Furious MPs today slammed No10 for its ‘despicable’ reliance on ‘hysterical’ Covid forecasts which have repeatedly driven the nation into living under economically-crippling curbs.
In a heated Westminster Hall discussion about coronavirus, Conservative Bob Seely called the use of modelling a ‘national scandal’. He argued the projections, peddled by SAGE, created a ‘climate of manipulated fear’.
Echoing Winston Churchill’s famous wartime speech, Mr Seely said of the modelling: ‘Never before has so much harm been done to so many by so few.’
He also criticised SAGE epidemiologist Professor Ferguson for producing ‘doomsday scenarios’ throughout the pandemic.
The notorious epidemiologist’s first model warning of 500,000 deaths if nothing was done to curb the spread of the virus is widely credited with spooking Boris Johnson into announcing the first lockdown in March 2020.
Mr Seely argued this prediction followed a long line of inaccurate models produced by Imperial College London — where Professor Ferguson works — that have caused radical policies, starting with the mass culling of millions of animals during the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001.
He was joined by the Covid Recovery Group deputy chair Steve Baker, who accused modellers of bouncing No10 into restrictions throughout the pandemic.
But the debate erupted when SNP MP Brendan O’Hara accused the politicians of not wearing face masks in the hall. It led to MPs being told to calm down during an angry shouting match.
Conservative Bob Seely (right) called for a debate on scientific modelling during the pandemic in which he accused forecasters of wildly inaccurate predictions. He was joined by the Covid Recovery Group deputy chair Steve Baker (left), who accused modellers of bouncing No10 into restrictions throughout the pandemic.
They slammed ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson (pictured) for ‘hysterical forecasts’ that have created a ‘national scandal’
‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson admits his doomsday predictions may have been ‘oversimplified’
Professor Neil Ferguson described how he had become ‘something of a marmite figure’ as he admitted he ‘made mistakes’ and ‘oversimplified things’ during the pandemic.
The Imperial College epidemiologist, whose initial modelling helped shape Britain’s Covid response, said while it had been challenging for most Western governments to act in a timely manner the science throughout the crisis ‘had basically been right’.
However the scientist, nicknamed ‘Professor Lockdown’, admitted he had ‘made mistakes for which he apologised for’ as he spoke of the public scrutiny that his private life had come under.
He also described how there had been ‘a lot of political opposition’ as he and scientists spoke of case numbers rising and the hospitalisations and deaths that would follow if action wasn’t taken last year.
The scientist’s comments come after he resigned from the government’s scientific advisory group (SAGE) last year after claims emerged that Antonia Staats, who was reported to be his lover, visited him at home – in breach of lockdown rules.
Mr Seely said: ‘Thanks to some questionable modelling, poorly presented and often misrepresented, I think it is true to say that never before has so much harm been done to so many by so few based on so little, questionable, potentially flawed data.
‘I believe the use of data is pretty much getting up there for national scandal.
‘This is not just the fault of the modellers but it’s how their work was interpreted by public health officials, by the media and yes, by politicians and sadly by Government too.
‘Modelling and forecasts were the ammunition that drove lockdown and created a climate of manipulated fear.
‘I believe that creation of fear was pretty despicable and pretty unforgivable.’
He said Professor Ferguson’s models back in 2001 — which have since been harshly criticised by other experts — led to millions of animals being unnecessarily slaughtered because of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Britain.
The second stage of the ‘scandal’, he said, was Professor Ferguson’s intervention prior to the March 23 lockdown in 2020.
Professor Ferguson’s Imperial modelling team released a paper on March 16 claiming Covid deaths could spiral to 500,000 if restrictions were not implemented.
Imperial later released studies suggesting lockdown had saved hundreds of thousands of lives, which amounted to ‘marking their own homework’, Mr Steely said.
He cited experts in Sweden who described the modelling as ‘almost hysterical’.
And the third stage came this winter when Professor Ferguson’s team, along with modellers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and University of Warwick, projected further thousands of deaths and NHS admissions because of the Omicron variant.
Meanwhile, Mr Baker said Professor Ferguson’s death projections ‘disgracefully’ bounced Mr Johnson into a lockdown.
