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Has Patrick Vallance learnt from his Covid mistakes?

Can a leopard change its spots? Credit: Getty

July 7, 2024 - 8:00am

The appointment of Sir Patrick Vallance to the new Labour government has raised some eyebrows given his track record as Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) during the Covid crisis.

Early in 2020, Vallance seemed minded to follow established pandemic plans and advised the Government against implementing untested and draconian measures such as lockdowns. But in March of that year he changed course, having been persuaded by the alarmist (and, as we now know, nonsensical) modelling scenarios presented by Neil Ferguson and his Imperial team.

It quickly became clear from the data that lockdowns had not been needed to avoid “health services being overwhelmed”. Further, the peer-reviewed research also showed that lockdowns and other interventions such as mask mandates had very little causal impact in reducing Covid mortality.

For some reason, though, Vallance became wedded to the alarmist modelling that Sage continued to produce, and concluded that each Covid wave needed a fast and heavy intervention to avoid disaster.

The nadir of Vallance’s pandemic performance came in December 2021. Responding to the Omicron surge of cases, new Sage modelling produced scenarios suggesting that, without further restrictions, England would see its Covid death toll rise to between (best case scenario) 600 and (worst case) 6,000 per day.

But for some reason the modellers had decided not to learn the lessons from the Imperial debacle — they ignored the impact of voluntary behaviour change and the evidence that Covid waves tended to be self-limiting irrespective of interventions. Worst of all, they disregarded the real-world evidence showing that interventions had much less impact than they assumed in their models.

These are precisely the sorts of issues you would have expected a Chief Scientific Officer to have discussed with politicians. But instead Vallance doubled down. Not only did he defend the outlandish estimates in a high-profile article for the Times, he used the modelling to advise the Prime Minister that further lockdown restrictions were necessary.

An apparent inability to critique and question scientific modelling is not a good platform for a new Minister for Science. But the issues go deeper. The Minister will not have responsibility for science itself, but for science policy, and that is a very different concept. Overseeing policy requires thinking about the range of different possible decisions and the trade-offs involved with each. Certainly, understanding science can help in that process — but, crucially, it also requires an awareness of economics, politics, psychology and ethics.

That’s not to say the role can’t be undertaken by a scientist, but it has to be someone who is willing to take on a broad perspective and to consider both the costs and the benefits of any decisions. Given the way pandemic policy focused single-mindedly on interventions aimed (unsuccessfully) at averting infections — at the expense of considerations regarding economic costs, broader wellbeing and civil liberties — it is hard to have confidence that Vallance will be able to perform his new role in such a way.

In particular, Vallance does not appear to have learnt from the mistakes he made during the pandemic. For example, in his evidence to the Covid inquiry, the former CSO argued that lockdowns should have been “broader, harder” and earlier”.

Most worryingly, Vallance has now turned his focus to climate policy, which seems likely to form a major part of his new role. The parallels between climate and pandemic policy are striking: the proposed solution to an alleged crisis is to impose strict restrictions, taxes and bans that will cost unimaginable amounts of money. The potential danger with this approach is that rather than considering the costs and benefits of alternative approaches, and testing modellers’ predictions of a climate crisis against real-world data (such as that showing the number of climate-related deaths have tumbled over the past 50 years), he will simply decide that “the science” tells us we have no alternative to proceeding with policies that, just as with Covid lockdowns, risk bankrupting the country.

Of course, all new Government appointees need to be given a chance. And perhaps we shall see Vallance taking a more balanced and evidence-based approach to policy in his new role than when he was Chief Scientific Officer. Then again, how often do we observe leopards changing their spots?


David Paton is a Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University Business School.

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AC Harper
AC Harper
12 days ago

Has Patrick Vallance learnt from his Covid mistakes?

Very much so – but the lesson he has learned is that toeing the political line over Covid generates patronage. I don’t expect him to help dismantling the Net Zero madness.

Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
11 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Exactly this – you only learn when incentivised to learn. Starmer and his team of lawyers would be ruthless with people who make mistakes, so he wouldn’t have got the job in the first place if it was seen as anything other than well executed.
Simon Scama was on BBC earlier “predicting” another pandemic soon and Vallance has no incentive to do anything different when it rolls around, possibly as soon as the US November voting.
Welcome back to the world of ’emergency’ or draconian legislation (Starmer, Hermer, Mahmood) and Powerpoint (Vallance), backed by media enforced compliance (Peston, Kuenssberg, Robinson but frankly take your pick from a crowded field).
As for incentivisation, there will be no escape other than via Blair’s Digital ID and Miliband’s Net Zero will somehow morph into all this as well. Actual learning will not enter into it, unless the answer is Digital ID.
Especially alternatives involving protection of individual liberties and legitimate freedom of speech/action.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
11 days ago

I take it this clown was among the many other circus members who demonized HCQ and Ivermectin as ineffective and dangerous to use against the cooked-up Wuhan virus. What was his response to the Great Barrington Declaration back in October 2020, and what is it now? Does he think he’s The Science, like that malign gnome, Anthony Fauci?
Good luck, Britain.

Martin M
Martin M
11 days ago

But HCQ and Ivermectin were ineffective against COVID. There may be other reasons to dislike Vallance, but surely not this.

dave dobbin
dave dobbin
10 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Statistically insignificant but I felt a load better a few hours after I took invermectin when I had Covid

Jim C
Jim C
8 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Nope.

Check out the research; Dr John Campbell’s YouTube channel has some great videos on this subject.

He started out as an mRNA “vaccine” enthusiast, and then gradually changed his mind as the evidence mounted that they were neither safe nor effective… and that the manufacturers played fast and loose with trial data and methodology.

He examines various trials and meta analyses of IVM, HCQ and Vit D wrt COVID and it’s clear they’re both safe and effective.

Ben Scott
Ben Scott
11 days ago

Patrick Vallance advises Tories to implement futile policies that will upend the country and lead to the eventual and obvious downfall of said Tories.
Patrick Vallance then takes up top job in the newly elected Government, following said downfall of said Tories.
Hmmm…?

Jerry Smith
Jerry Smith
11 days ago

Whether or not Vallance has learned, his boss certainly won’t have. A Labour party led by Starmer lost my vote when I observed his abuse of a Bath pub landlord who dared – politely and with good reasoning – to question lockdowns. I will not consider voting Labour again until this unpleasant person has been replaced.

Jim C
Jim C
8 days ago
Reply to  Jerry Smith

Starmer wanted even more draconian measures than the Tories.

I see Blair has emerged from his crypt and is pushing Digital IDs… has Starmer repudiated these, or Blair’s murderous military adventures?

Last edited 8 days ago by Jim C
Martin Smith
Martin Smith
11 days ago

The lesson learned from the pandemic is that if you scare people and demonise those who ask questions then the majority will willingly abandon their freedom and dob in their neighbours to boot.

Damon Hager
Damon Hager
11 days ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

The lesson from the pandemic, to be brutally frank, is that most people are chickensh!t and statistically illiterate.

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
11 days ago
Reply to  Damon Hager

‘Sheep’ with the government dog called Shep

Mantel Jane
Mantel Jane
6 days ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

This is very true most people actually looked for ways to cope with the new environmental changes making most people give up on their mobile jobs forcing them to work from their home.
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I appreciate your reading of this comment

Myra Forster-van Hijfte
Myra Forster-van Hijfte
11 days ago

Reward for failure.
I honestly don’t know where to start


Robbie K
Robbie K
12 days ago

Hilarious article, but an absolute classic example of creating a post truth narrative from a sceptic’s point of view. Careful Unherd, the GDI are still watching.

Lesley Keay
Lesley Keay
12 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

I am sorry but I do not understand your comment? In what way is the article “post-truth”. It seems to be pretty much how I remember events. The only issue I have is that the author also doesn’t point out is during the Omicron wave there was a refusal by SAGE, Vallance and co to look at the real world evidence from the infection rates and death rates from other countries. Specifically South Africa.

David Morley
David Morley
12 days ago
Reply to  Lesley Keay

I’m assuming it’s just one of those throw away comments you get on here. Once concepts (like post-truth) get established people tend to throw them around without really thinking.

But if not, like you, I’d like it explained.

