The UK parliamentary Health and Social Care, and Science and Technology Committees have just jointly published their substantial report criticising the many errors made by UK Government in its handling of the Covid crisis. It praised, justifiably, the excellent strategy (rooted in early risk investment) and deployment of vaccines. But its own timing is as questionable as that of any it seeks to criticise.
In my view the report is well over a year too late. Important aspects of its conclusions could have been published early in 2020, when they might have made more of a difference to the subsequent phases of Covid caused by the Alpha and Delta variants in Autumn 2020 and Spring 2021 respectively.
It was quite obvious as early as Spring 2020 what had gone wrong, and needed to be put right, in terms of the timing and effectiveness of mitigations. And yet some kind of summary of the early findings of these Select Committees, or an early version of the report, or some of its most obvious and important conclusions were missing in action.
What if..? What I said in May 2020
I published my own “what if” blog post on May 14th 2020 (a rare retrospective blog post amongst over fifty I have published on the Coronavirus pandemic since March 2020). It was based on (necessarily) a very early version of my model, comparing what might have happened if the UK’s lockdown had been two weeks earlier on March 9th 2020, instead of on March 23rd.
I had begun modelling work in March 2020, because in those days there wasn’t much public information about what Government advisers were saying about the pandemic, and how they arrived at their forecasts. I have learned a lot by modelling the pandemic in the UK for myself. I was helped by starting with Prof. Alex de Visscher‘s original code, having looked into other methods and codes such as GleamViz, and the Gillespie SIR model, which Tomasz Knapik implemented for me as a simple online resource, and other solution methods. Over 18 months my codes have developed significantly.
Two of the sources I used in that early blog post are ones that this latest parliamentary report belatedly refers to now, 17 months later. The Select Committee isn’t much better than Government itself in its timeliness.
What I said in November 2020
Here is what I said in a blog post in November 2020 when I was looking forward to more timely and effective Covid mitigations in the USA, following Trump’s loss of the US Presidency. The comments are extracts from my November 10th blog post “Make America well again”.
That overall post looked forward optimistically to Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20th 2021, and compared mitigation strategies in the USA, as between “nil” action by Trump during the intervening 70 days until Inauguration Day (mirroring his woeful performance up to that point), versus immediate and effective action, however unlikely. My analysis indicated that the cost in lives of no effective action during those 70 days would be about 56,000 American lives lost.
I introduced the reasons for looking at that comparison by reference to my earlier “What-if” UK study, making the following comments:
- In my blog post on May 14th 2020, in the first phase of the pandemic, I looked back to March in the UK, and pondered (theoretically) what might have happened if UK lockdown had been two weeks earlier, on March 9th instead of March 23rd;
- I had configured my Coronavirus model to postulate the alternative UK lockdown date of March 9th (which was when Italy locked down), and as others reported (including Professor Rowland Kao and his team at Edinburgh University, as well as Imperial College’s Prof. Neil Ferguson in his reported evidence to the UK Science and Technology Parliamentary Select Committee) many lives could and probably would have been saved if that had happened;
- There was a degree of hindsight involved, of course, and these were assessments strictly in epidemiological terms (as opposed to consideration of the wider health, economic and social concerns).
My issues with the select Committees’ timing
Why have we had to wait until October 2021 for the Social Care and Science and Technology Parliamentary Committees to make statements of the “bleedin’ obvious”, given the prior evidence?
On June 10th 2020, Neil Ferguson’s evidence to the Parliamentary Science & Technology Select Committee included the following:
“The epidemic was doubling every three to four days before lockdown interventions were introduced. So had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier, we would have reduced the final death toll by at least a half.
Whilst I think the measures, given what we knew about this virus then, in terms of its transmission and its lethality, were warranted, I’m second guessing at this point, certainly had we introduced them earlier we would have seen many fewer deaths.”
Some thought that this comment was made with the benefit of hindsight, as documented here. But in those responses, Edinburgh’s Professor Kao, whose team independently looked at Scottish data and assessed that 2000 lives could have been saved by earlier lockdown in Scotland, said:
“The estimate for the epidemic doubling time was already well established in early March when such decisions were being made, and while there would have been some uncertainty as to the impact of a full lockdown at the time, it would have been known that it was highly likely to be sufficient to reduce the reproduction number “R” below one. As such Prof. Ferguson’s comments regarding the possible reduction in COVID-19 related deaths are entirely robust. What’s important to remember now is that, as we ease lockdown restrictions, that same potential for a rapid rise in infections still exists – should we not progress out of lockdown more carefully, the end result will be a rise in fatalities, and the risk of re-entering lockdown at least regionally.”
If the Sunday Times can do it, why can’t Parliament?
The Sunday Times published their account of the March events on April 19th 2020, in an Insight article entitled “Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster” with the strap-line “Boris Johnson skipped five Cobra meetings on the virus, calls to order protective gear were ignored and scientists’ warnings fell on deaf ears. Failings in February  may have cost thousands of lives”.
A year later, in March 2021, the senior journalists on that team, Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott, published their book, based on that Insight investigation, “Failures of State review — was Boris Johnson to blame for the Covid shambles” which they described as “A damning account of errors over the pandemic”.
The book arrives at many relevant conclusions, fully 8 months before the recent belated Select Committees’ report. The investigative journalism upon which the book was based had been published in their newspaper Insight article, nearly 18 months before the Select Committees’ report.
The Sunday Times team drew attention to the mass events which had been allowed to go ahead, despite many public concerns, just 2 weeks before the March 23rd UK lockdown, as you can see summarised in the image above with assessments of their cases and deaths impacts. One event was the three-day Cheltenham horse racing festival, and the other was a European football match involving Liverpool, both in the second week of March 2020. These kinds of events later became known as “super spreader” events.
I guess official public inquiries of various kinds have to take more care than newspapers, which, however, have to be truthful and fair. But the UK has “previous” in trying to report so comprehensively (whether judicially or otherwise officially) on tragedies and/or official failures, in order to be fair to all, that the reports are published so late as to be useless, except as historical documents.
It is ironic that in reporting so late on the mistakes made in the management of an exponential epidemic, where early timing and effectiveness of mitigation measures are critical, the Committees haven’t learned from the subject matter, or from the very mistakes they seek to criticise.