Professor John Edmunds (pictured), a SAGE modeller, said scientists’ projections of Covid infections, hospitalisations and deaths was only ‘one component’ of decision-making but were leaned on too much by ministers
Britain relied too much on ‘very scary’ SAGE models to decide on lockdowns, according to the man behind some of those very projections.
Just months after SAGE predicted 6,000 deaths per day and called for a Christmas lockdown in response to Omicron, Professor John Edmunds said the models were only supposed to be ‘one component’ of decision-making but were leaned on too much by ministers.
He accepted the models failed to account for the economic harm and the knock-on health effects that lockdowns caused.
Professor Edmunds admitted that these harms ‘in principle’ could have been factored into models ‘but in practice they were not’.
His remarks come as Britons face the harsh reality of two years’ of shutting down the economy and health service, with the NHS grappling a backlog crisis that has seen one in nine people in England stuck on an NHS waiting list for treatment and inflation at its highest point in 30 years.
The epidemiologist, who was among the most outspoken members of SAGE, said some of the death projections in the model were ‘truly eye-watering’.
Speaking at a medical conference on Tuesday, he said: ‘The epidemiological model is only one component [of decision-making] and I wondered and I worried that we’d had too much weight.’
He added: ‘There is of course an enormous economic impact from many of the interventions and other indirect impacts on psychological health and so on. Now these in principle could be included but in practice they were not.’
Professor Edmunds called for the first lockdown to be extended in summer 2021, warning Britain was ‘taking a risk’ by unlocking while still logging 8,000 cases per day and that the decision was ‘clearly’ political.
And he warned against easing the third national lockdown in early 2021, warning it would be a ‘disaster’ and put ‘enormous pressure’ on the health service.
Professor Edmunds’ team at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine were among four modelling groups that fed into Government recommendations.
Professor Neil Ferguson – dubbed Professor Lockdown for his gloomy forecasts – worked within another modelling team at Imperial College London.
The chair of the SPI-M modelling group has previously admitted the groups did not consider optimistic scenarios because ‘that doesn’t get decisions made’.
SAGE’s modelling team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine presented projections on infections (purple), hospitalisations (red) and deaths (black) under different scenarios between now and August 2022. The top graph shows hospital admissions from the beginning from the pandemic. They estimated there could be 10,400 hospitalisations in England per day at the peak of the outbreak in February in a worst-case scenario (far right red graph), if Omicron escapes immunity from vaccines and previous infection and the boosters have a low efficacy. They assumed that Omicron will continue to grow exponentially even under Plan B curbs, two jabs offer just 50 per cent protection against severe disease from the mutant strain and boosters just 80 per cent
Imperial College London modelling from March 2020 showed Covid restrictions individually were insufficient to bring down virus hospitalisations to a level that hospitals could cope with
Warwick University scientists calculated there would be 6,000 deaths a day if Plan B alone remains implemented and there is ‘extreme pressure’ on the NHS. The graph shows death estimates if Plan B has low effectiveness (top row of graphs) to high effectiveness (bottom row), while the columns show death projections based on Omicron’s severity (low to high, left to right)
Most recently, in the winter Omicron surge, the teams warned that daily hospitalisations could reach 10,000 — more than four times higher than actual peak of around 2,400. Deaths peaked 20-times lower than the experts’ worst-case scenario.
Ahead of Freedom Day last July, SAGE modelling suggested there could be another 200,000 UK deaths in the year June 2022 in a worst-case scenario, which was quickly disputed by other scientists who said it underestimated the power of the vaccines.
And ahead of the winter 2020 surge, they warned deaths could hit 4,000 per day. A peak of 1,820 was logged.
Speaking at the European Society for Paediatric Infectious Diseases 40th annual conference, which is taking place in Athens this week, Professor Edmunds admitted there are weaknesses to scientific models.
WHO chief slams China’s for its ‘unsustainable’ zero Covid policy
The head of the World Health Organization has finally criticised China’s Zero Covid strategy and urged it to change its policy, as millions in Shanghai enter their seventh and most brutal week of lockdown yet.
In a rare rebuke of the Communist party, which is one of the biggest financial contributors to the health agency, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the strategy was unsustainable.
