As we look back on pandemic mistakes, we need to count livelihoods in our losses

Ministers don’t need to face the inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic until next spring, the chair of the probe, Heather Hallet, announced this week. 

As part of its mandate, the inquiry will “listen to and consider carefully” the experiences of those who lost family members or “have suffered hardship or loss” as a result of the pandemic. 

The central question, however, should be: was the policy of lockdown worth it? How we measure loss or hardship will be key. 

Throughout the pandemic, the prime minister constantly enjoined us to “follow the science”, as if doing so exculpated him from any real responsibility for decisions made. And, in two key areas where it mattered most, the government simply ignored their own injunction. The “science” was ignored.

In 2018, the government office for science published a so-called Blackett Review on computational modelling in the UK. These reviews are expert-led, independent studies to answer specific scientific or technological questions and to help inform policy-makers.

The UK is in many areas a world leader in mathematically-based computational modelling. A key point made in the report is that models designed for one purpose may not always be suitable for another. Further, any model needs constant maintenance and updating.

Obvious enough, it seems. But we remember only too well that the pressure to lockdown was intensified by the prediction of 510,000 deaths by scientists at Imperial College London.

The model they used relied on code written well over a decade ago – one designed for the much better understood disease of flu. To be fair, the Imperial team did disclose these points. But the government ignored these crucial potential weaknesses.

Throughout, the epidemiologists assumed the public would not change their behaviour in the light of the pandemic, arguing that it was not their job to predict behavioural change. But assuming no change was itself a prediction – and the one prediction which was certain to be wrong.

As a consequence, the projections of the forecasters consistently, and often massively, overpredicted the numbers of cases, hospitalisations, and deaths.

But there was a much bigger failure to “follow the science”.

In the early summer of 2020, as discussed in this column at the time, distinguished economists carried out cost-benefits analyses of lockdowns. 

Two of these were by David Miles of Imperial, formerly of the Monetary Policy Committee and now top forecaster at the Office for Budget Responsibility and Bob Rowthorn, former head of the Cambridge economics department. Both studies, done independently of each other, had a resounding answer: the costs were likely to be far higher than the benefits.

In contrast to the failures of the epidemic forecasters, the eventual adverse consequences of lockdown, described in the cost-benefit studies, are now plain for all to see. Rising excess deaths as a result of surgeries put on hold during the pandemic, a massive loss of output, huge increases in government debt, widening inequality in educational outcomes.

The list could go on. But, in essence, the economists were correct. And if we’re going to try and assign loss we should look at those whose livelihoods were destroyed, as well as those whose lives were lost. 

Ministers, time to prepare your answers. 

As published in City AM Wednesday 27th July 2022
Paul Ormerod
Image: Geograph

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