Professor Paul Hunter, a public health expert at the University of East Anglia, has had more than 300 papers published and worked on every major epidemiological outbreak of the last 30 years
Prime Minister hopeful Rishi Sunak last week tried to take credit for blocking a Christmas Covid lockdown, claiming he flew back from an overseas trip to talk the Government out of it.
But the real silent heroes were a handful of brave Covid scientists who publicly challenged the consensus at the time — that Omicron could trigger thousands of deaths every day without more miserable restrictions.
As the scientific community at large began to call for fresh curbs to halt the new, extremely infectious variant — which we now know to be mild — Professor Paul Hunter saw no reason to hit the panic button.
Relying on his 40 years’ worth of experience thwarting pandemic threats across the planet, the level-headed grandfather insisted the time had come for Boris Johnson’s Government to change tack.
He, like his colleagues, had watched Omicron race through South Africa just weeks earlier, where it caused record case numbers but, crucially, did not overwhelm hospitals or kill on a large scale.
Unlike his contemporaries, however, Professor Hunter came to the conclusion Britons did not need to scurry back into their homes and hide from the new strain now that we had vaccines on our side.
South Africa did not lock down and yet it was supposed to be more vulnerable than the UK, with only a fraction of the population double-vaccinated and an even tinier number booster-dosed.
But Professor Hunter’s reward?
Relentless trolling and offensive slurs from lockdown zealots, who are still publicly lobbying for the return of the extortionate free lateral flow scheme and face coverings.
At the same time, the 66-year-old Covid centrist has also endured a torrent of abuse from hard-left scientists for apparently ‘peddling actual fear’ during the darkest days of the pandemic.
Professor Hunter has faced relentless trolling and offensive slurs from lockdown zealots, who are still publicly lobbying for the return of the extortionate free lateral flow scheme, outdoor mixing and face coverings
Professor Hunter, from the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline: ‘I’ve had hate mail from Covid sceptics and trolling from people suffering from zero Covid delusion.
‘I figure I must be doing something right.’
At the height of the crisis, Professor Hunter, an avid traveller and photographer, was the go-to infectious disease expert.
Professor Hunter’s pandemic predictions
Professor Paul Hunter, a public health expert at the University of East Anglia, has consistently called what was to come with Covid before it occurred, adapting his views as the state of Britain’s response changed over the last two years
July 2021: Euro 2020 immunity
Just before Britain’s first ‘Freedom Day’ in July 2021, SAGE released a host of models that predicted as many as 200,000 daily cases the following month.
It prompted outcry that the Government had moved to soon to ease measures.
But cases in fact remained below 40,000 until November, when the Omicron variant first started to appear, with high levels of immunity keeping infections at bay throughout summer.
At the time, Professor Hunter said the country was likely enjoying ‘Euro 2020 immunity’, with so many unvaccinated young people catching the virus at pubs and beer gardens during the tournament.
This gave them unanticipated immunity that would keep infections stable throughout the summer, he said, as the case proved to be.
August 2021: Don’t delay boosting the elderly
In late August that year, Professor Hunter called on the Government to dish out third doses to over-80s as quickly possible – in time for their immunity to kick in in winter.
He said he saw no reason ‘whatsoever’ why it had taken the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) so long to sign off on third doses for those groups.
Professor Hunter argued their immunity was fast waning from second doses taken as far back as January, and boosters would be crucial ahead of the winter.
Boosters later became a key part of Britain’s strategy over winter after Omicron became dominant, being rolled out to all adults.
December 2021: Plan B won’t stop Omicron’s spread — but vaccines will help manage the impact
Once cases had started to pick up again at the end of the year, Professor Hunter claimed Plan B restrictions put in place by Boris Johnson would do little to stop Omicron.
The variant would ultimately cause unprecedented daily case numbers, peaking at more than 230,000 on January 4.
But he insisted Britain would be able to manage the case load because of the strength of the booster rollout.
Speaking on December 8, he told MailOnline: ‘I am quite pessimistic that we could control the spread of omicron at present.