‘As we all know, the virus is evolving, changing its behaviours, becoming more transmissible,’ he said. ‘With that changing behaviour, changing your measures will be very important.
‘When we talk about the zero-Covid strategy, we don’t think it’s sustainable.’ He added: ‘Considering the behaviour of the virus I think a shift [in China’s strategy] will be very important.’
The WHO had previously been slammed as too ‘China-centric’ during the pandemic and was accused of failing to publicly challenge Chinese misinformation in early 2020.
Chinese censors have already censored Dr Tedros’ comments, with searches for the hashtags ‘Tedros’ and ‘WHO’ on the popular Weibo social media platform displaying no results.
Users of the WeChat app have also been unable to share articles posted on an official United Nations health agency’s account.
Official Chinese modelling used to justify sticking to Zero Covid has warned that ditching it now would unleash a ‘tsunami’ of infections and kill 1.6million people this summer.
He said: ‘One of the issues is that it’s only one component in decision-making. So the epidemiological model is only one component and I wondered and I worried that we’d had too much weight.’
There was an ‘enormous economic impact’ as well as harm to mental health from lockdowns, which saw people unable to mix outside their household, schools close and mandatory working from home.
He said they were left out because the link between Covid cases and damage to the economy was ‘really unclear’.
And the social and psychological impact of the restrictions are ‘still not clear’ and were ‘certainly not clear ahead of time’, Professor Edmunds said.
He added: ‘So these things were not included. And I actually think in many respects it was a great failure of health economics to not really contribute to this field during the epidemic.’
Yet dozens of scientists warned throughout the pandemic about the toll of lockdowns and restrictions on mental and physical health, as well as the economy.
Professor Edmunds noted that Covid models fail to include factors that are ‘unknowable at the time’ such as the severity of Omicron when it emerged.
During the winter Omicron wave, SAGE models did not take account of the variant’s reduced severity, despite real-world data from South Africa showing the strain caused milder illness.
He also noted that it is not possible to accurately predict how the public will act in an outbreak.
Professor Edmunds has previously hit out at the Government for not going into lockdowns earlier and easing restrictions too quickly, including the scrapping of mandatory self-isolation.
He was one of the leading scientific voices when the first lockdown was imposed in early 2020.
Detailing the response to the first wave, Professor Edmunds said: ‘We looked at different interventions and came out with truly eye watering, very scary results, in terms of deaths, perhaps 300 to 4,000 [daily] deaths in the UK alone if we just let the epidemic run its course.
‘That’s of course without changing behaviour.
‘Probably, the individual would have changed their behaviour anyway. But huge numbers of deaths, huge numbers of intensive care beds usage.’
But Professor Edmunds said there are questions around how much modelling helped in the UK’s initial response, as the UK brought in the stay-at-home order later than other nations.
He said: ‘It certainly didn’t help us move very fast here and, in fact, I wonder whether because we had these tools and policymakers could ask us questions — “what about if we did this and what about if we did that” — that that might have actually contributed to us actually making a decision quite slowly.
‘And in fact the speed of that lockdown was certainly the biggest contributing factor to total numbers of deaths in the first wave.’
SAGE scientists have previously claimed their official projections have not come to fruition due to behavioural changes among the population, who cut their contacts when cases are on the rise, as well as high levels of immunity following multiple waves.
The models have come under fire from other experts, who have criticised SAGE for failing to talk to sociologist and economists when doing their modelling, meaning they failed to incorporate ‘things other people know about’.
Professor Graham Medley, who chairs Spi-M, a modelling group that feeds into SAGE, admitted modelling has failed to reflect the reality of how waves unfold because they do not factor in behaviour changes, one of the Government’s chief pandemic advisers has admitted.
‘The epidemic is dynamic,’ he said. ‘People’s responses to the situation in March 2020 were very different to those in November 2020 and very different again in January 2021.’
Professor Medley, based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, added: ‘The modelling is there to understand the process and what’s going on. We know we cannot accurately predict the numbers but we can give insight into the processes that determine the outcomes.’
Professor Edmunds echoed his comments at the conference yesterday, noting it is ‘not currently possible’ to accurately take people’s behaviours into account in scientific models.