called experts please note.

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago

A strategy designed to save the lives of those whose lives are least worth saving seems idiotic. There’s nothing in this article about the costs of lockdowns and social distancing. Where’s the balance?

Geoffrey Wilson
Geoffrey Wilson
2 years ago

Interesting article, with better analysis of the actual report than many articles I have seen. However the glaring fault Mr Chivers may like to reconsider is his statement that the public might be so “wedded” to liberty that they would prefer 210,000 deaths in three months to “having nightclubs closed”. The strongest argument against lockdowns is that they guarantee economic damage, which of course involves health and social damage as well as “just” money, in return for an inevitably uncertain partial and temporary reduction in immediate deaths. To me, the report’s conclusion that the government’s delay in lockdown was a major public health disaster is merely a fashionable assertion without proper scientific argument. The damage from lockdown (including the greater likelihood now of Western democracy being defeated by Eastern authoritarianism, as well as extra cancer deaths and loss of respect for police) still awaits scientific analysis.

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago

I think the first lockdown should have happened earlier, assuming it was even a good idea in the first place

Peter Whitehead
Peter Whitehead
2 years ago
Reply to  rodney foy

I assume that the sun goes around the earth. The evidence is obvious as it probably is to you.

Martin Powell
Martin Powell
2 years ago

What has never been publicised during this whole saga is that an average of 1500 people die every day in the UK, from all causes, with some seasonal variations.
I remember reading (I believe in the Spectator) that in winter 2012/13 (I think – anyway it was the winter the Government stockpiled millions of doses of TamiFlu, which was only marginally effective as a flu vaccine) the combined excess deaths that winter from flu and cold weather was in excess of 50,000.
No one batted an eyelid, and the BBC certainly weren’t hysterically tallying the daily total of deaths.

The “COVID Death Toll” is certainly overstated. We will only be able to truly see its effect some years down the line, when we/statisticians can look at the variation in death rates over several years.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Powell

There is somebody doing this for Sweden. Latest here:
https://softwaredevelopmentperestroika.wordpress.com/2021/10/12/sweden-seasonal-mortality-excess-deaths-flu-seasons-2015-16-2020-21-final/
more detailed report here:
https://softwaredevelopmentperestroika.wordpress.com/2021/06/15/489-days-of-studying-covid-in-sweden/
If this is the sort of thing you like studying, then these are the sorts of reports you will like.

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago

Thanks. Excess deaths are the only numbers you can have reasonable confidence in, but they come when it’s too late

stephen archer
stephen archer
2 years ago

Thanks for this, very enlightening, and I’m not surprised by the results. I have the good fortune to have lived in Stockholm during the last 18 months and have seen the effect of sensible and appropriate measures adopted for managing the pandemic without lockdowns or face masks.
Why is this waiting for approval – it’s been posted for 7 hours now???

Last edited 2 years ago by stephen archer
paul.collyer
paul.collyer
2 years ago
Reply to  stephen archer

This I can 100% corroborate. No fear narrative, targeted but bearable measures, then an acceptance in early 2021 that the vaccines were the best bet to go back to normal and now…..well….back to normal.
Not saying Sweden executed “Flatten the curve” perfectly as like the UK it did not deal well with care homes but as the dust settles it is looking more and more like one of the better strategies. And nobody sensible is looking back and wishing we had locked down.

George Glashan
George Glashan
2 years ago

“I didn’t foresee any of this. I should have: it was all there in the pandemic flu plan. Others, smarter and more conscientious than me, did, or at least foresaw that disaster was a realistic probability.”

Can one of them write the science column for unherd instead then?

Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
2 years ago

Look at Sweden … why does Tom Chivers like to pretend that tougher lockdowns would have been somehow “better”?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

I haven’t looked at the comments yet but I’m assuming someone has noted Tom’s
“I was falsely reassured by the confidence of the scientific advisers”,
“a large number of smart, numerate generalists outperformed public health experts repeatedly”,
“the consensus at the time was that…”,
“overconfidence in highly uncertain science”,
“we should be less confident in our ability to predict highly complex situations. And more than that: we should look at the possible results of being wrong in our attempts to predict those highly complex outcomes”
and invited him to consider accordingly his breathless acceptance of every tenet of climate psyence alarmism, where exactly the same fact pattern obtains and we’re already paying the price?

Last edited 2 years ago by Jon Redman
Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
2 years ago

Taking a brief look at the GDP per capita of European countries, the UK’s death rate is reasonably correlated, as are most European countries, with a few anomalies of course and a fairly large jump in performance between the upper mid and the top of the table nations. Yet for the most part, the UK seems to have performed in line with it’s geographic economic peers.

With regards to the Asian model for dealing with COVID, I’m still not convinced we have the full story. Death rates are extremely low across the board in South East Asia despite widely different responses. This could of course be due to lack of accurate reporting in some countries but even in South Korea and Japan, testing levels are reported to be 20 times lower than the UK, implying they are missing a far higher proportion of cases and yet death rates are very significantly lower, although admittedly some of the Nordic nations appear to have achieved similar results.

My own suspicion is that the key to stopping COVID is to suppress nosocomial infections and care home spread. A number of nations have had high case numbers but a death rate some 50% lower than ours, so the key can’t be just keeping it out. Preventing infection in the most vulnerable is likely better done in the more affluent societies, which spend the most on their health care systems. So the good news is, if you want to make yourself resilient to future pandemics, you just need to be a rich country with a well funded health care system. Problem solved.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matthew Powell
rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

There’s a lot of sense in what you said

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

When the Europeans came to America they brought diseases which were not lethal to Westerners, but completely lethal to the New World.

This is EXACTLY why the entire China and region suffered almost no deaths, less than a dozen per million to our Western 2000. The Far East are biological immune.

This is a disease of Westerners – and also is not a disease which has many fatalities, but one which causes the West to commit such huge Self-Harm that is is worse than a high causality pandemic in its economic effect.

