Tuesday 5 May 2020

The Neil Ferguson factor

It’s official: Brits are a nation of bedwetters
ADDED: 7 May: oh sweet schadenfreude!  Neil Ferguns has been sprung meeting up with his “married lover”, in breach of lockdown protocols which he himself insisted were mandatory. He’s had to resign! Oh wonder...
Remember when British scientists recommended the “herd immunity” strategy? That phrase is a bit misleading as it seems to suggest simply ignoring the virus and letting it rip through society. It’s better understood as something akin to what Sweden is doing. Look after the most vulnerable, have some social distancing in place, but otherwise get on with life. And, marvel, the WHO now praises Sweden’s model. The very one that lockdownophiles have slammed.
That’s all a bit of a sideline to my main point. That the UK started off as a soft lockdown concept -- okay call it "herd immunity” if you will -- but then that policy veered into the Lockdown SuperMax. And who was responsible for that? Neil Ferguson,  professor at the University College London(UCL). And in one of the biggest “I don’t get its” this year, professor Ferguson has been wrong again and again and again, as shown here, yet is revered. Why? I don’t get it:
Worth reminding ourselves that Neil Ferguson’s estimates of the impact of previous viral outbreaks – which have been almost comically inaccurate – haven’t damaged his scientific reputation in the slightest. In 2002, he predicted that mad cow disease could kill up to 50,000 people. It ended up killing less than 200. In 2005, he told the Guardian that up to 200 million people could die from bird flu. The final death toll from avian flu strain A/H5N1 was 440. And in 2009, a Government estimate based on one of Ferguson’s models estimatedthe likely death toll from swine flu at 65,000. In fact, it was 457.
And yet, and yet.... it was only when Ferguson published his UCL model predicting 2 million deaths that the government panicked and went into lockdown overdrive. Yes, they believed him again. That’s why we’ve got “Fearful Britons”. That’s why our dear Poms have become a “nation of bedwetters”.
But it’s crazy. Not only is it looking that professor Ferguson wrong -- yet again. It’s also that it’s built in all epidemiologists’ models that they be vastly pessimistic:
One of the most interesting sections of the interview is when [professor of Structural Biology at Stanford Michael] Levitt explains why epidemiologists’ predictions tend to be so apocalyptic. The reason, he says, is because if they underestimate the death toll likely to result from a viral outbreak they face catastrophic reputational damage – if people die, they get the blame – but if they overestimate it they face zero consequences. “In my work, if I say a number is too small and I’m wrong, or a number is too high and I’m wrong, both of those errors are the same,” he says. “It seems that being a factor of 1,000 too high is perfectly okay in epidemiology, but being a factor of three too low, is too low.”
 Another quote from professor Levitt, who, by the way, is a Nobel Laureate:
I think the policy of herd immunity is the right policy. I think Britain was on exactly the right track before they were fed wrong numbers. And they made a huge mistake. I see the standout winners as Germany and Sweden. They didn’t practise too much lockdown and they got enough people sick to get some herd immunity. I see the standout losers as countries like Austria, Australia and Israel that had very strict lockdown but didn’t have many cases. They have damaged their economies, caused massive social damage, damaged the educational year of their children, but not obtained any herd immunity. There is no doubt in my mind that when we come to look back on this, the damage done by lockdown will exceed any saving of lives by a huge factor. [here]
The whole article is here, with plenty other links to studies showing that the Lockdown Max strategy does no better than the Sweden model.
The Swedish model of Lockdown Lite gives herd immunity as a side benefit, while it minimises the huge negative economic impact of Lockdown Max.