‘But I am hopeful that because we have both high vaccine coverage and high prior infection and because we are rolling out the booster dose better than virtually anywhere else we can at least manage the impact of the increase in Omicron.’
December 2021: Drop the 10-day isolation rule
By the end of December, the Omicron wave was reaching its peak and causing mass disruption with people forced to isolate while infected.
Professor Hunter said staffing pressures in vital sectors including healthcare and firefighting could be eased by relaxing the 10-day rule.
He said most people were over infectiousness by day five and Britain should adopt a test-and-release system to ease the crisis.
No10 would go on to do just that by the end of the month.
February 2022: Don’t panic about Deltacron
After the wave subsided, fears were raised in February about a Covid variant that was a hybrid between Omicron and Delta.
‘Deltacron’ was spotted in Britain and health officials claimed they did not know how infectious or severe it would become.
But Professor Hunter told MailOnline that it ‘shouldn’t pose too much of a threat’ because the UK had huge levels of immunity against the original Delta and Omicron strains.
The variant never took off, with BA.2 — an offshoot of Omicron — being the cause of the wave of infections at the end of March.
His opinion was so highly regarded that on his busiest day he fielded calls from a dozen newspaper journalists on his busiest day, did ten radio interviews and made four TV appearances.
As one of the most prominent voices within his field, Professor Hunter has published over 300 papers delving into everything from Ebola to bird flu ever since his academic career started in the 1980s.
He consistently called the way the pandemic was going to go, allaying fears about new variants which were never likely to become dominant, like the Brazilian P.1 strain and ‘Deltacron’.
And last summer, he was one of the first to put pressure on No10 to start dishing out third doses to the elderly, months before the move became Government policy because of the pressures caused by the Omicron strain.
Professor Hunter also gained notoriety for being one of the few scientists to consistently refute calls to plunge Britain back into lockdown last Christmas.
Wild predictions by Government scientific advisers suggested as many as 6,000 people would die with the virus every day over the winter. In reality, they peaked at 273 on January 21 — just a fraction of levels seen during previous waves.
Although Mr Johnson’s Government did resort to Plan B in the run-up to the big day, bringing back mask-wearing in public places, vaccine passports at large events and work from home guidance, it defied calls to go further.
MPs praised experts like him and Dr Raghib Ali, an epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge who was asked to privately brief cabinet ministers ahead of a crunch two-hour meeting chaired by the Prime Minister, for putting pressure on the Government not to implement another lockdown.
It was the same discussion that forced ex-Chancellor and Tory leadership hopeful Mr Sunak to rush back from his Treasury trip in California to Downing Street.
As part of his pitch to beat Liz Truss and take over the reigns of the Conservative party, he claimed that the UK was ‘hours away from a press conference’ announcing fresh measures.
But despite being vocal in the lead-up to last Christmas, Professor Hunter has not always opposed harsh restrictions.
Virus-controlling measures were necessary during the first year or so to save thousands of lives and prevent the NHS from becoming overwhelmed by ‘squashing the sombrero’, as it was described in March 2020.
When Covid was still considered an obscure virus that would likely only affect the Far East like the original SARS, Professor Hunter was already taking a keen interest.
At the time, he himself was a zero Covid advocate, believing the virus could be nearly totally eradicated ‘if it was properly managed’ as was the case with SARS, which originated in China in 2002 but fizzled out naturally after infecting 8,000 people worldwide.
China isolated cases in hospitals as soon as they tested positive, halting the Covid-like virus’ spread.
But by March 2020, when the first few Covid cases started to pop up in Britain, adopting a similar position had already become ‘untenable’, Professor Hunter explained.
He told MailOnline: ‘The peak infectiousness of SARS came about seven to 10 days after infection.
‘By this point, people would already be diagnosed and properly isolated to stop the spread of the disease.
‘In March, it became apparent infectiousness with Covid could come before symptoms even appeared. This meant you could be walking around spreading the virus before you knew you even had it.