David Morley
David Morley
12 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

You’ll need to explain that one.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
9 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Post-truth = [Cambridge] relating to a situation in which people are more likely to accept an argument based on their emotions and beliefsrather than one based on facts:
So, is post-truth when the truth is not present? Truth is important! If the definition is correct, Robbie K, my suggestion then is, whether you think the opinion shared is true or post-truth or pre-truth or a lie, in addition to saying “this is post-truth” or “a lie,” tell those who aren’t aware of that what the truth is. Tell them how their emotions are being manipulated 🙂 That uses prior events to further our knowledge – and is called hindsight. 🙂

David Morley
David Morley
12 days ago

The potential danger with this approach is that rather than considering the costs and benefits of alternative approaches, and testing modellers’ predictions of a climate crisis against real-world data (such as that showing the number of climate-related deaths have tumbled over the past 50 years), he will simply decide that “the science” tells us we have no alternative to proceeding with policies that, just as with Covid lockdowns, risk bankrupting the country.

Science is extremely effective at getting us closer to the truth in relative simple cases and over the long term. This is how science works.

In more complex cases, and in the short term, it is prone to ideological bias, distortions of professional culture, the influence of individual personality, career incentives, social pressure and the rest.

In complex situations, most models have hidden assumptions. When reality does not fit theory, or ideology, the first impulse of scientists, just like everyone else, is to invent ad hoc sub hypotheses which account for the discrepancy while keeping the theory intact.

Time clears up these issues, with science edging closer to the truth. Eventually reality triumphs. But in the short term, science needs to be treated with the measured scepticism we would apply to any other truth claim.

David Morley
David Morley
12 days ago

An odd appointment. Clearly getting things badly wrong does is not necessarily career limiting. We may see a Liz Truss comeback yet.

Damon Hager
Damon Hager
11 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

To be fair, Liz got things much less “wrong” than the Covid loonies.

Martin M
Martin M
10 days ago
Reply to  Damon Hager

They both tanked the economy, but Truss did it in double quick time.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
10 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

True, but the ‘Covid’ warriors had the banks on their side.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
11 days ago

If Britain goes Net Zero by 2028, we could reduce the expected rise in global temperature by 0.02 degrees Centigrade.
That’s roughly equivalent to the fall in temperature you might expect by climbing a 20 foot high hill.
Labour will trash the economy and jeopardize our energy supply for a reward that is almost impossible to detect.

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
11 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Meanwhile Chine carries on building coal fired power stations at an obscene rate; cancelling everything we do out by about 10,000 to 1. Meanwhile Milliband gets a raise and a gong

inga Bullen
inga Bullen
11 days ago

Isn’t he the guy who thinks people can change their sex if they say so?

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
11 days ago

The appointments of Vallance and Sue Grey demonstrates that there has been effectively no change of government at all, just a doubling down on the policies favoured by the permanent government. Which are going so well.

Patrick Martin
Patrick Martin
11 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Also bringing Mark Carney (!) in as an adviser.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 days ago
Reply to  Patrick Martin

I hope so. Keep him as far way from Canada as possible. Maybe he can start working with the Australian govt.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
11 days ago
Reply to  Patrick Martin

Mr Doom

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
11 days ago

Patrick Vallance is proof we don’t need a different government after the next election, we need a counter-revolution, one that lustrates the entire technocratic ‘Covid-class’.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
11 days ago

Lovely word, “lustrates”.

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
11 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

I had to look it up 😉

Neil Turrell
Neil Turrell
11 days ago

Rather than lustrate them Perry, I’d much rather the bare lampposts across the nation received a ration of deserving elites. On a brighter note, some people are beginning to connect the dots regarding the damage done to us by the covid fiasco, perhaps to the extent that a repeat with some new ‘virus’ emerging is unlikely to escape a decent level of civil unrest. Given that Labour has now more closely associated itself with a covid apparatchik, perhaps more folk will remember that they (Labour) wanted to impose even more draconian measures on a frightened populace. A wholly serendipitous outcome would be a linkage in the public mind between the failed science of the pandemic and the questionable and ruinous response to climate change. A curse on both their houses!

David B
David B
11 days ago

You say lustrate, I say defenestrate, etc. etc.