It is like this covid was designed for us.

Peter Mott
Peter Mott
2 years ago

Reminds me of the Climate Panic – same over-reliance on very weak science (I mean by “weak” science that tells us very little, full of “could”s with time horizons of 50 years)

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Mott

Except that they have been working on global heating for decades, and the predictions are coming true

Martin Powell
Martin Powell
2 years ago

Apologies – second comment in a few minutes.
So nice to see someone like Jeremy Hunt in full cry about the current Governments failings over COVID.
Such a shame that he (or someone of his capabilities) hadn’t had any influence over the NHS’ preparedness and planning over the past years


Last edited 2 years ago by Martin Powell
rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Powell

Nailed it!

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Powell

Except, of course, that he was the Health Secretary who set up PHE, and ran it for 5 years till 2018. One of its primary purposes was to anticipate and prepare for future health emergencies. It failed spectacularly. So much for his ‘capabilities’.

David Owsley
David Owsley
2 years ago
Reply to  GA Woolley

I think you have missed the firm tongue in cheek in Martin’s comment.

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
2 years ago

Beware of steam-of-consciousness essays that open with “I”. Ego.
Meanwhile, is the conceit that the government could have contained COVID just that: a conceit? Did government merely get caught up in the appearance of “Doing Something!”
“Don’t just do something. Stand there!” — Calvin Coolidge
Doing nothing is always an option and is often the best option. Can anyone demonstrate that doing nothing would not have been better? No takers?

Leslie Cook
Leslie Cook
2 years ago

Is Tom Chivers blind, lazy, or paid off? How many graphs showing no correlation between virus and lockdown does he have to ignore? If authorities were serious about mortality rates, they would have tackled preventative health, looked at the good science available on that and treatment protocols that work. They would have stopped using pcr when it was evident false positives were muddying the data. They would have paid attention to actual data when it came in and abandoned false models. They would have examined the exact metabolic reasons covid kills. Instead, they pissed themselves for fear and allowed pharma and ngo money to dictate policy. Excuse me but what rational health professional believes it is possible to control an endemic and highly mutagenic respiratory virus? I can see no other explanation but policy was guided by pharma profit motive cloaked in disingenuous humanitarian words. We know the Gates foundation has funded so much msm propaganda. We know how much they invested in vaccines. Unherd has been somewhat brave in alternative journalism. Continuing to publish rot like this would not be a shining example.

David Owsley
David Owsley
2 years ago
Reply to  Leslie Cook

Indeed, it is exasperating.

D Hockley
D Hockley
2 years ago

‘’If you’re 60% sure that lockdowns won’t work, then that implies there’s a 40% chance they will, and that implies that you think there’s a 40% chance of saving hundreds of thousands of lives.’’
 
My goodness, I have read some puerile drivel in my time, but nothing compares to this. And it comes from a science editor???!!!!
 
Lockdowns cause massive damage to the economy, to the development of the young, to mental health of all and to those suffering health problems other than covid. That is 100% certain.
The average age of a so called Covid death in the UK is around 82 years – older than the average lifespan in the UK. The damage caused by lockdown is going to affect the young and blight their lives permanently.
So, when you then factor in the 40% chance of lockdowns working (the fact is lockdown had no positive effect at all) then you come to the inevitable conclusion that lockdowns were a criminal act of harm, far greater than the harm caused by the disease itself.

Last edited 2 years ago by D Hockley
Peta Seel
Peta Seel
2 years ago
Reply to  D Hockley

Well said.

robert stowells
robert stowells
2 years ago
Reply to  D Hockley

Agree!

Antony Hirst
Antony Hirst
2 years ago

Lockdowns didn’t work, anywhere. So what we need are more lockdowns. Keeping locking down until we can attribute any random artefact in the data as an improvement to prove the tactic of locking down. Then when we have ‘validated’ those lockdowns, use more lockdowns!
What an absolutely moronic report those MPs have conjured up. What we need, is fewer MPs, less so-called ‘science’, and more representation.

David Cottrell
David Cottrell
2 years ago

A very poor article, overly simplistic. Don’t forget that we effectively did focussed protection – of the rich and well off at the expense of those who continued to work to keep us fed and looked after. Great Barrington type of focussed protection would have been much cheaper and more effective.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

How about blaming the previous governments and long-standing institutions for leaving the current government in a position where they had to make many foreseeable decisions on the hoof.
Systemic institutional failure is to blame – but that doesn’t sell newspapers.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

This report warned of the impact of coronavirus on the UK four years before the pandemic, but the government ignored it : https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/21080373-report-exercise-alice-middle-east-respiratory-syndrome-15-feb-2016

David Owsley
David Owsley
2 years ago
Reply to  rodney foy

love the redacted parts in section 3, wouldn’t want to cause ‘community’ unrest would we?

Laura Pritchard
Laura Pritchard
2 years ago

The certainties of the plan were uncertain but the certainties of the select committee criticising the plan are certain?

Back to basics. There’s only one certainty. A disease this infectious will get to everywhere in the end. The only variable is how well adapted the body is to cope with the infection when it arrives.

Age. Vaccine. General health. Minimal anxiety. We are adopting ‘herd immunity’. It’s the only solution. In March 2020, there was no guarantee of a vaccine at all. Look at countries that tried to lock the virus out and consequently didn’t initially have a good vaccine plan and see what fatigue looks like. Understand what was meant by ‘long term’. Imagine if the lockdowns had made the virus keep creeping slowly and, as such, it had taken the usual 10 years or so to get enough results to know the vaccine was safe?

Go back to 2020 without hindsight and be less certain about your certainties. Go back in history and understand all the attempts to keep plagues out that failed.

