Pouria Hadjibagheri and the UK’s abandoned open data revolution

With a new year comes the New Year’s Honours and I’m struck to see an MBE given to Pouria Hadjibagheri. He’s the technical lead of a civil service team whose drive and creativity led to the Coronavirus data hub. It was a breakthrough in the democratisation of public data. He and his team saw to it that information and metrics were not the secret preserve of a Whitehall cabal, cherry-picked to make a certain point, but available to everyone. This transformed the debate about the virus and the need for lockdown, allowing for new perspectives and new projects. The Spectator’s data hub was one of them. If you were pleased we avoided

Sage admits its models were ‘at variance to reality’. But why?

The Sage committee was set up as a pool of experts on tap to advise government. During the pandemic, it mutated into something different: a group whose advice ended up advocating long lockdowns. Its regular meetings have now been discontinued, with questions being asked in No. 10 about whether it’s time to disband Sage and set up a new structure – in the same way that Public Health England was reformed and became the UK Health Security Agency. There will be plenty of lessons to learn. But we might not have much time to learn them: a new variant or (given the growth of genomic sequencing) a new pathogen could come along at any

On Sage’s Covid models

In the confusion that has arisen from the demonstrable inability of a certain type of mathematical model to predict the time course of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, many have taken to reciting – with a variable mixture of glee and sympathy – that ‘all models are wrong but some are useful’. I have never been comfortable with this statement (it doesn’t really deserve to be called an aphorism) and even less so the smugness with which it is typically pronounced. One might as well say all metaphors are wrong but some are useful. ‘Wrong’ seems to be employed here to suggest that ‘statistical or scientific models always fall short of the

Sage ‘scenarios’ vs actual: an update

Given that lockdown was very nearly ordered on the advice of Sage last month, it’s worth keeping an eye on the ‘scenarios’ it published, and how they compare to the situation today. Another week of data offers more food for thought. This week was the period when deaths were supposed to be peaking – so given that no extra restrictions were ordered, it’s interesting to compare the peak the models predicted for this week with what actually happened. Deaths were said by Sage to peak at anything from 600 to 6,000 a day (the latter figure, predictably, hogged the headlines). But on Saturday 262 deaths were reported in England, and

Sage scenarios vs actual: an update

‘Deaths could hit 6,000 a day,’ reported the newspapers on 17 December. A day later documents for the 99th meeting of Sage were released which said that, without restrictions over and above ‘Plan B’, deaths would range from 600 to 6,000 a day. A summary of Sage advice, prepared for the Cabinet, gave three models of what could happen next: Do nothing (ie, stick with ‘Plan B’) and face “a minimum peak” of 3,000 hospitalisations a day and 600 to 6,000 deaths a day Implement ‘Stage 2’ restrictions (household bubbles, etc) and cut daily deaths to a lower range: 500 to 3,000. Implement ‘Stage 1’ restrictions (stay-at-home mandates) and cut deaths even further: to a range of 200 to 2,000 a day

Sage memo makes the case for lockdown

On Monday, Covid restrictions were rejected after the cabinet debated the issue robustly for the first time since the pandemic started. The Prime Minister said he’d revisit the decision, so the debate is very much still ongoing. But it wasn’t just ministers meeting that day. Sage assembled its experts as well, with over 70 scientists and government officials in attendance. The minutes, seen by The Spectator, give an interesting summary of the official case for more lockdown restrictions. Everyone is wrestling with two questions; if there are no more restrictions, how far will Omicron case numbers rise? And how will that translate into hospitalisations? If there is reason to believe

Five lockdown questions the cabinet must ask

The cabinet will meet this afternoon, with more restrictions and even a new lockdown on the agenda. But have ministers been given the information they need to make an informed decision? There are rumours of briefing documents being sent around over the weekend with a pro-lockdown bias (i.e., heavy on the worst-case scenarios and not much said about potential side-effects). But the Times today reports that this time around the cabinet wants a full discussion — with at least ten ministers demanding a better quality of briefing before decisions are made that affect the lives of millions. The below is a list of questions that ministers need answered: 1. What

