Covid scientist Sir John Edmunds: ‘We didn’t take enough account of the economic cost of lockdown’

Sir John Edmunds believes the Government had a ‘loose grasp’ of what Sage was reporting
Sir John Edmunds believes the Government had a ‘loose grasp’ of what Sage was reporting - Heathcliff O'Malley
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At the beginning of April 2020, a group of senior epidemiologists charged with advising the Government on Covid met for their weekly meeting. The country was barely two weeks into lockdown and in the thick of that first devastating wave. That month, the virus would reach its peak for 2020 – out of 13,000 excess deaths in mid-April, around 9,500 were attributed to Covid.

The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), a subgroup of Sage, was to provide advice on how to manage the virus based on projections of how it was spreading. One of the group, Prof John Edmunds, had requested that all meetings begin with a “sitrep” – a rundown of all the latest figures compiled by Public Health England (PHE). That day, one slide made his blood run cold.

In the very early days of the pandemic, Prof Edmunds had felt data on the numbers of cases was “woefully inadequate”. Britain was only testing people that had been to high risk places like China or were contacts of those people. “It didn’t really tell us about the epidemic here in the UK or how that was changing,” recalls Sir John, who was knighted in the 2024 New Year Honours list. “Surveillance was a real issue.”

By the middle of March, he had grown “increasingly distressed”. “I felt our situational awareness was poor. I felt that we were being misled by the data... Because by that time we’d worked out some estimate of the true size of the epidemic, [it] was much bigger than what we were reporting.”

Between March 2020 and January 2022, 45,632 people died of Covid in care homes in England and Wales
Between March 2020 and January 2022, 45,632 people died of Covid in care homes in England and Wales - Getty

That day in April, PHE were going through their slides at a rate of knots. “[They] would be going through these slides and then skipping 10 slides. I remember saying: ‘Stop! Can you go back up a slide?’ And there it was – 850 outbreaks in care homes. I was like, ‘Oh my God. You had 850 outbreaks in care homes last week?’ It was just utterly shocking.”

That night, Prof Edmunds went home and looked at the slide deck from the previous week. “And there it was, it was about 240,” he recalls. “And I missed it.” It was at that moment, he says, that the care home response ramped up. Sage met the following day. “Honestly, that’s when Sage got exercised about care homes. I really, really wish I’d noticed it the week before.”

The care home crisis remains one of the most devastating failures of the pandemic. Between March 2020 and January 2022, 45,632 people died of Covid in care homes in England and Wales. Families of those who died have said the Government “failed to prioritise protecting our most vulnerable”.

Until April 15 2020, the Government’s policy allowed people to be discharged from hospital and sent back to care homes without having to be tested for Covid. PHE warned in February that elderly patients shouldn’t be discharged into care homes. In July, the Office for National Statistics said doing so had been an “important source” of infection. In his evidence to the Covid Inquiry in December, Matt Hancock said that until mid-April there were not enough tests available to be able to screen everyone being discharged from hospital; evidence the virus could be transmitted asymptomatically was not yet concrete.

Following the former health secretary’s evidence, Charlie Williams, the spokesman for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, said transmission into care homes “should have been a priority the moment news broke of Covid-19”.

It was clear from the start that care homes were going to be “really, really risky”, says Sir John. “There was very little modelling done on care homes, frankly. Not enough. I put a very small team together to look at care homes. It was basically one person. That’s one mistake.”

Modelling aside, did the Government get into gear quickly enough? “No, it was a mess,” he says, adding: “We should have done far more to protect the care home residents.”

He is less clear on what could have been done, though he says “we really should have put testing in place” and with hindsight, it’s obvious care homes “didn’t have sufficient PPE. It did get better, but almost half the deaths in the first wave were care home residents.”

Sir John, 55, was an adviser to the advisers. He couldn’t directly impact policy; he and others passed their analyses to Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance who would present it to Boris Johnson and senior members of the Government, whom he realised, eventually, had a loose grasp of what Sage was reporting.

“Later on, I realised that they really didn’t read the Sage minutes. I think they listened to Chris and Patrick, but all the material – I don’t think they spent any time on it.”