I went to the Lazaretto Nuovo in the Venice lagoon at the weekend. A much heralded historical precedent for border controls. Except it failed. Plague re-entered the city and this quarantine hotel (prison) was converted into a hospital for the sick, just like the Lazaretto Vecchio. Of course they kept trying. They justified the policy to those who had no other option but to obey it, probably as a political decision to appear to be doing something – a bit like the devolved nations and their vaccine passports to go to concerts.

In the face of a highly infectious disease, there are no certainties except that it will get everywhere in the end. My guide said one other interesting thing – that Western Europe was largely immune to the Black Death because we, the descendents, were the ones most well adapted to survive and develop that immunity.

What do we do to become most well adapted? And how do we do it?

Laura Pritchard
Laura Pritchard
2 years ago

PS where do you think formites come from?

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago

I’ll post this again because our lack of readiness was predicted in 2016, including the need for stockpiles of PPE, a computerised contact tracing system and screening for foreign travellers :
https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/21080373-report-exercise-alice-middle-east-respiratory-syndrome-15-feb-2016

David Owsley
David Owsley
2 years ago

They knew is wasn’t “highly infectious” before the first lockdown, that is what gives the ‘plandemic’ conspiracy theorists legs. SARS CoV 2 was removed in the UK from the HCID list the week before the first lockdown.
Coincidence you think but when you read the recommended management of infectious diseases you see that among the public health actions are:
“10. It is a public health responsibility; to consider antiviral prophylaxis, and arrange as necessary.”
well…

Malcolm C
Malcolm C
2 years ago

Some very good points made in this article, but I fundamentally disagree that the “we should have locked down sooner” argument is a valid one. You’ve only got to look at the real world data to see that whether a country (or state) locked down (causing massive self-inflicted economic damage and an explosion of other health issues), or it did not – over the course of the pandemic the outcomes aren’t that much different.

The “focused protection” argument made by the scientists behind the Great Barrington declaration would have made far more sense (as would have closing the borders). Focused protection of the elderly and vulnerable groups (we knew who they were at the time) until a vaccine was produced, and the inevitable outcome of herd immunity by allowing young and healthy people to catch Covid would, in my humble and scientific opinion, have made far more sense.

Last edited 2 years ago by Malcolm C
John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

If anyone wants a more plausible view here, Simon Wood has written a properly-researched piece in the Spectator that falsifies the case for lockdown fairly comprehensively.
(Apologies for the paywall)
https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/covid-and-the-lockdown-effect-a-look-at-the-evidence?fbclid=IwAR2nSN9r3wdD18cAq4l_UBoQ_Zix1MgBtPyVgmXUpD2qjE4GQacVe4-IIT0

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago

These men did not fail Britain. People who listened to these fools without questioning anything they said failed themselves.

Raymond Inauen
Raymond Inauen
2 years ago

This development has been going on for a long time. Since the advent of global news channels that broadcast 24/7/365 spreading negative events from around the world, it is no wonder that people are going crazy. It has become an industry that promotes lobby groups with loud causes. The virologists have been no less active in their attempts to draw attention to the next global pandemic. Add social media to the mix and you have the perfect cocktail to stir up global attention and panic. The whole thing has been dragging on for years now and is finally showing its negative effects. There are so many fear-mongering lobby movements that there is practically no room left to breathe normally. Anything you do is either the death of the planet or the death of another human being. This is not a healthy society at all.
Since the 1970s, we have virtually eradicated almost all of the worst pathogens through vaccination. We have raised living standards and increased food production to reduce hunger and starvation. So much has been done to improve our lives that we have completely lost sight of reality. I would like to take the world back to the years when people were paralysed by polio or died of tuberculosis and many other diseases.
Maybe it’s time for a reality check?

patrick macaskie
patrick macaskie
2 years ago

I hope the public enquiry is more interesting than this.
those that are trigger happy with lockdowns have biases that encourage them to make other mistakes that would be equally, if not more, costly. look at Mrs Arden in NZ. I assume she would have got a ringing endorsement.
the costs of saving granny aren’t understood yet and the parliamentary committees haven’t added anything useful to this discussion.
we need to talk about whether NHS hospital beds should be used to treat pandemic patients beyond the point where other vital medicine is being impeded. I wonder if we need rapid response field hospitals (that we actually use) and an army of trained reservists.
keeping battle ready for an event that never seems to transpire is difficult and harder still when you don’t know from whence the enemy will come.
we are lucky in that this pandemic only took out the old, the weak and the very, very unlucky. lightening, terrorists and buses also strike in the latter category. Boris and a few others were given a stark warning about the risks of being overweight. In history we had to cope with far worse and we may do so again.

John Wilkes
John Wilkes
2 years ago

The problem with this way of reasoning is that we will spend large chunks of the future in lockdown.
New viruses are not unusual, and will cause death, particularly in the elderly.If we go immediately into lockdown mode every few years as a first step precaution, the world economy will never recover. Printing money will cause serious inflation over the next decade, probably longer if spending is not controlled.
In addition, we are beginning to see the campaign to have masks in perpetuity ramping up. Some senior SAGE scientists (and all of the opposition SAGE) are saying that we need to wear masks when out and about. The justification appears to be at least in part that flu and colds are dangerous this year because we had no exposure for 18 months so our immune systems may struggle to cope. I have not heard a single journalist or other scientists ask what will happen next year when we have had 2 1/2 years in a bubble. Keep it up for a few years as WHO would like and we will simply be unable to fight off a cold.
Sweden did far better than UK, France, Italy , Spain, Belgium, Netherlands (most of EU except Germany, who initially had all the testing reagents and barred export). We need to learn from that.
Life must return to normal, not the present half life with children growing up to be taught that other people are dirty and must be avoided. If not, we can forget any concept of Western civilization returning.
We are behaving as if we don’t have a vaccine.

Craig Strachan
Craig Strachan
2 years ago

Lockdowns have failed as a means to control Covid, as even New Zealand – the latter-day Prospero’s castle – has been forced to concede.

As a means of wrecking the economy and society they work great, though!