Amelia Melkinthorpe
Amelia Melkinthorpe
10 days ago
Reply to  David B

I was about to make the same comment.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
9 days ago
Reply to  David B

Another word I have long forgotten. Or maybe transfenestrate. 🙂

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
11 days ago

It quickly became clear from the data that lockdowns had not been needed to avoid “health services being overwhelmed”.

As always: If you can point to any evidence of this that will convince those who do not already believe in it please do so. It does not become more true just because you keep repeating it. Nor do you make any difference to developments by continuously preaching to the choir.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
11 days ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Exactly! Health services are often overwhelmed by flu and novovirus outbreaks in winter. There is no reason to think COVID would not have been the same.
Sir Patrick Vallance literally saved the NHS and prevented waiting lists from rocketing skywards , as the NHS switched to battling COVID.
It is literally thanks to Sir Patrick that we have the NHS that we have today.
Without Sir Patrick, the NHS would be in a very different state today.

Matt Woodsmith
Matt Woodsmith
11 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Nice post, I enjoyed that.

Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
11 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Hallelujah Steven, and rattle those pots and pans!

Dhimmitude Ishere
Dhimmitude Ishere
11 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Maybe the problem is dysfunctional health services that are overwhelmed by a bad flu season. This happens all the time in parts of Ontario, Canada. They get an influenza outbreak and it nearly cripples the health care system. Maybe it’s time to fix the health care system, rather than shutting down the world to save the health care system.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 days ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

The global response to covid was basically spearheaded by Fauci, the CDC and the WHO. Top health care advisors from countries across the globe followed their lead like sheep, because there was no consequence for staying with the herd. Even if decisions were wrong, it’s easier to say we were following the science, rather than stepping outside the consensus.

These health organizations have become hopelessly politicized. We still see it today with Fauci brushing off Biden’s recent debate performance.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/fauci-and-the-medical-experts-gave-biden-a-memory-pass-presidential-election-828a8307

This was the single most important person in the world directing the response to covid. Yet he’s clearly more interested in political narrative rather than truth. While it’s fine to say Biden simply had a bad night, any normal apolitical doctor would express some concern. To brush aside the clear cognitive decline of the leader of the free world speaks to something other than commitment to truth.

p cooper
p cooper
11 days ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

DOI : recently retired UK ICU doctor, involved in local resource planning (2020 2022) for coping with lots of people presenting with respiratory symptoms. Assuming Italian rates of presentation, we had to double our oxygen supply capability and would have run out of ventilators.
The evidence from Italy in early 2020 was that , IIRC10% of those presenting to hospitals were dying due to overwhelmed capacity – people who would have survived with simple medical interventions didn’t because of lack of availability. in the first wave, 50%+ of those who ended up on a ventilator died. As we didnt know case/infection fatality rates or treatments that worked (eg dexamethasone) or didnt (Ivermectin, Hydroxychloroquine) the first lockdown was certainly needed .. As knowledge and survival rates increased, it then became a balance of the pros (patients surviving) and cons ( social, economic, educational, medical) of further lockdowns. That wasn’t Vallance’s call – that was up to the politicians in charge. It is clear that the politicians werent up to assessing the information and making the decisions or explaining it to the population. So they took the easy(er) way out .

ivermectin ; https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejmoa2115869
HCQ ; https://www.cochrane.org/news/chloroquine-or-hydroxychloroquine-useful-treating-people-covid-19-or-preventing-infection
dexamethasone: https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2021436

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
11 days ago

should have been “broader, harder” and earlier”.
That’s what she said.

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
11 days ago

Next stop ‘The Lords’ it is then

J. Peter Donnelly
J. Peter Donnelly
10 days ago

The departing Dutch minister for Climate and Energy, Rob Jetten, proudly proclaimed that his plans to tackle climate change might cost 28 billion euros i.e. €1,500 for every Dutch citizen but will likely prevent the global temperature from rising by 0.000036 ‱C. So the UK is doing better than the Dutch in this regard! Might this be a harbinger for an English victory on Wednesday or a Dutch defeat?

JĂŒrg Gassmann
JĂŒrg Gassmann
10 days ago

So long as he does not come clean on his COVID era record, he’ll just continue doing the same again. Not a good prospect.