Sir John was an adviser to the advisers; he and others passed their analyses to Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance
Sir John was an adviser to the advisers; he and others passed their analyses to Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance - Heathcliff O'Malley

We meet in his small wood-panelled office in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Coming up the steps into the building, a woman stops Sir John to shake his hand. “Congratulations,” she says, beaming. He received his knighthood for services to epidemiology. He didn’t read the letter when it first arrived. “I thought it was from the taxman … When I did it took me about three readings to understand what it was. It was so unexpected and weird.”

Sir John, who lives in north London with his wife (also an epidemiologist) and their two daughters (15 and 16), was made an OBE in 2016 for his work on the Ebola crisis. At the time, his aunts joked that perhaps one day he’d be knighted. “I said: ‘Honestly, you do not want me to be knighted – if I’m knighted, something horrible has happened.’ I said that as a joke. Of course, it turned out to be true.”

Sir John Edmunds at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Sir John at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine - Heathcliff O'Malley

If asking someone how their pandemic was is a bit like asking “how was your war?”, it’s fair to say Sir John had a strange one. He is a modest sort – a scientist, not a natural talking head – but in 2020, he quickly became a kind of unlikely spokesman for science, regularly appearing on television and radio to give his take on the latest policy changes. He irritated ministers who felt he was using media appearances to push an agenda; that agenda appeared to change with the wind.

In an early interview with Channel 4 News on March 13, he went head-to-head with Silicon Valley executive Tomas Pueyo who had modelled the virus’s spread and was calling for urgent lockdowns. Pueyo held his head in his hands as Sir John told presenter Cathy Newman: “The only way to stop this epidemic is indeed to achieve herd immunity.”

Silicon Valley executive Tomas Pueyo
Silicon Valley executive Tomas Pueyo

There were two possible strategies, he said at the time. “One: you can stamp out every single case in the world. Every single case in the world. And then, then you’re free. You can stop that epidemic without achieving herd immunity, but you must get every single case in the world. With a mild disease, that’s extremely difficult.

“The next phase when the genie is out of the bottle and the virus is all around the world, is spreading. The next phase, the only other way the virus is going to come to a stop, is achieving herd immunity.”

When, later on, he lobbied for stricter lockdowns, he was deemed a flip flopping hypocrite. He was vehemently against Rishi Sunak’s “spectacularly stupid” Eat Out to Help Out scheme, and called for lockdown to be extended in the summer of 2020. Britain was “taking a risk” while cases were still high. Meanwhile the Government, he says, couldn’t settle on a sensible strategy to get us out of lockdown. “The big mistakes were made in the summer. That failure to come up with a proper strategy and understand it.”

In early 2021, he warned that easing the third lockdown would be a “disaster”. Perhaps hindsight is a wonderful thing then – last May, he appeared to tell a medical conference of his worry that Britain had relied too heavily on “very scary” Sage findings. He wondered if the knock-on health effects and economic harm done by lockdowns could “in principle” have been taken into account when modelling. “In practice they were not,” he said. “The epidemiological model is only one component [of decision-making]. And I worried that we’d had too much weight.”

So which one is it? A), B) or C)? Was he gunning for herd immunity? Was he Mr Lockdown, as he was dubbed? Or does he think draconian restrictions were a mistake?

In fact, he says, it’s D). He simply didn’t always do a brilliant job of explaining himself on television. Did he think herd immunity was our best hope at the beginning? “Not really. You don’t want herd immunity. I was just pointing out an epidemiological fact. We were past the point of being able to stamp it out.” He didn’t intend to suggest it should be the Government’s policy. “I regret the way I explained that because I made a very bad job of it.”

In the early days, the options – let the virus run or shut down the country – both seemed to him “extreme and terrible in different ways”. “What we came up with around that time in that really critical week around March 8, 9, 10, was an alternative that mixed and matched a bit of both of those ... A background of interventions that would slow the epidemic but probably not enough.” In reality, the lockdown called on March 23 was far from “background”; it was a full shutdown.

Easing restrictions that summer made perfect sense, he says. “That was the other horrendous alternative – to stay in lockdown forever. I didn’t ever think that was feasible or advisable. So I think yes, we did have to ease those restrictions.”