‘Anyone proposing zero Covid at that point didn’t really understand infectious diseases.’
With cases seemingly ‘inevitable’, the question instead turned to how best to manage them.
Professor Hunter publicly backed lockdowns and other non-pharmaceutical interventions — as they are referred to in the medical community — as a necessary evil at the time.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that spread should be delayed during periods of pandemic to ‘allow time for vaccine development’.
This meant using tough restrictions during periods of high prevalence from March 2020 until around July the following year, when enough people had been double-dosed to have strong immunity.
During that time, the expert lost his mother-in-law to the virus, with his family unable to even see her in hospital because of the measures in place at time.
He was also not allowed to see his own late mother in her care home, where she moved just before the pandemic to be closer to her family.
Despite personal tragedy and accusations from Covid sceptics that he was ‘another old nutty professor being as negative as he possibly can’, he continued to support blanket measures until their cost-benefit ratio had clearly switched.
Britain’s historic vaccination campaign kicked off in December 2020, just nine months after the pandemic was declared.
But the balance lent the other way once enough adults got protection from the jabs and treatments like dexamethasone were added to doctors’ arsenals.
Professor Hunter said: ‘Interventions have to be worth it on balance. The point of lockdown was to delay the inevitable cases until we had better protection.
This graph shows the number of deaths directly due to Covid recorded in England and Wales. The number of deaths being recorded these nations currently is far below that of previous waves earlier year and a sheer fraction of those seen at the start of 2021
‘By May/June , the benefits of further restrictions were less. There was nothing over the horizon to save us — we already had the vaccine.
Communist Brit scientist given top job at World Health Organization
Professor Susan Michie — a longstanding Communist Party member and Labour donour — has been appointed chair of the WHO’s behavioural advisory group
A British communist scientist who wanted face masks to be worn forever has been handed an influential role at the World Health Organization.
Professor Susan Michie — a longstanding member of the Communist Party of Britain and Labour donor — was yesterday made chair of the WHO’s behavioural advisory group.
She will advise the organisation on how to boost compliance with vaccine rollouts and other interventions that help shape national health policy.
Her appointment raised eyebrows on social media, given Professor Michie’s hardline views during the Covid pandemic.
She famously called for masks and social distancing to remain ‘forever’ in an interview with Channel 5 last year and regularly spouted alarmist predictions on BBC News, which sparked questions about the broadcaster’s objectivity.
There were concerns about her conflict of interests when it emerged she was simultaneously a member on the Government’s SAGE committee and a leading figure in an independent pressure group that called for Chinese-style lockdowns.
Ms Michie was said to have been nicknamed ‘Stalin’s nanny’ by her contemporaries at Oxford University because of her radical views.
‘And the negative effects were starting to build up. People’s mental health and physical fitness were being harmed.
‘Other infectious disease like the flu, colds and norovirus also become more serious the longer there is between infections — so lockdown was actually going to make these more dangerous when we came out.’
This has already occurred in Australia — which has battled an unprecedented flu epidemic that peaked earlier than normal at the end of May — with Britain likely to follow this winter, he said.
Britons have lower immunity against the flu because of a lack of exposure over the last two years, meaning some are more likely to become seriously ill with it, experts fear.
Another reason to keep society open was that vaccines had been shown to drastically cut the risk of falling severely ill, he said, meaning the virus effectively posed a similar risk as flu, which has never warranted lockdown-style actions.
Some said letting the virus rip once enough people had been jabbed would speed up the process of the virus becoming endemic, consigning sky-high death and hospitalisation rates to history.
A slew of papers including one by Oregon Health and Science University have now shown fully-vaccinated people who catch Covid end up with ‘super immunity’ against the virus.
‘The science was showing vaccines were working,’ he said. ‘And now it is showing being reinfected after your booster offers the best protection from future infections.’
This is exactly what happened when he himself got Covid this April, four months after receiving his booster — which left him battling what he thought was a common cold.
He thinks he contracted the virus from his three-year-old grandchild but only realised when he tested before a dentist appointment.
