The UK Covid-19 Inquiry has been divided into six ‘Modules.’ It is in Module 1 on ‘Resilience and Preparedness’ and in Module 2 on ‘Core UK Decision-making and Political Governance’ that the Inquiry will principally address the policy process that yielded lockdown. Module 1 public hearings were held in the Summer. Module 2 hearings about the UK Government, as opposed to the devolved governments, began in October and have just ended. The pause in the hearings provides a useful opportunity to take stock of what has been done so far.
The Covid-19 Inquiry is the latest demonstration that UK public inquiries have long since been reduced to an unfunny joke at the expense of UK citizens, and one would have to be naïve in the extreme to expect to find much of anything of value in the conclusions they publish. One did, however, think that useful information might be found in the evidence inquiries gathered, but over the major issues which it should address the Covid-19 Inquiry will not even attain this more modest objective. For it seems likely that the Inquiry will not yield any evidence allowing UK citizens to decide whether the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 constituted an emergency sufficient to justify lockdown.
It seems even less likely that the evidence one hoped eventually to obtain about the part that scientific advice played in the decision to adopt lockdown will emerge from the Inquiry. Scientific advice should, of course, not seek to make policy but confine itself to being advice offered to policy-makers who weigh it alongside the economic, legal, and social considerations that should be taken into account. But this is precisely what did not happen with lockdown, and denials of any involvement at all in the formulation of policy by scientific advisors who held the most important positions have been left unquestioned, even though they have turned on a flat untruth of the greatest consequence.
Sir Chris Whitty, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, was, of course, one of the principal public faces of the presentation of lockdown, but more importantly for our purposes was a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Emergencies (SAGE), the principal body advising government over the SARS outbreak. In his evidence given on 22 June 2023, he told the Inquiry that scientific advice could not actually be responsible for lockdown: ‘it would be very surprising’ for ‘a scientific committee [to] venture … into that kind of extraordinarily major social intervention,’ ‘without this being requested by a senior politician.’
This claim was repeated in the evidence Professor Neil Ferguson gave to the Inquiry on 17 October 2023. Professor Ferguson of Imperial College London, a figure of remarkable influence in national and international research on infectious disease epidemiology, was also a member of SAGE and other advisory bodies, and the most important single person giving scientific advice over the outbreak. In his evidence he said:
I believe that scientists have a key role to play in advising policymakers on the potential impacts of different policy choices in a crisis, but that they should not use the public platform offered to them by that role to campaign or advocate for specific policies … for something as consequential as a pandemic. Where everybody is affected by the decisions, it is for … policymakers to make those decisions, not for scientists.
It is of the very first importance to note that this claim by Sir Chris and by Professor Ferguson completely contradicts what has long been known of the crucial event in the adoption of lockdown, an event in which Sir Chris played an important part, and to which Professor Ferguson was absolutely central.
UK planning to deal with epidemic respiratory infectious disease had long been based on ‘mitigation’ of disease. In a previous outbreak of, say, influenza or the common cold, the spontaneous steps which people would take to avoid infection themselves, to avoid infecting others, and to cope with illness were to be supported by steps taken by government to, for example, support self-isolation at home, or to provide extra care for those most vulnerable, generally the infirm elderly.
The extensive and long-considered planning to this effect which was in place at the start was abandoned with extraordinary rapidity, with the major decisions perhaps being taken within a week, when on 16 March 2020 SAGE was presented with a Report on The Impact of Non-pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) to Reduce Covid-19 Mortality and Healthcare Demand which it had commissioned from a specially convened Imperial College Covid-19 Response Team. Reflecting his institutional dominance of the field, this Team was led by Professor Neil Ferguson. Non-pharmaceutical intervention (NPI) does not mean lockdown; indeed this is what it had not previously meant. It means the ‘social’ steps that can be taken to limit infection and the impact of disease.
But SARS-Cov-2 was a new virus of which in March 2020, on the facts known so far, epidemiology had been aware for no more than 6 months. Almost nothing was known about it, and, of course, no vaccines had been developed to resist it. In these circumstances, the Imperial College Team predicted that ‘an uncontrolled’ or ‘an unmitigated epidemic [would cause] 510,000 deaths in [Great Britain]’. The prediction for the United States was 2.2 million. Even if ‘optimal’ mitigation measures were adopted, it was predicted that ‘there would still be in the order of 250,000 deaths in GB.’ These numbers, it was claimed, could be reduced to the tens of thousands by NPI which pursued, not mitigation, but the ‘suppression’ of Covid-19 infection by massive restrictions on human contact.
