Tuesday, October 27, 2020
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Senseless certainty of Professor Lockdown

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ON Thursday evening of last week, the Cambridge Union held an online debate on the lockdown, a welcome opportunity to hear eight different takes on the global response, four in favour of lockdown and four against.

One participant in particular stood out for his evidently unshakeable certitude: Professor John Edmunds from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and a member of NERVTAG (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group), which is a subgroup of SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), upon which the British government relies for scientific advice.

Professor Edmunds was arguing in favour of the lockdown, and his performance brought to mind a quote from the late science fiction author Michael Crichton, who wrote: ‘I am certain there is too much certainty in the world.’ Crichton was writing about climate change, but his observation is exceedingly relevant to the current predicament.

Edmunds claimed that ‘Covid-19 represents the gravest threat to the health of our nations for 100 years’ and insisted that an unmitigated epidemic would be ‘a disaster’, that ’50 per cent of the population would become ill within … a few chaotic months’, five to ten per cent of the population would require hospitalisation, and a ‘shocking’ 350,000 to 450,000 deaths would result due to Covid-19 alone, not including deaths to other causes. 

To drive home how afraid we should all be (or as he put it, ‘another way of putting it into context’), he claimed that the consequences would be worse than the effects of the Second World War on the UK: ‘About 410,000 people died in the Second World War over the period of six years. This epidemic would cause about the same number of deaths in a period of a few short months unless we do something about it.’


He then assured us that lockdowns ‘do work’. ‘Experience from China and Italy has shown that lockdowns are effective’ and when the UK introduced its lockdown ‘the reproduction number … dropped from about 2.5 to 3 before interventions were put in place to about 0.6 almost immediately’.

He claimed other methods didn’t work and wouldn’t work, that ‘all the models were suggesting that the only real method in order to stop this epidemic would be … something along the lines of a lockdown’, and that radical measures were needed to stop intensive care units being ‘completely overwhelmed’ by the end of March.

He did allow that different measures might work in other countries, and admitted that the lockdown will have negative consequences to health and the economy, but insisted that it was ‘an imperative’ in the UK and ‘a necessary evil’.

This more or less summarises the thinking which underpins the decision to enforce a lockdown in the UK and most other countries that have responded with similar measures. 

This point of view, echoing the notorious Imperial College predictions, has been accepted not only by governments, but also by opposition parties, by most of the media, and overwhelmingly by most of the public. But popular support doesn’t make it true, and surely the truth is paramount. In fact, practically everything Professor Edmunds so confidently argues has been called into question by other scientists.

Models are only as accurate as the assumptions made and the questionable data put into them. It’s remarkable that Professor Edmunds seems almost unaware that another side of the argument exists, especially given that he was taking part in a debate which included that other side.

Science takes its name from the Latin scientia or scire for ‘knowledge’ or ‘to know’. True scientists are concerned with finding out the truth, not with advocating premature action to deal with apocalyptic predictions.

And there are plenty of true scientists challenging the view of which Professor Edmunds is so sure. Professor Sucharit Bhakdi, Emeritus of the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, for instance, has written an open letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel questioning the German government’s response. 

Professors John Ioannidis and Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University are two others who have dissented from the mainstream view and are conducting indispensable research in the US. All of the above have participated in fascinating interviews available on YouTube.

In a situation with so many unknowns, their caution is wise. There’s also the excellent UnHerd interview with epidemiologist Professor Johan Giesecke, adviser to the Swedish government, and the Spectator articles by English pathologist Dr John Lee, not to mention the contributions by the other participants in the Cambridge Union debate, notably Swedish state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell and the much-maligned journalist Peter Hitchens.

Professor Edmunds at no point admits that he may not have all the answers; his conclusions are certain, not to be questioned, and must be acted upon. In short, he has abandoned the scientific mindset. And under a cloud of pressure and hysteria, the Government has complied.

The implications of the lockdown go well beyond the scientific. There are serious legal questions involved as well. Lord Sumption, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, raised issues of violations to civil liberties early on. Francis Hoar, barrister at Field Court Chambers, has argued compellingly that the lockdown violates the European Convention on Human Rights and would not survive judicial review. 

To put this all into context – omitting any Second World War comparison – there are several issues to balance against each other: 

1. The seriousness of the epidemic, in terms of infection rate, death rate and impact on hospitals, taking into account population densities, air pollution, susceptibility and other factors, and making comparisons with annual statistics of respiratory illness, pneumonia, influenza etc. There are still too many unanswered questions to judge this seriousness with accuracy.

2. The consequences to the economy of a lockdown, including unemployment, depression, suicide, domestic abuse, substance abuse, rising crime levels, effects on businesses, etc. These consequences can be predicted with greater certainty, since there are well-known correlations between, for example, unemployment and suicide or Gross Domestic Product and life expectancy in poorer countries.

3. The violation of personal liberties, including freedoms of assembly, association, religion, personal and family life, etc, which can be justified or not only by balancing the first two issues against each other, and by examining other possible government measures such as those taken in Sweden.

Denmark’s Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said recently: ‘We have no evidence that everything we are doing works. But we would rather take a step too far today than find in three weeks that we have done too little.’ 

Better to be safe than sorry, in other words. But this, which most people who buy into Professor Edmunds’s argument would probably agree with, is based on the erroneous assumption that the measures aren’t themselves a danger to life and liberty which could eclipse the danger posed by Covid-19.

In truth, it isn’t a choice between safe and sorry; it’s between sorry and another kind of sorry. It’s choosing one danger over another without enough information to judge the proportionality. And proportionality, as Peter Hitchens has argued relentlessly, is crucial when personal liberty is at stake. Not everyone’s lives are equally at risk, but everyone’s liberties are being equally denied.

Those of us who aren’t scientists have no choice but to trust experts. But what if the experts disagree, which they clearly do? I’m inclined to lean towards those who question and caution, because that is what true scientists do.

Those who speak with too much certainty, who avoid the scrutiny of other scientists or the warnings of experts in other fields, and who are quick to support policies based on their own questionable findings, are not true scientists.

Professor Edmunds may call himself a scientist, but if his performance in the Cambridge Union debate is anything to go by, he’s not acting like one.

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Andrew Mahon
Andrew Mahon is a Canadian-British writer based in London.

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