The reader who originally wrote to Prof Ferguson has herself replied to his email – and he, in turn, replied to her, and she then replied to that.
Here is their exchange in full.
Dear Professor Ferguson,
I was surprised to get a reply to my email – but frankly amazed to read the content of the link you sent me. Is that really the best you can do? Do you respond to other scientists’ theories by shutting them down by yelling ‘conspiracy theorist’? Instead of engaging with the central tenet of the argument, that your/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris model might be wrong, you call me a conspiracy theorist. That is very odd and suggests to me it’s you that have developed a very warped sense of reality and that maybe you do not understand what is going on in people’s lives. We look at ONS/NHS data every day on cases/hospitalisations/deaths, not wild theories.
So let me speak from personal experience. I have 21 year-old twins, studying at Bristol (Economics) and Montpellier (Year abroad) respectively. Their lives are relatively rubbish at the moment, no enjoyment of the university life for which my daughter at Bristol is paying £18K a year. My son is living under a curfew. But I accept, not a disaster. Their friend killed himself while incarcerated as a student last year. He was in despair.
Just this week we heard of the suicide of a lovely man my husband met at the gym, a Tunisian. He worked as a waiter, so I guess he had financial worries.
We help a Syrian Refugee family in the town. Two children, aged six and 12. In the summer we realised that all the progress they had made at their excellent primary school was slipping away and that the 12 year-old was losing his English (they speak Arabic at home) so we started doing lessons at our house for the mum and the two children. We realised that the boy was virtually illiterate. His parents had been so terrorised by the fear porn churned out by the government (acting on your/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris models) that they would not send the children back to school even though they were ‘allowed’, being in Years 1 and 6. He then started at the local High school, has got into fights, been bullied and I fear for his future. His life chances have been damaged by having his education denied to him by this government relying on the models mentioned above. Of course our weekly lessons had to stop. Online learning started. The family did not have a laptop. The Government agencies that get paid handsomely to do so could not provide a laptop, so we set up a charity to recycle laptops to deprived children.
We’ve helped him and 178 other children in our nice leafy middle-class Stratford-on-Avon. I wonder what it’s like in Middlesborough, Fleetwood, Great Yarmouth? Multiply my young Syrian friend’s experience by literally millions and you start to approach the truth (not a conspiracy theory!) of the world that you have been key in ushering in (and of course LSHTM, Warwick University and the Institut Pasteur Paris). So many young people’s lives will be poorer, in so many ways. My point is this is real world stuff, not theory (either your theory or a conspiracy theory).
Me and my husband both have widowed mothers. His mum is 94 – one of the last years of her life has been lived in almost total isolation. She has 14 grandchildren who are (should read, were) very involved in her life, regularly travelling 2.5 hours+ to visit her in Suffolk. All stopped. She’s living life as a husk. Both her and my mother’s mobility have seriously declined, because they do not go out any more, due to lockdown (not the virus). My mum is I’d say typical of a lot of 87 year-olds. She’s reasonably intelligent, used to be a teacher. She lives alone in the house she’s lived in for the last 63 years. It is completely in the ‘back of beyond’. The house sits atop a sea wall and the nearest land mass looking west is Ireland. The Irish Sea hits the house at high tide. She is miles from anywhere and has no part of community life. She isn’t online and gets all her news from the BBC (refusing a newspaper in case “it’s on it”– the virus). The house is for sale as it’s a mad place for an 87 year-old to live in but she won’t allow any viewings – you can guess why. Her mobility is also much reduced and she is desperately lonely. I haven’t seen her in over a year. This isn’t a conspiracy theory. It’s my mum’s life. She lives like this because of the messaging from the Government, acting as a result of modelling by you/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris. The aim of the Government was to terrify the population. I do hope you of all people do not think that this is a conspiracy theory. I’ve read the relevant minutes from Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) on March 22nd 2020 which says among other things:
A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened
The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent using hard-hitting emotional messaging
Use media to increase sense of personal threat
Perhaps you think the 47 signatories to this petition are also conspiracy theorists? The BIT feeds into SAGE – so count yourself as part of all this – and together they have set out to terrorise us – and you’ve done such a brilliant job that people like my mum (who has had her first vaccine) is unlikely ever to resume normal life again. Her house won’t sell and we’ll have the same horrendous problems trying to get carers for her as we did for my dad four years ago – except that unlike him, he had mum, she’ll be alone. Just telling you what real life looks like.
