Neil Ferguson

The Maddening Mystery of Imperial’s Invulnerable Reputation Despite its Dire Record of Failed Model Predictions

Phillip W. Magness in AIER has crunched the numbers and shown how poor Imperial College’s modelling has been at predicting the outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic under different policy responses in every country in the world (well, 189 of them). Yet for some unexplained reason Neil Ferguson and the rest of the Imperial team remain respected authorities on epidemic modelling and management. Magness writes:

COVID-19 has produced no shortage of doomsaying prophets whose prognostications completely failed at future delivery, and yet in the eyes of the scientific community their credibility remains peculiarly intact.

No greater example exists than the epidemiology modelling team at Imperial College-London (ICL), led by the physicist Neil Ferguson. As I’ve documented at length, the ICL modelers played a direct and primary role in selling the concept of lockdowns to the world. The governments of the United States and United Kingdom explicitly credited Ferguson’s forecasts on March 16th, 2020 with the decision to embrace the once-unthinkable response of ordering their populations to shelter in place.

Ferguson openly boasted of his team’s role in these decisions in a December 2020 interview, and continues to implausibly claim credit for saving millions of lives despite the deficit of empirical evidence that his policies delivered on their promises. Quite the opposite – the worst outcomes in terms of Covid deaths per capita are almost entirely in countries that leaned heavily on lockdowns and related nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) in their unsuccessful bid to turn the pandemic’s tide.

Assessed looking backward from the one-year mark, ICL’s modelling exercises performed disastrously. They not only failed to accurately forecast the course of the pandemic in the US and UK – they also failed to anticipate COVID-19’s course in almost every country in the world, irrespective of the policy responses taken.

Time and time again, the Ferguson team’s models dramatically overstated the death toll of the disease, posting the worst performance record of any major epidemiology model.

Magness has put together a table of all the countries with the predictions ICL made for them and their actual outcomes. The results should be fatal for the reputation of anyone whose job it is to make accurate predictions of the future course of events. But not ICL it seems, whose credibility appears to be invulnerable despite repeated and consistent failure. Magness wonders why.

Why is Ferguson, who has a long history of absurdly exaggerated modeling predictions, still viewed as a leading authority on pandemic forecasting? And why is the ICL team still advising governments around the world on how to deal with COVID-19 through its flawed modeling approach? In March 2020 ICL sold its credibility for future delivery. That future has arrived, and the results are not pretty.

Worth reading in full.

Life Will “Feel a Lot More Normal By the Summer”, Says Neil Ferguson

Professor Neil Ferguson says that the success of the U.K.’s vaccine rollout means life will feel more normal by the summer, though we will still “not [be] completely back to normal“. His predictions echo recent reports that while many restrictions will come to an end on June 21st, mask-wearing and caps on numbers attending large events could stay in place past the “end” of lockdown. But with Covid cases and deaths continuing to fall, more MPs – and even papers – are asking why restrictions can’t come to an end now. MailOnline has more.

The SAGE Adviser and Imperial College London Epidemiologist, whose sobering death toll predictions led Britain into its first lockdown last year, said today that he expects the vaccine rollout to help keep the U.K. out of lockdown for good. 

His comments will be seized upon by the Tory MPs calling for the roadmap to normality to be sped up…

Sir Robert Syms, Tory MP for Poole in Dorset, yesterday said: “We need to push the Government to get on with it. A lot of normal life could be returned.” He said the country would “lose another summer” if rules aren’t eased soon. 

The PM has so far refused to budge in the face of calls for more freedom. Trade Secretary Liz Truss this morning dodged questions about whether she thought it should be sped up and told talkRADIO: “We do need to make sure any opening up is irreversible.”

… Professor Ferguson said that jabs appear to work so well that they may hold the virus at bay even in the autumn and winter, when experts fear it will make a comeback like flu. 

He added that the ratio of cases to hospital admissions would be much lower next time around and it was unlikely there will be any danger of the NHS getting overwhelmed.

He admitted “we do expect transmission” when society fully reopens in June but suggested vaccination should replace the need for lockdowns and the U.K. is “in a very good position” to stick to plans for June 21st.

Professor Ferguson’s main fear now is the threat of Covid variants, against which he believes “booster [vaccine] doses” should be administered.

Other advisers to SAGE last week published a study showing that Pfizer’s jab protects well against the South African variant after people have had both doses.

Professor Ferguson said: “The risk from variants, where vaccines are less effective is the major concern. That’s the one thing that could still lead to a very major third wave in the autumn.

“So I think it’s essential that we roll out booster doses which can protect against that as soon as we finish vaccinating the adult population which should finish by the summer…

“It’s much better to be vaccinating people than shutting down the whole of society. 

“So I think, with that one caveat, I am feeling fairly optimistic that we will be – not completely back to normal – but something that feels a lot more normal by the summer.”