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

A government that willfully locks down its citizens and punishes them for not accepting an experimental chemical concoction devised by profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies is not acting in the best interests of its constituents. This is the very definition of a f*scist regime, albeit one cloaked in false compassion and rainbow flags.

D Hockley
D Hockley
2 years ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Do not forget that these companies have full legal immunity in the case that their products cause harm…..it is like something out of a horror story.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago

Absolutely true, Mr Chivers. One thing you do not say explicitly – and that most commentators miss – is that it was largely the *scientists* who trusted their current understanding and models way beyond what the data would support. The Danish lockdown and border closings were introduced by the government against the advice of the health bureaucracy )while the Swedish health bureaucracy were given their head). Scientists tend to do so, I believe, because they are in the business of understanding things, and they are tempted to go with whatever undrestanding they have rather than accept that they do not know and so are powerless to understand anything.

|The point is not to ‘follow the science’, but to evaluate the science, and then to decide with a realistic estimate of uncertainties and alternative possibilities. And the best people for that are not the scientists, but maybe politicians – provided they actually care beyond getting good headlines, of course.

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Did the politicians even do that? We ended up with a pretty inept bunch who only cared about delivering brexit (and the headlines that would go with that)

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

The large difference here is that the Danes had a government that had the emergency powers to demand lockdown, and other measures. The Swedish government doesn’t have such things — though there is a government study being done now about whether they should have them for the future.
This means that should the government want to make a legal measure, it needs to get the parliament to vote on them. Which they were quite willing to do, given the crisis. And I think that this is very important. A select group of government experts can always panic, or decide ‘something must be done! this is something! therefore we must do it!’ succumb to groupthink, or be swayed by the most persuasive speaker in the room, as opposed to the one who has the truth, or the bulk of the evidence on their side and all of the other ills that plague small group decision-making. There were people writing to newspapers in Sweden who seriously said that we needed to do whatever the rest of the world was doing, even if it was a waste of time or even caused more deaths because it was more important to be with the consensus than to protect Swedish lives.
Having to present these sorts of things to the parliament is about the only way we have of protecting ourselves from this sort of problem. The alternative is rather more trust in authority than I, for one, have.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago

That all sounds very reasonable. Just do not forget that groupthink can also lead people to decide that ‘the plan we have will work fine’ (even if ti will not) and that ‘anyway there is nothing we can do’ (even if there maybe is).

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Indeed. All the more reason to present your ideas to more people (like a parliament), where you might find people with better imagination and longer institutional memories.

Michelle Johnston
Michelle Johnston
2 years ago

It is worth looking at our world data for mortality spikes in the naive early phase and compare them to the knowing third phase of early 2021.
With all that knowledge and planning and intervention, more people died and the spike was higher in January 2021 than the original one. I will be honest that surprised me.
Meanwhile, ONS stats report that still excess mortality from 98% of other causes at home averages 800 a week even now.
If you have a large co-morbid elderly population that is prone to a combination of these three things:-
1) Age Care Facility transmission from staff to client.
2) Multi-Generational Families with low compliance.
3) Hospitals incapable of fever management and have high numbers of staff absent because they are part of the high-risk group which lowers functional ability.
You can send all the middle-class people on gardening leave you like and cease functioning those areas of activities where low-risk people gain herd immunity and it clearly does not make a scrap of difference.
There is only one issue that affects mortality are co-morbid elderly people capable of shielding. If they are not or choose not to they will drive 92% of the deaths.

Last edited 2 years ago by Michelle Johnston
john pearce
john pearce
2 years ago

I’m sure Tom Chilvers knows that it’s wise to state what type of system one is commenting on before pushing ‘Send’. Is he commenting on a simple system (a domestic heating controller), a complex system (China’s 2020 lunar probe mission), a poorly understood chaotic system (the global climate) or a complex adaptive one, closely coupled to human behaviour (eg. the emergence of a new virus, a football match)? Each type has quite different characteristics, particulalry in terms of the predictability of outcomes.
Most people’s thinking about systems is still based on the remarkable achievements of the enlightenment which resulted in our ability to design, model and manage Simple and Complex systems to enormous benefit. The extreme application of such thinking was the management science of the 60s and 70s based on the assumption that a business and other systems could be mathematicaly modelled allowing more effective management of resources and hence higher resilience and/or profit.
As with equilibrium models in economic theory, business modelling proved unsuccessful as it was unable to encompass all-important human behaviour (so disproving the popular view that any model is better than none). The realisation that complex adaptive systems are inherently unpredictable (eg. many unknown unknowns) only began to emerge in the early 90s. Such unpredictablity is naturally difficult to accept as it puts the lie to the idea that only a super class of mainly highly-regarded and often highly-paid individuals can know something that mere mortals do not – how the future will unfold (think active v passive fund management). To square the circle, we rely on forecasters (nearly always unsuccessful) who are extremely creative at selling their ideas and who seem to take responsiblility for the impossible.They then become even more creative at evading responsibility for outcomes.
Back to Tom Chilvers’ piece. If the system under discussion is complex adaptive, attempting to decide who is to blame for what is a fool’s errand (similar to pub-talk about the weekend’s matches). Far better to educate those in power about the highly counter-intuitive nature of the systems they’ll be responsible for and where useful predictions can be made. Cummings appears to be a rarity in political circles, at least. He came across such systems in 2013 and had a redemptive moment. Unfortunately he lacked the EQ to put his insights to good use.