The detail of lockdown was not discussed in the Report, but all the measures soon to be adopted, such as school, university, and workplace closures, were considered, and overall, having set out the 510,000 and 250,000 figures, the Report concluded ‘that epidemic suppression is the only viable strategy at the current time [which] the UK will need to [adopt] imminently.’
We have emphasised ‘only’ in this quotation to draw attention to the way this conclusion sought to compel the adoption of lockdown. ‘Epidemic suppression’ necessarily required lockdown. The use of ‘only’ closes off all alternatives. Such language requires reaching a judgement about the economic, legal, and social consequences of lockdown that Sir Chris and Professor Ferguson are indeed incompetent to make, should never make, and now deny ever having made. But to deny that they made such a judgment is a flat untruth. In full the Imperial College Team Report said:
We therefore conclude that epidemic suppression is the only viable strategy at the current time. The social and economic effects of the measures which are needed to achieve this policy goal will be profound. Many countries have adopted such measures already, but even those countries at an earlier stage of their epidemic (such as the UK) will need to do so imminently.
Coming within a Report that prided itself on being the latest result of Imperial College ‘epidemiological modelling which [already had] informed policy-making in the UK and other countries in recent weeks,’ the Report completely contradicts Sir Chris and Professor Ferguson’s claim about the advice they offered. Professor Ferguson and his colleagues in the Imperial College Team advocated and intended to advocate lockdown. To maintain otherwise is demonstrably false. It is vitally important not to allow these false claims to go unchallenged.
It is, incredible to say, even more concerning that the Imperial College Team’s policy modelling was wildly inaccurate and conceptually nonsensical. Fear of the possibility of 510,000 deaths would appear to have been the catalyst for the panicked change from a mitigation to a suppression policy. But by ‘an uncontrolled’ or ‘an unmitigated’ epidemic, the Report purported to predict what would happen ‘In the (unlikely) absence of any control measures or spontaneous changes in individual behaviour.’
But there was, of course, never any possibility that a serious outbreak of respiratory infectious disease would not be met with spontaneous responses and government measures in support of these. To describe this as ‘unlikely’ is extremely misleading; it is a zero-possibility event, which, nevertheless, the Imperial College Team somehow modelled. If during a 35° heatwave everybody in the UK goes outside in bathing costumes, and if there is a sudden fall in temperature to minus 5°, then we can confidently predict universal health problems if people continue wearing their bathing costumes. But what have we learned of the empirical world from Imperial College-style modelling when obviously we already know that everyone would put on warm clothing instead?
As with the rest of the world, the Imperial College Team had extremely imperfect information when it addressed an outbreak of infectious respiratory disease caused by a virus only very recently known, the medical effects of which were only very inadequately reported. But instead of taking a lack of knowledge to be the ground for cautious, hesitant analysis and policy prescription, the Imperial College Team advocated an intervention which Sir Chris Whitty described as ‘extraordinarily major’ as ‘the only viable strategy.’
The advocacy was based on statistics which were conceptually nonsensical or which, clearly erected on a wholly inadequate evidence base, have proven to be wildly inaccurate. The presentation of these statistics was intended to have a dramatic impact on policy, and the Imperial College Team succeeded in this respect beyond its dreams.
Imperial College researchers led by Professor Ferguson had advocated the suppression policy to deal with outbreaks of infectious respiratory disease long before the new SARS virus and the response to it by communist China gave it an opportunity to promote lockdown. The Covid-19 Response Team Report is an extremely tendentious attempt to compel adoption of that policy, which succeeded in turning the world upside down. Sir Chris Whitty and Professor Neil Ferguson’s claims to the contrary are demonstrably untrue. The Covid-19 Inquiry should expose this falsity for the whole world to see and gather the evidence which would allow UK citizens to understand how flawed scientific advice came to play such a massive and utterly malign role not just in the UK, but around the world.
Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
For reprints, please set the canonical link back to the original Brownstone Institute Article and Author.