Do you get it? You might live a nice comfortable life as an academic. I too want for nothing (apart from normality). I am sufficiently well off to shield my three children from the coming, shall we call them, difficulties. It’s the ‘left behind’, the marginalised, the poor, the lonely elderly, the millions upon millions of dirt poor people in the developing world that keeps me awake at night. So yes, I’m angry. But you call me the conspiracy theorist! Do you not see reports like this: 270 million marching towards starvation (perhaps they too are infected with conspiracy theories?). This isn’t the virus that’s caused this, it’s lockdowns. First World lockdowns have a terrible impact on the the Third/Developing world – I don’t think that’s in contention. Surely you can see that? Even if you didn’t foresee it as a consequence.
Or this in the Lancet: 94 million children at risk of not getting their measles vaccine (perhaps the Lancet is in on the conspiracy?)
Maybe if you, Whitty, Valance, Drosten, Farrar and Edmunds are all merrily putting communications in your junk folder you really are totally unaware of what is happening in the real world? Pause: think: what if they are right? What if only half of what I say is right? I thought scientists were supposed to welcome their theories being challenged? I thought that’s how they are tested. You describe me as being “sucked into” an “alternate reality” – and that is precisely my beef – you are the one living in a land of modelled theories – I am the one asking you to look at my reality – the ‘on the ground Real World’ data. What has happened in countries which didn’t/couldn’t lock down? Yes, look at Sweden, though it obviously pains you do to do so. How to explain its death rate? Or Texas? Or Brazil? Or Belarus? How is that a conspiracy? Is the FT in on the conspiracy? Worldometers? Perhaps the health reporting agencies are in on it too!
I might not be an epidemiologist but it’s fairly obvious to me that your model (and that of Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris) is out by several orders of magnitude and the fact that you resort to calling people who disagree with it “conspiracy theorists” only serves to illustrate how far down the rabbit hole you have fallen. Oh, and what is wrong in pointing out that you have made the self-same error with Swine Flu, Bird Flu, Foot and Mouth? Or do you dispute those figures when you say I’m quoting the “same old misinformation”? Are all those reporting your past predictions v the actuality also in on the conspiracy?
I loathe this Government and its key players in this, the worst mistake the world has ever made. You – I would say that you are obviously a decent human being and I wonder if you do not see that you are going to be hung out to dry by those chancers running this operation. Just look at their record – the failed Test and Trace, the corruption, the care home deaths, the infection rate in hospitals – you have hitched your star to the worst Government we have ever had but unfortunately it will forever be your name attached to ‘The Science’ that drove them. If you can’t see that then you are not as clever as we all were led to believe. You and Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris have made the biggest mistake of all time and in my view the sooner you accept it and try and proffer some sort of explanation the better. The truth might be able to be suppressed in our society now so bereft of free speech, but it will come out – starting in other countries.
I find it unfathomable that you/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris were listened to, the Pandemic Preparedness Plan thrown away and we embarked on lockdowns, with the rest of the world following. Perhaps you could do some good at this late stage by trying to get the mass-testing/False Positive Rate sorted out (by following the WHO’s guidelines, for instance) otherwise we are never going to get out of this mess. My husband drew this up – from Government data.
Sorry for the long email. The conclusion I’ve reached that it’s you that is living in some parallel universe if you think that I am the conspiracy theorist. The world lies in tatters because of your/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris theory.
If you’ve got this far, thanks for reading.
Surprisingly, Neil Ferguson replied.
I would start by asking whether you really think I and my colleagues are unaware of the social and economic consequences of societal restrictions? Every life lost is a tragedy, whatever the cause. And I absolutely agree that this pandemic – and the measures adopted – have hit the poorest hardest.
But I wonder what you think motivates me and my (many hundreds of) fellow scientists who have been working on this pandemic for over a year? It certainly isn’t publicity or a desire to impose draconian rules on society. Nor do I have any love of lockdown restrictions myself, personally or ideologically. I don’t know anyone who does. Rather, we are trying to learn as much as possible about the epidemiology of this virus and how best to limit its health impacts.
The judgement call on the balance between compulsory measures and voluntary recommendations is a political one, but the effectiveness of each is likely culturally specific. Sweden made one set of choices, Denmark and Norway another. The result is that Sweden has had fewer restrictions overall, but has had 3-4x the per capita death toll of its neighbours. Our death toll is higher still not because we over-reacted, but because we introduced measures too late last March, and then repeated the mistake last autumn. And because of factors which were just bad luck – the level of seeding last February and the new variant last November.