Bernie Wilcox
Bernie Wilcox
2 years ago

Jesus Christ Almighty, having read this nonsense I’m seriously considering cancelling my subscription.
I could live with an ordinary contributor having these crazy and unscientific views but the Science Editor?
Is he the YTS lad?
Perhaps this scientific expert could explain why he thinks lockdowns work at all in terms of preventing Covid deaths and also deal with the other side of the coin in detailing the many downsides of lockdowns from cancer deaths to childhood mental illness and physical abuse these lockdowns have caused?
You really could t make this nonsense up.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago

I’m not impressed by this article, and on checking who wrote it, I see he’s the ‘science editor’ for Unherd, which leaves me wondering.
Why would a statistician say “Often, simply plotting an exponential curve on a graph might have done better”, when not only experience, but common sense tells one that an epidemic disease CANNOT follow an exponential curve.
There are too many points which I consider either scientifically unsupported, or which only make sense given hindsight. To illustrate the latter; adviser A says this will happen, adviser B says that will happen. The decision maker chooses to follow A. A year later, Jeremy Hunt or someone like that says ‘B was correct. It was a colossal error to choose A’.
And I notice that Sweden isn’t mentioned. At one point, I thought we were following the same policy, but clearly Johnson suddenly lost his nerve and switched to the policy adopted by other European nations. The mounting death rates put up daily by the BBC must have been very painful for the government.
My takeaway is that the larger the civil service gets, writing guidelines on everything, sitting in committees ‘working with’ multiple quangos, lobby groups, and each other, the less effective it becomes in doing the really important things, as opposed to appearing to do so.

David Owsley
David Owsley
2 years ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

like many of the “experts2 the government follows, Tom only sees one side and remains blinkered to anything else i.e. no scientist at all.

Peta Seel
Peta Seel
2 years ago

the coming hundreds of thousands of deaths were very much known about.”
It is rare to read such tosh in UnHerd but there are always exceptions. Unless the public statistics are lies, total deaths in Britain are to date 138,080, average age over 82 and an IFR of 1.67% and NOT “hundreds of thousands”. In Sweden, without lockdown, school closures or mask wearing total deaths are 14,822, average age 84 and an IFR of 1.3%. I really can’t be bothered to say anything further.

Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
2 years ago

On March 13 2020, I went to a gig at the Royal Albert Hall. Bryan Ferry – not that I expect anyone to care – more significantly it was the last live gig held there for some time.
Looking back now, it should not have been allowed to go ahead; but I’m glad it did because it was a stonking good night out.
Nothing to add here, it’s all been said, other than to share sadness that some feel we should have taken at face value what we were being told by China. The number of high-profile journalists demanding similar measures for the UK, genuinely surprised me at the time.
Now I may have been unlucky and suffered fatally as a consequence of the Ferry-fest. But my last thoughts would not have been regrets that I had not lived in more authoritarian times. That would be the ultimate insult to family members far younger than I when they died, one in the Battle of Britain, one sunk by a U-Boat in the North Africa campaign. Thank God for them and so many others.
No, my last thoughts will be some irritation at getting out short of a par score, but grateful for the life I have led and definitely regretting that I still don’t know all the words to “Virginia Plain”.
We shouldn’t be more afraid of life than death? Should we?

Last edited 2 years ago by Dustin Needle
Nicholas Rynn
Nicholas Rynn
2 years ago

The only significant success was the vaccination programme organised by Kate Bingham without a political genius in sight.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Rynn

When you say ‘political genius’, that implies politicians, when of course the vast majority of the enormous government we pay for consists of civil servants. (There was for example one whose sole job it was to monitor and warn of the risk of epidemic from abroad.)
I put it to you that a politician made the decision to appoint someone to organise the vaccination programme from outside the government to which I refer above. That was genius, surely.
And may I also point out that when he did that, he came in for the usual hysterical criticism from the usual people, grinding the same old axes as always. It therefore took courage, not often demonstrated by this government.

Last edited 2 years ago by Colin Elliott
GA Woolley
GA Woolley
2 years ago

The co-chairman of the MPs’ report is Jeremy Hunt, who was Health Secretary from 2012 to 2018. His department set up Public Health England in 2013, and he was responsible for its work for the next 5 years. One of its primary purposes was to anticipate and prepare for health emergencies facing the UK. It, and therefore he, failed spectacularly. Now he castigates the government and senior scientists for not getting it right.

Chris Bradshaw
Chris Bradshaw
2 years ago

“On March 6 2020, I went to a gig at Alexandra Palace. Looking back now, it should not have been allowed to go ahead…”
I’m seeing this formulation more and more. The government should take responsibility for directing my personal choices, particularly after the fact.
The correct line reads “Looking back now, I should not have made the personal choice to attend.”

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
2 years ago

I was interested in the leader The Men Who Failed Britain.[my bold]
Apart from the blindingly obvious – that the individuals in the crosshairs of Tom’s ire are men – why mention or single out an immutable characteristic?
The leader seems to me to be advocating that the failure is a feature of an immutable characteristic, otherwise why emphasise it in this excerpt; Let’s return to early March 2020, when I was falsely reassured by the Whitty/Vallance/Johnson press conference. The “flatten the curve” strategy that the three men introduced involved slowly introducing public health measures one by one.[my bold]
Leaving out the demographic ‘men’ in the above would still make the observation grammatically correct. In my view the article is pushing a baseless/undemonstrated claim that the failure is, partly, also the fault of being male. Perhaps Tom’s conclusion of ‘being so damned clever’ is linked to maleness, but he has not demonstrated or provided any evidence that is the case.
There was plenty of cowardice and dithering on the part of the Government, not least (as the report shows) when they ignored scientific advice to impose a short “circuit breaker” lockdown in autumn 2020, presumably because they feared being unpopular. 
But the presumably indicates a reasonable assumption, but an assumption nonetheless. And this assumption appears to me to be the grounds for describing the Government’s ignoring of the scientific advice as cowardice and dithering.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago

A bit of a snowflake are you? They are men, as you say, and within living memory ‘men’ was a synonym for ‘person’. Do you really want to ban all non-essential references to gender, sex, race, age, nationality, hometown, etc. etc. lest it contribute to stereotyping some group or other?

