A long-awaited report modelling the impact of easing lockdown is being pushed back ‘several weeks’ after Imperial College London scientists behind the paper complained their work had been ‘politicised’.
The team’s modelling is considered the gold standard by the Government and its decisions throughout the epidemic have been heavily influenced by the London epidemiologists.
But the group has been embroiled in a series of public controversies in recent weeks, which has prompted prominent politicians to raise doubts about their competency.
The Imperial team was thrust into the spotlight when its most prominent scientist, Professor Neil Ferguson, flouted lockdown rules – which he had a heavy hand in imposing – to have secret trysts with his married mistress.
The team’s modelling is considered the gold standard by the Government and its decisions throughout the epidemic have been heavily influenced by the London epidemiologists. It was thrust into spotlight when Professor Neil Ferguson (pictured) flouted lockdown rules
Then the group of scientists were accused of using an outdated mathematical model in a March report which predicted half a million deaths could occur in the UK if a nationwide quarantine was not immediately imposed.
A senior member of the team said the latest report had been handed to Government but was being withheld from the public for fear of backlash.
They told the Financial Times the new report would not be made public for another few weeks after it was peer-reviewed by other scientists and published in a journal.
Their report in March was released as a ‘pre-print’, meaning it was made public before it had been reviewed by other experts.
They said: ‘Examining exit strategies from lockdown remains a top priority of the team, and we currently are supporting multiple governments in their planning for this.’
‘Given the increasingly politicised nature of debate around the science of Covid-19, we have decided to prioritise submitting this research for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal and will release it publicly at that time.’
A senior member of the team said the latest report had been handed to Government but was being withheld from the public for fear of backlash (file image)
Commenting on the news, eminent statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter said ‘major analyses should be made public as soon as possible’.
But he admitted that there is a fine line between public transparency of the Government’s decision-making and making sure scientists were not subjected to personal attacks.
It comes after scientists levelled a flurry of criticism against Prof. Ferguson’s modelling which warned 500,000 people could die from coronavirus and prompted Britain to go into lockdown.
Modelling from Imperial College London epidemiologist Professor Ferguson, who stepped down from the government’s Sage group at the start of May, was described as ‘totally unreliable’ by other experts.
The coding that produced the sobering death figures was impossible to read, and therefore cast doubts on its strength, The Telegraph reported. It is also some 13 years old, it said.
Modelling behind Professor Neil Ferguson’s claim that 500,000 Brits could die from Covid-19 has been criticised by scientists
When other scientists have tried to replicate the findings using the same model, they have repeatedly failed to do.
Prof Ferguson’s model is understood to have single-handedly triggered a dramatic change in the Government’s handling of the outbreak, as they moved away from herd immunity to a lockdown.
Competing scientists’ research – whose models produced vastly different results – has been largely discarded, they claim.
David Richards, co-founder of British data technology company WANdisco said the model was a ‘buggy mess that looks more like a bowl of angel hair pasta than a finely tuned piece of programming’.
He said: ‘In our commercial reality we would fire anyone for developing code like this and any business that relied on it to produce software for sale would likely go bust.’
Today marks a week since Boris Johnson addressed the nation and changed England’s coronavirus message from Stay Home to Stay Alert, with 34,636 deaths recorded by the Government.
The easing of measures comes almost two months after Britain was placed in lockdown, with government making the decision on, at least in part, the advice of Imperial College London and Prof Ferguson’s model outlining the potential harm coronavirus could do to the country.
WHAT DID PROFESSOR FERGUSON’S WORK SAY?
The scientific paper published by Professor Ferguson and his colleagues on the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team was credited for persuading Boris Johnson’s Government to ramp up their response to the coronavirus.
The paper, released on March 17, and titled Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID19 mortality and healthcare demand, predicted that the Government’s original plan to ‘mitigate’ the outbreak instead of trying to stop it could have led to a quarter of a million people dying.
Using data from Italy and China, the scientists predicted how different Government measures would have different impacts on the outbreaks.
If no action at all had been taken against the coronavirus it would have claimed 510,000 lives, the team’s report said. Had the Government stuck with their strategy of trying to ‘mitigate’ the spread – allowing it to continue but attempting to slow it down – with limited measures such as home isolation for those with symptoms this number would be roughly halved to 260,000.
If the strictest possible measures are introduced, the number of deaths over a two-year period will fall below 20,000, the scientists said.
Other points in the Imperial College report, titled Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID19 mortality and healthcare demand, included:
- Lockdown measures could be brought back if the virus resurfaces after this epidemic is over
- The coronavirus outbreak is worse than anything the world has seen since the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic
- Dramatic measures to suppress an outbreak carry ‘enormous social and economic costs which may themselves have significant impact on health and well-being’
- Virus transmission happens evenly – one third of cases are caught in the home, one third at work or school, and one third elsewhere in the community
- People are thought to be infectious from 12 hours before symptoms start, or from four days after catching the infection if someone doesn’t get symptoms
- Patients who do get symptoms are thought to be 50 per cent more infectious than those who don’t
- People are thought to develop at least short-term immunity after catching the virus, meaning they can’t catch it again
- Approximately 4.4 per cent of patients need hospital care. 30 per cent of those need intensive care, and 50 per cent of intensive care patients can be expected to die, according to data from China
- The average length of a hospital stay for a coronavirus patient is 10 days – eight days for those who recover quickly; 16 days for those who need intensive care
On March 17, just days before the country was placed into lockdown, Imperial College London published research titled urging a lockdown to be put in place to stop the virus spreading.