As for the UK, what are you really suggesting the Government should have done back in December in response to the new variant and the overwhelming levels of hospital demand seen in London and elsewhere? Let people continue to go about their normal business as thousands died at home or on hospital corridors, as is happening in Mexico?
And to reassure you, we track the pandemic globally. And have a significant research programme comparing how different countries have responded. I am a bit surprised you point to Brazil as a success story though. And if you highlight Belarus, why not China?
I am also aware that there is a continuum between scepticism and outright conspiracy theory craziness. But some of the “facts” you and the lockdown sceptics throw out are tending towards the latter category. Remember the claims that there would be no second wave and that we were just experiencing a “casedemic”?
False positive rates are not a major issue at present. We are aware they will need to be accounted for more in future though. Also, while every suicide is tragic, there is no evidence that the suicide rate has increased in the last year. I am actually much more worried about all the cancer diagnoses and treatments which were postponed in the last few months due to Covid-related NHS demand.
I certainly agree there are many lessons to be learned from this pandemic – including regarding test and trace (especially early on) and care homes. I do not see myself as a Government cheerleader. Indeed, one of the depressing aspects of the discourse around this pandemic is the politicisation of science.
Our reader then replied to Prof Ferguson.
Thank you for your considered response.
I suspect you epidemiologists are told that there will be economic and other consequences of the lockdowns but I, and many others, think you have got the balance wrong. The precautionary principle has overtaken acceptable risk. I was quite taken aback by your link to the conspiracy theory website, which does make me worry that reasonable suggestions are being rebuffed by you and people like you as “crazy conspiracy theories”. I hope you would concede that I have made some valid points to you about the outcomes of lockdowns.
You asked in your first reply what would I have done, dealing with a disease that would see 2% in hospital. Nowhere in the world have cases continued to grow “exponentially”, regardless of the level of NPIs imposed. My point is (and I rely on real world data to support it) that you and your colleagues have concentrated on the 2% to the enormous disbenefit of the other 98% and society in general. We might argue what the IFR is but whether it’s 10 in a 1,000 or two in a 1,000, the BBC and government ministers have focused too much on the (let’s settle for four in 1,000) fatalities rather than 996 recoveries. The result is a terrorised population, lacking the ability to get the risks into perspective and the very real long term threat that people will never get back to normal for fear of flu or other seasonal illnesses. We can’t all live forever.
How can you argue against the fact that other countries do illuminate what could happen if a different approach to NPIs were taken? That NPIs (or lack thereof) made very little difference to Covid health outcomes and that the disease didn’t grow exponentially in those countries, such as Vietnam, India and Japan? Are you suggesting all the data I’ve been looking at – Euromomo, the FT, Worldometers – are somehow presenting false information? How does that make me and other sceptics (not deniers, obviously!) conspiracy theorists? It does rather suggest an over sensitivity on your part.
Yes, I overlooked the cancers/other missed health treatments (so many other horrors to mention). A year down the line, do you not consider that the cure is going to be worse than the disease, in cancer/missed treatments alone, quite apart from the other societal/economic/libertarian damage
By the way, which ‘fact’ in my email makes you think I am on the side of conspiracy theory craziness? I think that we should have lived with a greater degree of risk and that in fact you have opened a Pandora’s Box of fear and risk aversion which is going to be a constant plague. Though with a trashed economy, I’m not sure how it’s going to be paid for, if we are to have annual lockdowns. I think that we should have dealt with it differently, by following the Pandemic Preparedness Plan, by shielding the vulnerable (think: Great Barrington Declaration). It might have seemed an impossible task but it is nothing compared to what we have done. We’ll never agree that the NPIs delivered a step change in outcome – but as I said, those who disagree with you can point to countries which didn’t use them/used them lightly and observe that the death rates were much the same as those who did lock down. I guess my point is that if your (and all the other institutions you mention) model were to be tested against these countries, your modelled response would be very far apart from what actually happened. Is that calling it wrong? Or just out by several factors.
We’ve infantilised the population, created an enormous health crisis and trashed the economy. We’ve turned a once-in-40-years health crisis into a cataclysmic health/economic/political/societal disaster. I agree I don’t know what part your input played in these decisions, but I know that you are so frequently on our airwaves some people think you were pretty instrumental.
But thank you for your time in engaging with me.