Keith Dudleston
Keith Dudleston
2 years ago

“the consensus at the time was that the disease was spread by fomites, by touching surfaces, the only advice was to keep washing our hands. In fact, it is spread largely through the air.”
If it is true that the virus spreads “largely through the air” as aerosols of microscopic virus particles (which are far too small to be caught by the weave basic cloth or face masks) how is it that such masks prevent the spread of the infection?

Antony Hirst
Antony Hirst
2 years ago

Indeed! Mask’s don’t prevent infection. If you can breathe, then you are breathing in air and everything that goes with it. This goes along with all the other bizzaro-land proclamations such as:

  • We must all get vaccinated because the vaccine does not work particularly well.
  • Evenn if you have no symptoms, you can still spread COVID.
  • Lose your job to save the NHS. Now you must pay extra tax so the nurses can have a pay rise.
Tony Lee
Tony Lee
2 years ago

Right from the beginning, and well before the British government and a band of scientists started providing a flourish of wildly differing advice, the WHO set the scene; and it just got worse from there. From what little I know, nobody seems to have got this right and only those without accountability or responsibility during the worst of it, are feeling smugly superior now. I wonder what they will think in 50 or 100 years from now? An above average death rate, combined with mystifying self-harm in terms of the lack of attention to general well-being (in terms other than the threat of Covid), damage to mental health, education and the economy. What strange people we are.

David Owsley
David Owsley
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Lee

it seems to me to have have gotten worse “intentionally”…

Stephen Terry
Stephen Terry
2 years ago

And where does Tom.get his “hundreds of thousands” of deaths from? The official UK death toll from Covid alone is below 10,000. The gross figure of 133,000 is based on the fallacious PCR test.

hugh bennett
hugh bennett
2 years ago

Winston Churchill, “nothing would be more fatal than for the Government of States to get in the hands of experts. Expert knowledge is limited knowledge, and the unlimited ignorance of the plain man who knows where it hurts is a safer guide than any rigorous direction of a specialized character.”

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
2 years ago

Not convincing. Either as to what the options were at the time, or the diagnosis. The article misses out Prof Fergusson’s alarmism-a tactic he had used frequently before-which was geared to addressing the media. We are facing I00,000s of death, screamed the Prof, extrapolating a worst case scenario, and thereby challenging Johnson to explain in public if and when the death rate soared why he was so irresponsible as to stick with the immunity strategy. You can imagine the headlines: “Tories chose profits before grannies”. Unfortunately, Johnson caved, presumably because he could not envisage how he could respond if, as the Italian example indicated, the worst case scenario proved reality. The article misses the simple point that all history is made ex ante, and we don’t know, we can only guess, what the future holds. This is particularly true where death is involved because death is the one certainty.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Story

What I don’t know is why anybody would ever think that anything Ferguson had to say was worth listening to. Here are some quotes from the very nice article by Steerpike on the Spectator. I only knew about some of these before I went looking for numbers and found the whole thing. Now the Spectator has a new subscriber, thank you Steerpike.
https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/six-questions-that-neil-ferguson-should-be-asked
In 2005, Ferguson said that up to 200 million people could be killed from bird flu. In the end, only 282 people died worldwide from the disease between 2003 and 2009.
In 2009, Ferguson and his Imperial team predicted that swine flu had a case fatality rate 0.3 per cent to 1.5 per cent. His most likely estimate was that the mortality rate was 0.4 per cent. A government estimate, based on Ferguson’s advice, said a ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ was that the disease would lead to 65,000 UK deaths. In the end swine flu killed 457 people in the UK and had a death rate of just 0.026 per cent in those infected.
In 2001 the Imperial team produced modelling on foot and mouth disease that suggested that animals in neighbouring farms should be culled, even if there was no evidence of infection. This influenced government policy and led to the total culling of more than six million cattle, sheep and pigs – with a cost to the UK economy estimated at £10 billion.
It has been claimed by experts such as Michael Thrusfield, professor of veterinary epidemiology at Edinburgh University, that Ferguson’s modelling on foot and mouth was ‘severely flawed’ and made a ‘serious error’ by ‘ignoring the species composition of farms,’ and the fact that the disease spread faster between different species.
(aside from Laura – the Netherlands had a foot and mouth disease problem, too, and they vaccinated their animals instead. No small children had to see their pet lambs sent off to be murdered, and no small farmers had to have the healthy champion bulls that was the foundation of their farm killed, either.)
In 2002, Ferguson predicted that between 50 and 50,000 people would likely die from exposure to BSE (mad cow disease) in beef. He also predicted that number could rise to 150,000 if there was a sheep epidemic as well. In the UK, there have only been 177 deaths from BSE.
On 22 March, Ferguson said that Imperial College London’s model of the Covid-19 disease is based on undocumented, 13-year-old computer code, that was intended to be used for a feared influenza pandemic, rather than a coronavirus.
————
I see a pattern here. And Ferguson says that he doesn’t regret any of these wrong predictions, as long as he was on the ‘right side’ , where the wrong side is underestimating.
This means if I am putting together a task force to figure out what to do about covid, the last human being on the planet I want to listen to is the one who always gets it several orders of magnitude wrong and never learns a thing from his mistakes. Was nobody in the Tory government aware of this track record?
This is why I think that governments should never have these emergency powers to go around the legislature, something we didn’t have in Sweden — though the government is making a study to see if they should have them next time. If this plan needed to be presented to the parliament, I wager that people would have remembered something.

Last edited 2 years ago by Laura Creighton
D Hockley
D Hockley
2 years ago

The spectator is one of the few media outlets worth reading…. The MSM is simply impossible, from The Guardian to the Daily Telegraph it is all utter nonsense.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Story

I wrote something long. It is waiting for approval. (and now it has been, so I edit out the duplicate here)

My question is — why didn’t anybody in the Tory government know about this track record? Discrediting Ferguson seems as easy as falling off a log. Why didn’t somebody?

