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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Alex O’Byrne, Associate at Volterra, is an experienced economic consultant specialising in economic, health and social impact, economic strategy, project appraisal and socio-economic planning matters.

Alex has led the socio-economic and health assessments of some of the most high profile developments across the UK, including Battersea Power Station, Olympia London, London Resort, MSG Sphere and Westfield. He has significant experience inputting to EIAs and s106 discussions as well as drafting economic statements, employment and skills strategies and affordable workspace strategies.

Alex is also experienced at economic appraisal for infrastructure. He was project manager of the economic appraisal for the City Centre to Mangere Light Rail in Auckland. He also led the economic and financial appraisals of the third tranche of the Transport Access Program for Transport for New South Wales, in which Alex developed and employed innovative methodological approaches to better capture benefits for individuals with reduced mobility.

He is interested in the limitations of current appraisal methodologies and ways of improving economic and health analysis to ensure it is accessible to as many people as possible. To this end, Alex recognises the importance of transparent and simple to understand analysis and ensuring all work is supported by a robust narrative.

Alex holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Manchester and he was a member of the first cohort of the Mayor’s Infrastructure Young Professionals Panel.


Senior Partner

t: +44 020 8878 6333

Ellie is a partner at Volterra, specialising in the economic impact of developments and proposals, and manages many of the company’s projects on economic impact, regeneration, transport and development.

With thirteen years experience at Volterra delivering high quality projects to clients across the public and private sector, Ellie has expertise in developing methods of estimating economic impact where complex issues exist with regards to deadweight, displacement and additionality.

Ellie has significant experience in estimating the economic impact across all types of property development including residential, leisure, office and mixed use schemes.

Project management of recent high profile schemes include the luxury hotel London Peninsula, Battersea Power Station and the Nova scheme at London Victoria. Ellie has also led studies across the country estimating the economic and regeneration impact of proposed transport investments, including studies on HS2 and Crossrail.

Ellie holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Cambridge.