Worth reading in full.

Liberal Britain is the Most Serious Casualty of the Pandemic

Fraser Nelson has been a somewhat fickle friend of sceptics. Broadly sceptical until the autumn, the Spectator editor and Telegraph columnist backed the third lockdown and the Spectator‘s output has been noticeably more pro-lockdown since, though with some welcome exceptions (such as Rod Liddle, who travelled the other way, and Lionel Shriver. And of course, Toby).

His column in today’s Telegraph, though, is a cracker, and more reminiscent of the Nelson of old.

Boris Johnson, he writes, is a man with regrets. He has “started to tell friends that he was let down by his own liberal instincts. That he hoped for too long that Britain could, like Sweden, fight the virus through consent rather than diktat – getting through this without abolishing basic freedoms. His fear at the time was irreversibility. If sacred principles were jettisoned in an emergency, would they ever be restored? Might he end up unleashing something he’d struggle to control?”

Fraser notes that Covid levels are now so low in Britain that the Prime Minister could have declared the emergency over already. Instead, we have the renewal of the Government’s emergency powers in the Coronavirus Act for another six months.

It’s no good looking to Labour for opposition. Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is more keen on the new restrictions than the Tories (though it was good to see a few Labour MPs defying the party whip and voting against the extension yesterday, alongside the Lib Dems).

The Government won the vote easily. But in biosecurity Britain, who’s really in charge? Increasingly it seems the scientists, and then only those willing to parrot the Official Narrative. Even ones we thought were discredited, like Neil Ferguson, seem to retain their place at the table. Fraser writes:

Big announcements continue to come via people like Prof Neil Ferguson, who still seems to have a Rasputin-like hold over the Government. Earlier this week, he said he thought it may be unwise to book any foreign holidays this summer. This is big news, because what he thinks today tends to become Matt Hancock’s policy tomorrow. “We’re run by scientist groupthink,” says one minister. “But that won’t change until the polls change.”

Ah, the polls. Scourge of the sceptics’ cause, the rock on which all our carefully crafted arguments founder. Boris Johnson this week was heard speaking in disturbingly demagogical terms about public sentiment on lockdowns, as though people are doing anything other than reflecting back the fear instilled into them by a year of unremitting pro-lockdown propaganda orchestrated by the Government. He told MPs:

My impression is that there is a huge wisdom in the public’s feeling about this. Human beings instinctively recognise when something is dangerous and nasty to them. They can see, collectively, that Covid is a threat. They want us, as their Government – and me as the Prime Minister – to take all the actions I can to protect them.

These are words that should haunt all who love liberty and who cling desperately to the belief that we still live in a liberal state whose laws safeguard our basic freedoms from Government overreach.

The Covid Models Were Tested Against the Real World, and Failed

As we pass through the anniversary of the week in which our freedoms became circumscribed by the outputs of a physicist’s dodgy computer model, Phillip W. Magness at AIER has revisited Imperial’s infamous Report 9 to remind us quite how wrong it was.

Ferguson’s model presented a range of scenarios under increasingly restrictive nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs). Under its “worst case” or “do nothing” model, 2.2 million Americans would die, as would 510,000 people in Great Britain, with the peak daily death rate hitting somewhere around late May or June. At the same time, the ICL team promised salvation from the coronavirus if only governments would listen to and adopt its technocratic recommendations. Time was of the essence to act, so President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson both listened. And so began the first year of “two weeks to flatten the curve”.

It took a little over a month before we saw conclusive evidence that something was greatly amiss with the ICL model’s underlying assumptions. A team of researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden adapted Ferguson’s work to their country and ran the projections, getting similarly catastrophic results. Over 90,000 people would die by summer from Covid-19 if Sweden did not enter immediate lockdown. Sweden never locked down though. By May it was clear that the Uppsala adaptation of ICL’s model was off by an order of magnitude. A year later, Sweden has fared no worse than the average European lockdown country, and significantly better than the UK, which acted on Ferguson’s advice.

Pressed on this unexpected result, ICL tried to distance itself from the Swedish adaptation of its model in May. The records from the March 21st supercomputer run of the Uppsala team’s projections belie that assertion, linking directly to Ferguson’s March 16th report as the framework for its modelling design. But no matter – the ICL team’s own publications would soon succumb to a real-time testing against actual data.

A second ICL report, attempting to model the reopening of the United States from lockdowns, wildly exaggerated the death tolls that were expected to follow. By July, this model too had failed to even minimally correspond to observed reality. ICL attempted to save face by publishing an absurd exercise in circular reasoning in the journal Nature where they invoked the unrealised projections of their own model to supposedly “prove” multiple millions of lives had been saved by the lockdowns. That study soon failed basic robustness checks when the ICL team’s suite of models were applied to different geographies. 