Last edited 2 years ago by Laura Creighton
Ann Ceely
Ann Ceely
2 years ago

There are lots of things which we (as a species) don’t understand. Yet we, nevertheless, expected to ride thru it.

OK, this Covid bug was startling in it’s initial killing spree.

Yet, we knew the possibility was there all the time.

It was just another 1-in-a-million chance!

Marcus Scott
Marcus Scott
2 years ago

And, of course, border closures. Naively, you’d think that stopping people coming into the country would reduce the likelihood of the disease coming here. But overconfident modelling told scientific advisers that it wouldn’t, so they trusted that, rather than thinking “OK, but if the model is wrong then we’ve completely messed up.”

No Tom, it is not naive to believe that stopping people entering the country would reduce the likelihood of the disease coming here. The words you are looking for are “idiocy” and “lunacy”. It is idiocy to believe that sealing the UK’s borders in a manner that would likely prevent the importation of the disease was possible. It is lunacy to attempt such a thing when the disease is already firmly established in our healthcare system as it was by January, 2020.

aaron david
aaron david
2 years ago

Koros, Hubris, Ate, Nemesis.
Greed, Pride, Folly, Destruction.
The idea that you could control a respiratory virus, “novel” or not, is Folly, and Pride always comes before a fall. And right now we are watching in very slow motion that fall; shipping disasters, workers balking at the machinations of the ruling class, and before the virus, we had a very real outbreak of populism to tell people that maybe, just maybe, we were on the wrong track of interconnection.

mike otter
mike otter
2 years ago

So far covid has killed 2 Million globally according to its supporters, so the true figure is probably less. 5.5 Million under 12s died avoidable deaths due to want and disease in 2020 alone according to the UN (again a few pinches of salt needed.) Add in 2021 figures and the over 12s for both years its got to be 15-20 million and NOT A WORD SAID by the Covid supporters. On the plus side Covid helped cover up an economic adjustment which would light up the left/green/occupy mob like a roman candle. On the minus side it kicked the economic adjustment down the road a few years and brought out the worst instincts of politicians, civil servants, the health service and pharmaceutical industry. I would not like to be a flea under Johnson, Witty or Valance’s collar.

Last edited 2 years ago by mike otter
Peta Seel
Peta Seel
2 years ago
Reply to  mike otter

No, according to Worldometers globally there have been just under 5 million deaths. Even so, out of a world population of 7.8 billion it is hardly a mass killer.

Mike Hardwicke
Mike Hardwicke
2 years ago

Positive article except it seems to have missed one point: this was never about the virus, rather the determined imposition of authoritarianism…. Lock-stepped globally (more or less).

Howard Gleave
Howard Gleave
2 years ago

we should be less confident in our ability to predict highly complex situations”. Yet government hung on Prof Neil Ferguson’s every word. Despite his model being largely discredited.
If lay people intuitively identified “grannies” as being at risk, namely the most elderly, as well as those with underlying health conditions, why was no thought given to protecting specifically them while allowing the rest of the population to go about their business, albeit with health precaustions? Instead, we were subject to blanket lockdowns that have had very severe second order consequences.
The inquiry has endorsed the view that lockdowns should have been earlier, longer and more draconian. Instead of targeted and proportionate. Meaning we can expect more of the same in future pandemics.

R Baron
R Baron
2 years ago

Excellent rundown on the mismanagement of the pandemic except for two things that you may have mentioned, Mr. Chivers..
It’s true the pathogen was new, anything like it hadn’t hit us before, but we could have learnt few things from a country that got hit first, or rather was the first one to officially say it had isolated it, China. It wasn’t only that as the first to identify the virus, hence the need to respond to it before it spread to other regions of the world, it’s more because China had been infested with similar if not identical viruses before, did have the accumulated knowledge how to best respond, and she did – imposed strict cluster lockdowns (never a nationwide one), isolated the vulnerable, asked people to wear masks. That was essentially it, but she cut the spread of the virus quicker than any other country.
Why didn’t we, or rather the Sage members, the two comatose advisors in particular, look at what China was up to? Learn from their response, perhaps adjust it to our conditions? As it turned out China had by far fewer mortalities from the pathogen than the vast majority of other countries. 
Could it be that because the Donald’s blaming the Middle Kingdom for the virus, the country became a pariah, nobody and certainly not us would have dared say one should follow China’s response? Would it have been unthinkable to copy what she did even though most of the PPE and testing gear got furnished by China?
The other notable feature of the handing of the response to the virus were the daily briefings, they began with the number of deaths, short of broadcasting the briefs from the mortuary, the whole set-up felt as if we are all to die, painfully and slowly.
Big mistake that, when we were battling with the Argentines over the Falklands anything to do with casualties came last, that’s how it should have been with the pandemic, why scare people witless, it helps FA to tackle the crisis.

Last edited 2 years ago by R Baron
David Owsley
David Owsley
2 years ago
Reply to  R Baron

“Could it be that because the Donald’s blaming the Middle Kingdom for the virus, the country became a pariah…”
There is no blaming the Donald at all: had he had any effect it would be the opposite of what you say because the elites were all against him.

George Knight
George Knight
2 years ago

Try the Australian method then!