But Eat Out to Help Out was a bridge too far. “That was actually spending government money, and a lot of it – the best part of a billion pounds – actually stimulating the epidemic. For me that was absolutely obscene.” The scientists “had no sight of” Eat Out to Help Out before it was announced. “That was a shock to everybody, I think.”

Looking back, he regrets not putting more into modelling the potential impact of lockdowns. “I should have put more resources into modelling the macroeconomic effect. This was actually outside our official remit, though we did undertake some work in the area despite this and despite the enormous difficulties in linking epidemiological and macroeconomic models.

Matt Hancock has said that until mid-April 2020 there were not enough tests available to be able to screen everyone being discharged from hospital
Matt Hancock has said that until mid-April 2020 there were not enough tests available to be able to screen everyone being discharged from hospital - Andrew Parsons

“With the benefit of hindsight, we should have done more. I think that this could have helped inform what was quite a simplistic (and bitter) debate about trading off health and wealth that occurred in the autumn of 2020 and beyond.”

He’s keen to stress his own influence was minimal. People have, he says, “misunderstood the role of Sage”. “It was much more limited than people think. We were just looking at and summarising the scientific evidence.” Scientists “didn’t have any contact with politicians”, he says. “That was all handled by Chris and Patrick.”

Were media appearances a way to make his feelings known, then? Senior politicians might not have read the Sage minutes, he says, “but they did listen to Radio 4 or Andrew Marr”.

“You could actually get something noticed if you dropped it into a conversation with Andrew Marr. It’s kind of bizarre. You collate all of this scientific work, and then it was coming through the committee structure up to Sage, being summarised in a digestible form, and being taken by Chris and Patrick to the decision-makers. And I don’t think they got it. But you could circumvent all that by saying something to Andrew Marr. And I think that’s wrong.”

He was nervous about doing press at first, and conscious of straying into policy “because that can devalue you as a scientist”. “Later I kind of learned you could make a difference if you answer the question in a certain way to make it clear what you thought might be the better strategy.”

The following day, he emails to clarify. The potential power of a carefully worded answer in an interview “only became apparent to me after the epidemic had finished”, he writes. “And particularly in the light of the inquiry, where it seemed pretty apparent that some decision-makers right at the top didn’t appear to be on top of their briefing notes.”

He is as disparaging as you might imagine about our then prime minister, though he concedes senior decision-makers “had absolutely horrible decisions to make”. “The big tragedy was – I think Lee Cain [former Downing Street director of communications] said it – this wasn’t the right crisis for our prime minister at the time, for his particular skill sets. I think that’s undoubtedly true. I think we were poorly served by who we had in charge, frankly.”

He first became aware of the virus, that seemed to have sprung from a wet market in Wuhan, on Dec 31 2019. In the first few weeks of 2020, he assumed the Government “must have a plan” for the measures it would eventually take – must at least have a plan for what to tell the public. “Some worked-up comms plan. The whole population will need to know stuff pretty quickly and there must be an order of that – what they’ll tell people when … This was in February. I don’t think they did until a month later.”

He wonders now if he and others who knew what was coming down the tracks should have made greater effort to 
ensure the Government understood the urgency. “I thought the Government were very well-informed. They certainly had all of the information. And then when I looked at the inquiry, they were certainly claiming that they weren’t. I thought, well, was there more that we could have done to raise the alarm? And frankly, there was.”

He says that he “accepts now that clearly we didn’t make it clear enough. So I think we have to accept a portion of the blame for that.”

“So you can say, well we had this plan, but the time to flex that into the correct set of actions was February, and we didn’t. I don’t think the politicians really woke up to it until March. And when they did, honestly, we were really up against the wall then.”

In Sir John’s office in London, a busy noticeboard is decorated with drawings done by his two daughters when they were little, alongside some pretty brutal hate mail sent to him during the pandemic. Occasionally he’d write back to his critics. “Depending on how many glasses of wine I’d had.”

He is immensely proud of what British scientists achieved. Proud to have been “a small cog in this amazing machine”. There were times, he says, when the enormity of what was happening was impossible to ignore. “I felt – and I don’t want to make this sound dramatic – but you could sort of feel the weight … there were large numbers of deaths. It was hard to get away from that. So it wasn’t just statistics. I feel that. A lot of people died and at times I felt they didn’t really have to die.”

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