Researchers from the university warned 510,000 people could die from the virus if no action was taken.
Had the Government stuck with their strategy of trying to ‘mitigate’ the spread – allowing it to continue but attempting to slow it down with limited measures such as home isolation for those with symptoms – this number would be roughly halved to 260,000, the report said.
It showed that mitigation would not be insufficient to prevent the NHS becoming overwhelmed by looking at bed capacity.
If the strictest possible measures are introduced – including school closures and mandatory home quarantine – the number of deaths over a two-year period will fall below 20,000, the scientists said.
As a result, the Government announced people should stop travelling, stop socialising and work from home.
But critics have today described the coding used by Imperial as ‘totally unreliable’.
John Carmack, an American developer who helped refine the code before the paper was published online, said some parts of the code looked like they were machine translated from Fortran’, an old coding language.
After growing pressure, the Imperial team released their code, which simulates homes, offices, schools and people movement, and sceptics were quick to point out it was 13 years old.
Furthermore, when analysing the validity of the staggering death estimates, scientists have claimed that it is almost impossible to reproduce the same results from the same data, using the same code as Imperial, The Telegraph reported.
University of Edinburgh researchers reportedly found bugs when running the model, getting different results when they used different machines, or even the same machines in some cases.
The team reported a ‘bug’ in the system which was fixed – but specialists in the field remain staggered at how inadequate it is.
Four experienced modellers previously noted the code is ‘deeply riddled with bugs’, has ‘huge blocks of code – bad practice’ and is ‘quite possibly the worst production code I have ever seen’.
Weeks after the model’s grim prediction, the University of Edinburgh’s Professor Michael Thursfield criticised Professor Ferguson’s record as ‘patchy’.
He was referring to Professor Ferguson’s predictions in the early 2000s that up to 136,000 people could die from mad cow disease.
The Imperial College team’s modelling led to the culling of 6million livestock and was later criticised by epidemiological experts as severely flawed and a tragedy for rural Britain’s economy.
The team also predicted 200million could die from bird flu and a further 65,000 from swine flu. The final death toll in each case was in the hundreds.
Dr Konstantin Boudnik, the VP of architecture at WANdisco, told The Telegraph: ‘The facts from the early 2000s are just yet another confirmation that their modelling approach was flawed to the core.’
Professor Ferguson defended Imperial’s foot and mouth work, saying they were doing ‘modelling in real time’ with ‘limited data’. He added: ‘I think the broad conclusions reached were still valid.’
Imperial College London published a paper in mid-March on the potential impact of coronavirus. It weighed up options on how a lockdown could reduce demand on hospitals
The true death toll of COVID-19 has far exceeded what was predicted by Imperial under the total lockdown scenario (20,000 over two years).
The Government’s total death toll currently stands at 34,466. Using data that collects death certificates, it is more in the region of 39,000.
The Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team came to their predictions with a number of mathematical calculations.
They looked at the most vulnerable people deemed to be ‘at the greatest risk of death,’ typically elderly people or those with serious underlying health conditions.
England’s top statisticians estimate that 0.27 per cent of the population has been infected with COVID-19 on any given day over the past fortnight – equal to around 148,000 people and certainly between 94,000 and 222,000
The model simulated transport links, population size, healthcare provisions and social networks to predict how the pandemic would spread.
Professor Ferguson and other Imperial College researchers predicted these measures would reduce demand on the healthcare system while protecting those who were most at risk:
Speaking at the time of the paper publication, Professor Ferguson said: ‘No country in the world this far has seen an epidemic that large [250,000 deaths], this is an early extrapolation of an early epidemic that was suppressed in China.
‘But we have no reason to believe that’s not what would happen if we frankly did nothing, and even if we did all we could to slow, not reverse, the spread, we’d still be looking at a very large number of deaths and the health system being overwhelmed.
Professor Ferguson stepped down from his role on Sage, the board of scientists advising the government through coronavirus pandemic, at the start of the month after it was revealed he had broken lockdown rules he helped to inspire. Antonia Staats (pictured) visited Professor Ferguson at his London flat while Britons were being told to stay home
‘Initially when we came up with these kid of estimates they were viewed as what’s called the reasonable worst case.
‘But as information has been gathered in recent weeks, from particularly Italy but other countries, it has become increasingly clear that actually this is not the reasonable worst case – it is the most likely scenario.’
He added: ‘It is likely such measures – most notably, large scale social distancing – will need to be in place for many months, perhaps until a vaccine becomes available.’
While there was overwhelming praise for the research for triggering a much-needed lockdown, criticism of Professor Ferguson’s research was voiced at the time.
Professor John Ashton, a former regional director of public health for North West England, accused No 10 of relying on a ‘little clique’ of researchers and failing to consult a wider pool of academics.
‘These guys are being regarded as demigods,’ he said in April.
‘Here we are talking about science but this research is being given a kind of religious status, like tablets of stone from the mountain.’