He said: ‘This is no way to do policy, but the reason someone — we won’t speculate who — bounced the Prime Minister is because they’d been shown those terrifying death projections.
‘They couldn’t possibly be tolerated [but] they were wrong.’
SAGE’s models have been criticised several times in the past for overegging the UK’s Covid trajectory.
Advocates of modelling insist it’s impossible to tell whether or not grim predictions made early on in the pandemic would have been accurate because lockdowns were used to stop thousands dying unnecessarily.
However, the most recent models from the advisory panel warned that NHS could be overwhelmed by the Omicron wave and that up to 6,000 may die each day. Fatalities never breached 1,500, even in the depths of the second wave.
Despite the gloomy projections, No10 never caved into demands for lockdown and the wave naturally fizzled out on its own. Deaths and hospitalisation levels are just a fraction of previous waves, largely thanks to the country’s hugely successful vaccine roll-out.
Meanwhile, Mr O’Hara stoked tensions in Westminster Hall when he described the Conservative MPs of a ‘libertarian pile-on’.
He said: ‘I will not be participating in the libertarian pile-on led by people who I must say even in these circumstances, in a chamber as small as this, still do not use face coverings.’
Mr O’Hara refused to give way to a rebuttal from Mr Baker, saying: ‘I think the libertarian right have had enough of a kick of the ball in this debate.’
At the end of his speech, Tory MPs shouted ‘shame’, with Sir Edward Leigh forced to tell them to calm down.
It came as the UK’s daily Covid cases dropped for the 13th day in a row today and hospital admissions have now started to trend downwards as it emerged the Prime Minister is drawing up plans to ditch all coronavirus laws from as early as March.
There were 94,432 new positive tests across the country in the last 24 hours, Government dashboard data shows, which marked a 22 per cent fall compared to last Tuesday. Cases have fallen week-on-week on every day since January 6.
In more confirmation that the Omicron wave is subsiding, new figures show that hospital admissions from the virus have dropped for three days in a row nationally.
There were 1,892 admissions on January 14, the most recent date with data, which marked a 4 per cent decrease on the previous week. Admissions have been in dropping for weeks in London, which became the country’s Omicron epicentre last month.
Deaths continued to trend upwards today, however, with 438 registered in the last 24 hours — the most since late February 2021.
There are currently an average of 270 Covid deaths per day in the UK now at what is believed to be the peak of the Omicron wave – a far cry from the 1,200 at the worst of Alpha last January.
The promising statistics come as a senior Government source claimed ministers are seriously considering abandoning all legally-binding curbs in England and moving to a guidance-based system.
The official claimed even the most basic rules could go, such as compulsory self-isolation of cases and the requirement to co-operate with Test and Trace.
Emergency Covid laws brought in at the start of the pandemic are due to expire in March if they are not renewed as part of a timetable set out before Omicron hit.
Ministers are already planning to ditch Plan B curbs brought in last month to fight the highly-transmissible variant, with Covid passports and WFH guidance expected to be scrapped later this month.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid today revealed he is ‘cautiously optimistic’ that the final Plan B curbs can be ‘substantially reduced’ next week when ministers review No10’s next steps.
Mr Johnson is said to have taken huge confidence from the country’s collapsing case numbers and flatlining hospital rates that the UK can safely live with Covid.
He will finalise the plans to let coronavirus laws expire over the coming weeks, with an announcement on which measurers will be dropped expected in March, according to the Guardian.
The embattled PM has laid out a number of other Tory-friendly policies to appease backbench MPs as he faces calls to resign over parties in No10 during lockdown.
From next Monday, January 24, bars and restaurants will no longer only be able to serve customers seated at tables, while social distancing will also be removed. Nightclubs will also be allowed to reopen as she sweeps away restrictions in place since before Christmas, while plans to extend the Covid passport scheme have been scrapped.
Attendance limits on indoor events will also be lifted – bringing them into line with outdoor events in a move that came into effect yesterday. However baseline coronavirus measures in place before the Omicron wave will remain, including masks are still legally required indoors and on public transport.