Scientists’ dire warning of thousands of deaths from Indian variant is a dangerous abuse of public trust

The epidemiologists are at it again.  The Indian variant of the Covid virus has resurrected their projections of doom and gloom.

The scientists who advise the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) have said the full lifting of lockdown on 21 June could lead to 1,000 deaths a day and no fewer than 10,000 hospitalisations a day. 

To put these in context, the previous peak of admissions was just over 4,500 on 12 January, followed quickly by the peak level of deaths at just under 2,000.

The Sage experts suggest that lifting lockdown could lead to just over half the previous highest level of daily deaths. But hospital admissions could be more than double the previous peak.

The key word in much of this reporting is “could”.  

For example, I “could” win the lottery, be awarded the Nobel prize and be invited to become King of Albania. But, whilst theoretically possible, I feel that somehow this scenario is unlikely.

We might equally express scepticism about the likelihood of the pessimistic Sage scenario.

Some 40 per cent of the UK adult population has already received both jabs, and a further 30 per cent just the one.  

The percentages for the vulnerable groups, mainly those over 60, are of course even higher, over 90 per cent.

In addition, we know that the vast majority of hospital admissions have been amongst the elderly.  At the height of the pandemic in January this year, before the vaccines had really taken effect, around three-quarters of hospital admissions were of those aged over 60.

In summary, most hospital admissions have been amongst the elderly, and most of these are now fully vaccinated against the virus, even in its Indian form.

So it is difficult to see how hospital admissions will be more than double their previous peak once lockdown is completely lifted.  

We have been here several times before. For example, in early November last year, Patrick Vallance claimed that deaths could rise to 4,000 a day if a second lockdown were not imposed. This figure was judged to be so implausible that it earned Vallance a rebuke from the official statistics watchdog, the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA).

UKSA went further and stated that when modelling was being used “to inform significant policy decisions”, it was essential that “the model outputs, methodologies and key assumptions” should be published at the same time.

Despite this chastisement, it looks like some university-based epidemiologists and government advisors are once again playing politics with the mathematical models.  

As they have done before, they try and cover themselves by saying that the 10,000 a day admissions is merely a scenario and not a forecast.

The media will always seize on the most extreme number which is published. This much should by now be obvious not merely to the advisors but to the academics.

Almost any set of numbers can easily be produced by these models. We need information on the likelihood of each scenario. Trying to scare people with unlikely outcomes is to take the public for fools.

Paul Ormerod
As published in City AM Wednesday 19th May 2021
Image: Chris Witty via Flickr

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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

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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.