Professor Hunter said: ‘That’s why I went from being an advocate to an opponent — the science changed.’
Appearing on television is nothing new to Professor Hunter, who has regularly explained disease outbreaks to journalists since the early 1990s. He first appeared on TV in 1987 after a paper he published on bottled natural mineral waters gained ‘surprising’ attention.
At the time, he was a consultant for the Chester Health Authority, helping them manage infectious diseases across the North West, including bird flu.
He led investigations on outbreaks of food poisoning, meningitis in schools, legionnaires disease, tuberculosis, cryptosporidium in water supplies and hepatitis B during that time, appearing regularly on television and the radio.
Meanwhile, he has led research in most major diseases around the world, including SARS, cholera, Zika virus and Ebola.
But the extent to which he became a public figure during Covid came as a shock. Suddenly, he went from his normal day-to-day job at the UEA’s Norwich campus to appearing in the media nearly every day, on top of his own research on the virus.
Professor Hunter said: ‘The intensity was new and it did get draining. It’s only now got back to not taking over my life anymore.’
His exposure also came with ‘trolling’ from left-leaning proponents of Chinese-style zero Covid polices, which have repeatedly been shown not to work.
Only a fortnight ago, Independent Sage member Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a geneticist at Queen Mary University of London, criticised his views about non-pharmaceutical interventions as ‘misinformation’.
Writing on social media, she said: ‘This misinformation from “experts” that really troubles me — Paul Hunter once again saying that non-pharmaceutical interventions (masks, ventilation etc.) don’t prevent infection — just delay it.
‘That’s frankly ridiculous given everything we know.’
Professor Hunter hit back at her claims, citing the WHO’s own guidance on outbreaks, which ‘recommends nonpharmaceutical public health interventions to contain infection, delay spread, and reduce the impact of pandemic disease’.
Back in August 2021, another Indy SAGE member Dr Gabriel Scally, a visiting professor of public health at the University of the West of England, Bristol, publicly criticised Professor Hunter for his comments on an ITV Good Morning Britain interview in which he backed the Government’s decision to open up on Freedom Day a month prior.
In the interview, Professor Hunter made the argument that repeat infections would keep happening and the best way to deal with them was vaccination and learning to live with the virus, ending mass testing.
But Dr Zubaida Haque, another member of the group, claimed infections were still too high at the time — despite three quarters of the population having been double-jabbed — and hinted measures needed to be reintroduced. Her statements were backed by Dr Gurdasani on social media.
Writing to Dr Haque and Dr Gurdasani on Twitter, Dr Scally said: ‘Paul Hunter is entirely wrong, he should know better, and you were right to point out the truth. Deepti and Zubaida, you are great women, keep on with the great work.’
He has also been on the receiving end of a torrent abuse from trolls on his own social media and personal emails.
Professor Hunter said: ‘I’ve had quite a lot of negative comments from people who don’t know how infectious diseases work.
‘But on the other hand, I’ve had emails from colleagues — particularly those involved with infectious disease — saying thanks for what I’ve said publicly.’
Professor Hunter added: ‘I’ve been in head-to-head interviews on air where people have said some really dumb stuff.
‘I’m not the sort of person to lay into people, perhaps I should do. After some I would just stomp around the house.’
Professor Hunter is relieved to have got back to his normal life now the pressures of the pandemic have eased, getting back into his passions for food, wine and travel.
He qualified as a doctor at the University of Manchester and knew he wanted to specialise in infectious disease by the time he finished his course, going on to specialise in medical microbiology.
But his children did not go on to follow their father’s footsteps in the field. His two sons are both jazz musicians, with one graduating with a doctorate in the genre a fortnight ago.
He enjoys spending as ‘much time as possible’ with his four grandchildren, all aged under three, despite believing he caught the virus one.
And he predicts that Covid will continue to be around for generations to come.
Professor Hunter said: ‘I said back in September 2020 that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will still be getting Covid. That is definitely still the case.’
But for the majority, cases are likely to be just like his own.