There was a time in a different world, a world that shook hands, met relatives and commuted to work, when none of this was obvious. When it wasn’t clear that the way to stop an infectious disease was to stop a society and the very idea was horrifying and unimaginable.
“Of course we knew it was possible that social distancing could control a respiratory virus,” says Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College professor whose maths is now for ever associated with the lockdown. “But there is an enormous cost associated with it.”
Comment: No, they did not know that it was possible that “social distancing could control a respiratory virus.” The idea was first bruited in a high school project, by the daughter of a ‘senior scientist’, just over a decade ago. Her project work didn’t even win first prize because it is long since scientifically and medically established that respiratory illnesses caused by aerosolized viruses cannot be controlled by keeping people apart.
Back in 2019, about the time someone was getting infected by a bat, no European country’s pandemic plans seriously entertained the prospect of putting a country on pause.
Comment: No one was infected by a bat. Sars-CoV-2 is a laboratory-tweaked coronavirus. It either leaked directly from a lab, or leaked through person-to-person transmission when people vaccinated with this experimental virus began spreading it to non-vaccinated people.
Then, that’s what China did. “I think people’s sense of what is possible in terms of control changed quite dramatically between January and March,” Professor Ferguson says.
He is speaking in a short hiatus in another busy day. In the morning, he has spent two hours briefing a Commons select committee on the new Kent variant, which his calculations suggest spreads faster. In the afternoon, in part on the basis of those calculations, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, will put another swathe of the country into stricter restrictions. Just hearing that the professor’s maths is behind another lockdown this month will at this stage in a politicised pandemic provoke some to fury.
Professor Ferguson, 52, did not start as an epidemiologist. He studied for a PhD in physics at Oxford. There he saw a talk from Robert May, a mathematical biologist who went on to be a government chief scientific advisor. “I didn’t even do biology O-level. I’d never even thought about using mathematics to study biological systems. And there’s something very nice about pandemics in particular, the way they behave mathematically.”
Comment: Ferguson is apparently enjoying this. You all suffer, but he finds it “very nice.”
There is a satisfying dance of the differential equations, as they spiral across a graph — their dynamics changing with the population dynamics — that has an allure for mathematicians. Individually, humans are messy and confusing. Collectively, they are statistics and can be modelled.
Comment: …and conditioned through terror.
For Professor Ferguson, though, it was one of those messy human interactions that tipped him over into the subject. “The brother of a close friend of mine was very ill and later died from HIV. I remember talking through a scientific paper with him, which used modelling to understand how a new generation of antiviral drugs known as protease inhibitors were inhibiting the virus and people. Unfortunately, it was . . . just . . . yeah. If he had survived another year, he would have benefited from the triple therapy as it came to be known.”
He moved from Oxford to Imperial as part of the country’s leading infectious disease modelling group. They modelled the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, as well as the 2009 swine flu outbreak, in which at one point, before better data came in, they estimated a “reasonable worst case scenario” of 65,000 deaths.
Comment: All of his models were wrong – in the sense that they didn’t map to reality. But that’s also why they were ‘right’ and Ferguson was consistently promoted – they mapped to political agendas.
When he returned to advise the government once again, this projection, two orders of magnitude above the real total, was cited by his critics. So too was foot and mouth, where the cull of millions of cattle and sheep, partly on the basis of predictions about the disease, still causes deep bitterness among farmers.
In every crisis there is a turning point, that sets the path for what is to come. For Britain, now with one of the worst death rates in the developed world, that moment came eight months ago, in a fateful spring fortnight when the country debated whether or not to lock down, a fortnight of argument, dithering and sudden prominence of the epidemiological term “herd immunity”.
Comment: Britain does not have “one of the worst death rates in the developed world.” It has no more deaths this year than it has in other years. What Britain does have is a lot of people willing to reclassify deaths from all causes as ‘Covid deaths’. The extent to which a country is officially ‘doing worst from Covid’ is actually the extent to which its population is mired in the pseudo-reality of what is in fact a ‘casedemic’. …….