Professor Neil Ferguson, whose notorious modelling predicting more than a quarter of a million deaths in a voluntary social distancing scenario prompted the UK lockdown on March 23, was at it again on Wednesday.
Despite resigning in disgrace at the start of May after being caught breaking lockdown to host his married lover, he was back in Parliament asserting to the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee that if the Government had locked down a week earlier, the death toll would be less than half what it is now.
‘The epidemic was doubling every three to four days before lockdown interventions were introduced,’ he told MPs, and later the BBC. ‘So, had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier, we would have reduced the final death toll by at least a half.’
This claim has been repeated as though gospel in much of the media, especially the BBC, who made it their lead news story, with almost no critical scrutiny – leaving Ross Clark at the Spectator wondering why journalists are failing in their basic duty to question what they are being told.
He said: ‘All through the Covid-19 crisis we have been poorly served by broadcasters, who have leapt on every hyperbolic paper or statement by Imperial College without looking more widely at the scientific evidence.’
Although Ferguson candidly admitted to MPs that he was ‘second-guessing at this point’, he nonetheless – in what must surely be taken as a signal of the man’s tenuous relationship with evidence – went on to claim that ‘certainly had we introduced (lockdown) earlier, we would have seen many fewer deaths.’
Certain second guesses seem to be Professor Ferguson’s speciality. Yet the media lap it up, no questions asked. It’s like they want to be in lockdown, or want to believe it’s all been worth it, that it’s achieved something important. Is the greatest fear now that it was all for nothing, that it made little or no difference? Is that why Professor Ferguson’s certain second-guessing is received so uncritically?
Yet it is not difficult to see that Ferguson’s claim cannot be correct. Here’s the graph of Covid-19 deaths in London hospitals (smoothed using a seven-day rolling average):
The peak is April 6 and it slows down well before that, so there is no way infections could still have been doubling every three to four days on March 23, as Ferguson told MPs.
Even allowing the lowest estimate of average interval between infection and death of 14 days, that puts the infection peak on March 23, with the slowdown in the week leading up to it.
Furthermore, the brief period of exponential growth early on decays into linear growth (so not doubling every few days) on March 24, which corresponds to a slowdown in infections from March 10 at the latest. Thus the claim that infections were doubling every three to four days up to lockdown on March 23 has no basis in the data whatsoever. They had slowed down in London nearly two weeks earlier.
Why, it has to be asked, can we see this here in front of our eyes through the cunning use of an Excel spreadsheet, yet our de facto State epidemiologist can carry on making baseless claims about doubling infection rates up to lockdown? Where is the basic level of curiosity amongst scientists and journalists about the single most consequential scientific model of our time?
The truth is there is no evidence that lockdowns and social distancing have made any impact on the coronavirus epidemic at all. The signals for these measures just don’t show up in the data.
As numerous analysts have pointed out, the R number curves and death curves in different countries are very similar no matter what interventions are introduced or when they are brought in.
There are no sharp drop-offs, such as might be expected from severe social distancing measures. All death curves decline steadily over the course of about two months after the peak, with new infections continuing to appear throughout despite lockdown.
No second spikes have yet appeared in countries that have begun easing restrictions. The overall death tolls show no sign of correlating with early social distancing measures.
This is a strong indication that the virus does not spread so much in the community as in hospitals, care homes and private homes – contexts not affected by the lockdown. It is also an indication that it has run its course in most countries (though perhaps not those which sealed their borders quickly) despite the measures taken, and that it has reached a collective immunity threshold much lower than expected, owing to pre-existing resistance in the population.
All these things are becoming clear to those who care to look. But not to Professor Ferguson, and not to the Government and its scientific advisers, and not to the media. I used to believe that humans were a rational species. Now I’m not so sure.