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
2 years ago

By the beginning of January 2020 China finally stopped hiding the facts and published the genetic code of the virus on the (around) 12th. By the next weekend the Oxford Group had designed their vaccine. They knew what was coming.
We then watched the virus spread in Italy. Still nothing here.
Finally we do a partial lock down on March 23rd. A month late (I was isolating by mid February).
However, we then do the most absurd thing – tell all the people to stop work and stay home – but leave the airports open!
The Chinese, Taiwanese, New Zealanders all did the sensible thing and closed their borders.
Next time, do a proper, short-term lockdown to create a breathing space.

robert stowells
robert stowells
2 years ago

Another article from Tom Chilver indulging himself in good old fashioned comic book “tee-hee titter titter”, contemptuous of the rest of us and no doubt also wanting solely to play narrowly to amuse his “science-nerdy chat group” buddies that he refers to (although I see absolutely nothing of science in TCs articles and find them more Dandy and Beano).
Even from my own experience I have referred in articles to how I am sure I caught COVID, around February 11 2020, which is one month before the UK COVID lockdown. Therefore, even in TC’s own terms there was actually evidence, similar to my own, well before the date of the UK lockdown that COVID was no killer like the Bubonic Plague.  I described how I had continued to work my 11 hour daily shifts while I experienced my COVID bout also working 7 days a week (refer Chivers article “If you have a cough”). I am 63 years old.
Tom Chivers refers to “flattening curve”. There was much global praise, for example, for New Zealand and its Zero Tolerance of COVID. The Unherd article by Tom Chodor entitled “New Zealand’s Zero Covid delusion” in which he notes that in New Zealand “commitment was driven by the cold reality of a woefully unprepared health system” as only a secondary reality behind the primary policy. This to my mind and experience pretty much sums up the UK approach which was a desire to contain COVID on the basis of the number of infections (but more importantly number of deaths) and then only secondarily the matter of whether the hospitals (i.e. the NHS in the UK) could cope with those numbers of deaths or respiratory admissions.
The early approach of the UK was actually a herd immunity approach, of which “flattening of the curve” was a part as I have described, but this approach quickly imploded and UK very soon adopted the approach of pretty much all other governments globally which has been lockdown and preoccupation with numbers of COVID deaths. 
 Tom Chivers refers emotively to “saving hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens” which I regard as utter rubbish and sensationalism. Firstly, I doubt the figures and even if there were this number of deaths then it is merely a reflection of a world where, at the outbreak of COVID, there happened to be a build-up globally of weak and vulnerable people whose lives had been extended by flu jabs and extended care, or simply benign climate conditions, such that the world was very ready for a spike in deaths should even moderately harsh conditions come along like a severe winter or a flu, such as COVID, which was not on the flu jab.  That is the reality of life and death. The world effectively massively overreacted to a moderately severe flu (COVID) which was not on the flu jab (I mentioned my thoughts regarding Italian debt conspiracy and COVID being no more than a flu which was not on the flu jab to a work colleague who I met in Victoria Station around 13 March 2020). The real question is why the overreaction and who benefits (refer comments on article “Italian populism will be back”) regardless of the attempts of the likes of Tom Chivers to blur the issues?

Last edited 2 years ago by robert stowells
Sam Brown
Sam Brown
2 years ago

The world is full of armchair experts all of whom are really wise after the event…

James Watson
James Watson
2 years ago

Tom, thanks. Good article as ever. There’s one thing though which I think needs to be questioned more regarding the headline finding of this report. (Hheadline finding: If we would have locked down earlier many thousands of lives would have been saved)
Non pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) are a tactic to reduce the spread of disease. If they perform as intended, they at best delay the spread of disease. Implementing NPIs effectively just pushes the problem into the future. Society cannot run from a virus, in the absence of a vaccine or other prophylactic, it is a biological inevitability that people will come into contact with it at some point. (unless you believe in the zero Covid idea)
Given this then, by implementing NPIs we may save many thousands of lives (if NPIs work) in the short term, but these deaths are merely pushed to the next wave, or a subsequent one. So as a long term strategy it seems to be a bit of a stinker – eventually you will end up with the same amount of people coming into contact with the virus and getting ill/dying from it. But you also have all the harms of the NPIs to boot and the longer it drags on (the more successful your NPIs are), the greater these harms will be.
Why would anyone implement these NPIs then? One obvious reason is to delay the spread of disease such that the healthcare system does not collapse, not many would disagree with implementing NPIs for this purpose. Another reason could be that you actually do have a life saving treatment, such as a vaccine, around the corner. Delaying the spread of a deadly disease to allow people to be vaccinated by implementing NPIs would be something that almost everyone would be in favour of doing.
So ‘Lockdown 1’ (prevent healthcare collapse) and ‘Lockdown 3’ (buy time for vaccines) were perhaps justified.
But cast your mind back to the spring of 2020; there was absolutely zero hope for or even talk of a vaccine for Covid-19. In-fact most of the experts were quite gloomy about the possibility of there being one anytime soon. There had never been a working vaccine developed against a coronavirus, and developing vaccines takes a long time. It would be years and possibly never that we get a vaccine!
Based on this, it seems that implementing NPIs (beyond what is necessary to prevent healthcare collapse) would be a folly, since you were only delaying hospitalisations/deaths by a matter of months/maybe 1-2 years. The overall death toll from Covid-19 would end up being the same, but you would also have the additional harms of the NPIs.
The theory that locking down earlier would have saved many thousands of lives seems to miss this point. It may well have saved many thousands of lives in the first wave, but this would have lead to a more deadly second (or even third) wave. Indeed SAGE discussed this and it was one of the reasons given in March 2020 for not locking down. Not only would we be creating a bigger second wave for ourselves, but this would likely happen in the winter when the healthcare system is close to collapse anyway. A bit like putting off fighting a nocturnal three headed monster until the darkness of night when you cannot see it properly.
Would it not have been better (given the widespread belief that a vaccine was not going to arrive quickly, if at all) to have allowed the infection to spread as much as possible without overloading, or significantly compromising the healthcare system? Accepting the fact that the death toll would likely be the same in the end and trying to minimise the collateral damage of NPIs?
If you accept this logic then you could say that the government’s response during the first wave was (accidently) almost optimal. Seeing as the healthcare system did not collapse, but by all accounts was fairly close to it.
Am I missing something here ? 

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

Tom Chivers and the response of most of the countries in the Western world have also been shown to be much too clever. As well as draconian, creating masses of unintended consequences and not least, deeply harming the economy and education, which results will last for decades. There is no mention of Sweden’s alternative approach in his entire article.