Another team of Swedish researchers then noticed oddities in the ICL team’s coding, suggesting they had modified a key line to bring data from their own comparative analysis of Sweden into sync with other European countries under lockdown after the models did not align. A published derivative of this discovery showed that ICL’s own attempts to validate the effectiveness of its lockdown strategies does not withstand empirical scrutiny

Finally, in November, another team of researchers from the United States compared a related ICL team model for a broader swath of countries against five other international models of the pandemic, examining the performance of each against observed deaths. Their results contain a stunning indictment: “The Imperial model had larger errors, about 5-fold higher than other models by six weeks. This appears to be largely driven by the aforementioned tendency to overestimate mortality.”

The verdict is in. Imperial College’s COVID-19 modelling has an abysmal track record – a characteristic it unfortunately shares with Ferguson’s prior attempts to model mad cow disease, swine flu, avian flu, and countless other pathogens.

Not only did Ferguson’s modelling overstate mortality in the absence of restrictions, it also grossly exaggerated the effectiveness of restrictions in reducing deaths.

Professor Lockdown Strikes Again

Scarcely a week passes without Neil Ferguson popping up to issue a dire warning about the risks of opening up too soon. This morning, he appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme to warn about the risk posed by the new South African variant which he linked to the resurgence of the virus on the continent. His solution? Ban summer holidays. MailOnline has more.

Professor Neil Ferguson warned today that Britain must keep out the South African variant of coronavirus amid spiralling cases in Europe, suggesting foreign holiday plans may have to be shelved.

The SAGE adviser – dubbed ‘Professor Lockdown’ because his gloomy modelling of the first wave spooked ministers into the spring shutdown – said the troubling Covid strain was accounting for a “significant” amount of new cases on the continent.

He stopped short of calling for an outright travel ban but hinted that tough surveillance and quarantining at airports and borders would need to remain in place.

MailOnline notes that Professor Ferguson is assuming that vaccines are our only protection against infection from SARS-CoV-2.

But antibodies make up just one part of the immune response to Covid – for example white blood cells also play a critical role.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: A new study out of Oxford has concluded that the Covid vaccines are more effective against the Brazilian variant than previously thought and may be effective against the South African variant, too. The Times has more.

The study from Oxford, which has yet to be peer reviewed, suggests that the antibodies created by existing jabs and by natural infections can still neutralise the Brazilian and South African variants. This happened at lower levels than recorded with a strain that circulated during the first months of the pandemic.

Worth reading in full.

No, Boris, You Didn’t Lock Down Too Late

The anniversary of the start of the pandemic has occasioned a rash of review pieces, replete with all the standard lockdowner myths that have become part of the Official Narrative in the past year. Not least of which is that lockdown came too late, as Boris has apparently now admitted according to Telegraph sources, which bodes ill for the future.

One of these review pieces, by Telegraph Associate Editor Gordon Rayner, takes a look back at the road to lockdown last March, and includes new insights from insiders, including several ministers.

It rehashes several myths, half-truths and clangers, which we will do our best to debunk.

By mid-March last year new Covid cases were running at an average of 271 per week, though the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) was estimating there were 5,000 to 10,000 cases nationally.

Questions over why Britain was not following other nations, such as Italy, into lockdown were rebuffed because government modelling suggested Mr Johnson’s “squash the sombrero” strategy of flattening the peak would prevent the NHS being overwhelmed.

Suddenly, on Friday, March 13th, everything changed. It was Gold Cup day at the now notorious 2020 Cheltenham Festival, which had been allowed to go ahead despite well-founded concerns that it would become a super-spreader event and SAGE realised it had underestimated the numbers.

Meeting in a conference room at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in Victoria Street, London, the scientists decided a 5-7-day lag in data provision meant the country was “further ahead on the epidemic curve” than they had thought, though SAGE did not at that stage recommend an immediate lockdown and warned that “measures seeking to completely suppress spread of COVID-19 will cause a second peak”.

Five hundred yards away in Downing St, Ben Warner, a young data specialist who had been No 10’s eyes and ears in SAGE meetings, conducted his own analysis of the numbers and concluded that the NHS would “fall over” in a matter of weeks because the virus was spreading exponentially.

Mr Warner took his findings to Mr Cummings, and at an emergency meeting in the Prime Minister’s Downing Street office the next morning, March 14th, Mr Cummings wrote Mr Warner’s projections on a whiteboard and said the course the Government was following would result in potentially tens of thousands of additional deaths.

“The PM was stunned,” said one source. “That was the key meeting in deciding we had to go into lockdown.”

“Our priority had always been to make sure the NHS could cope,” said another, “but the new analysis showed Covid wasn’t going to just pass that line on the graph, it was going to really smash through it.”

Reassuring to know the Government was being advised by a broad range of the best scientists in these crucial decisions, with Professor Cummings and Professor Warner drawing wobbly red lines on white boards…