After six months, it's become clear to us all that, while hardly benign, COVID-19 is not the Spanish Flu. The public deserve to know the basis of the UK's strategy going forward. It would be beneficial to everyone if there was more nuance and openness to the debate of how we handle a potential second wave, argues David Yorath

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought public health figures centre stage. Since January, the likes of Sir Patrick Valance, Professor Chris Whitty and Professor Neil Ferguson have become fixtures of daily media rounds, and invaluable sources of expertise and guidance for an embattled government.

The unprecedented restrictions, which have impacted us on a creeping basis since March, were mandated on the recommendation of such figures. It is their view, in tandem with the Government's SAGE Committee, that drastic intervention is required to curtail the spread of COVID-19 and an overburdening of NHS services.

Much of their direction to date has had public support. The national lockdown, which saw the entire UK economy come to a shuddering halt – and which is expected to lead to an unprecedented wave of unemployment on termination of the government's furlough scheme – is still widely viewed as a proportionate intervention, given what we knew about COVID-19, and its properties, in the early part of the year.

Since then, mask-wearing has become commonplace in shops. Logging details, for the benefit of track and trace, has become a fixture of going to a restaurant or pub. And homeworking has become a reality for large swathes of the country.

COVID has upended 'normal' behaviour and is going to have life-long impacts on us all.

As Government officials keeping saying, its right that we follow the science, and consider the recommendations of Valance, Whitty, Ferguson, et al, in whatever strategy we take to combat the novel coronavirus. But to take such advice without due scrutiny, or consideration of wider impacts, is troubling.

Let's take the recommendations of Neil Ferguson as an example. The publication of his modelling with Imperial College is widely viewed as a watershed moment in the UK's response to the coronavirus. Its presentation and headline predictions – of up to 550,000 excess deaths – persuaded the Prime Minster, his SAGE advisors and the cabinet to shift from a planned track-and-trace, herd immunity-centred response, to an all-out lockdown.

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Six months on from this, it's become clear to us all that, while hardly benign, COVID-19 is not the Spanish Flu.

The modelling that Ferguson presented has also been widely criticised by international authorities, with one leading epidemiologist stating that this team's variables were unnecessarily "extreme" and should have harnessed data that was "much closer to the real situation… and not from some kind of theoretical model".

Yet, still, Ferguson's advice is pushed without high-level rebuttal in the UK. Just this weekend, he called for the Government to consider a second national lockdown "sooner rather than later". The basis of this argument is, ostensibly, credible. We are heading towards flu season, and, with coronavirus cases in the thousands, it is likely the NHS is going to experience an upswing in hospitalised admissions.

But there is an absence of any nuance or due consideration of the impacts of such a move. The reality that many millions of Britons would lose their jobs and livelihoods, from another cession of activity, is shrugged off. The long-term effects on societal inequality – which will likely contribute to more deaths than COVID-19 – are also totally ignored.

Arguably more concerning, though, is the revisionism, and glossing over, of expert opinion from those who are, or have been, at the heart of SAGE, such as Ferguson. Shouldn't the public be made aware of Ferguson's modelling errors in the past? On BSE, for example, he forecast that there could be 50,000 excess deaths in the UK. In reality there were 117. On bird flu, he estimated 150 million people could die worldwide, following its outbreak. The total figure was 282. And, on swine flu, his modelling suggested a "reasonable worst-case scenario" of 65,000 deaths in Britain. Again, the final figure was just a fraction, at 457.

This is not to say Ferguson lacks credibility or shouldn't be advising the Government on their strategy. He is an eminent academic. But we shouldn't pretend he and others are infallible.

In all, this raises real questions about how these figures are presented to us, and whether their interpretations and advice on curtailing the virus should be carried without scrutiny or any counterweight to reflect wider, and potentially more dangerous, impacts. As Christopher Snowdon, of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) put it this week, the latest Government action appears "to have emerged from a random policy generator" and should be accompanied with evidence.

It may be science-led, but the public deserve to know the basis of the UK's strategy. It would be beneficial to everyone if there was more nuance and openness to the debate of how we handle a potential second wave.

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