My Twitter conversation with the chairman of the Sage Covid modelling committee

The latest Sage papers have been published, envisaging anything from 200 to 6,000 deaths a day from Omicron depending on how many more restrictions we’ll get — up to and very much including another lockdown. Earlier today I had an unexpected chance to ask questions of Graham Medley, the chair of the Sage modelling committee.  He’s a professor at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) which last weekend published a study on Omicron with very gloomy scenarios and making the case for more restrictions. But JP Morgan had a close look at this study and spotted something big: all the way through, LSHTM assumes that the Omicron variant is just as deadly as Delta. ‘But

Putting the commie in committee

Last month an epidemiologist called Professor Michael Baker described the UK government’s decision to free its people from Covid restrictions on 19 July as ‘barbaric’ and an ‘experiment’. Professor Baker lives in the little-known hermit kingdom of New Zealand — a country which, under the guidance of people like himself, has banned almost all foreign travel and imposed long domestic lockdowns. Such is the grip Baker and his friends have on the country that the appearance of just two Covid infections in the entire population caused the nation to go into a hysterical spasm, with much bed-wetting, shrieking and governmental resignations. You are allowed to die of anything in New

A volte face over what caused the pandemic needs explaining

Sir Jeremy Farrar, the head of the Wellcome Trust, writes that ‘the last year has been an eye-opener for me. I thought, probably like most people, that the world works through official or formal channels, but much of it operates through private phone calls or messaging apps’. Hence his book, written with the journalist Anjana Ahuja, is a gossipy, sometimes angry, fast-paced tale, which quotes frequently from his own messages sent to other important people. No holds are barred or formal channels kept to. It is therefore a fascinating and valuable account from somebody who was close to the action, as a member of the famous Sage, and one who

Caprice the Covid seer

Today marks a special anniversary for those who have been following the course of the coronavirus since it first reared its ugly head in Wuhan. Exactly one year ago, arguably the UK’s finest scientific mind managed to predict how the UK would end up responding to the disease – weeks and months ahead of the scientists on Sage. This person wasn’t an academic or expert, however, but the businesswoman and model, Caprice. Speaking on the Jeremy Vine show, Caprice argued that we should close the borders and quarantine arrivals, wear masks and have a short, sharp lockdown to stop the disease before the outbreak got any worse. Caprice cited the

Neil Ferguson’s mysterious membership of Nervtag

It seems like a lifetime ago when the Imperial College academic Neil Ferguson was caught breaking lockdown rules to meet his married lover. Since then, a whole series of mad, bad and downright nonsense regulations have come and gone. At the time though, the breach was taken very seriously by both the government and Ferguson himself, who had been the main champion of strict lockdown rules being instated in Britain. On 5 May, Ferguson promised to stand down as a government advisor, saying he regretted ‘undermining’ the government’s harsh measures on social distancing. His decision was backed by the government. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said Ferguson had made ‘the

Minutes for 8 October SAGE meeting

Tighter Covid restrictions were being urged by SAGE, the government’s committee of scientific advisers. The meeting was held on 8 October, and minutes have just been released. In spite of its calls for greater transparency, the ‘worst-case scenario’ it refers to remains confidential. The Spectator has published the July 30 draft of this scenario this week. Summary Incidence and prevalence across the UK continue to increase, and data show clear increases in hospital and ICU admissions, particularly in the North of England. In England the number of infections and hospital admissions is exceeding the Reasonable Worst Case Scenario (RWCS) planning levels at this time. Projections also indicate the number of

The long winter – why Covid restrictions could last until April

Not much makes sense during a pandemic but in recent weeks the Covid puzzle has become a deeper mystery. When local lockdowns failed, the solution was to try even more of them. Manchester was put into Tier 3 restrictions when its Covid cases were falling; now there’s talk of a Tier 4. Confirmed infections are nowhere near the 50,000 a day that Boris Johnson’s scientific advisers warned about last month – but the panic now seems far greater. The fear, of course, comes from what officials think will happen next. We’re told that the Prime Minister fears a second wave larger than the first, but we’re not really told why. Decisions

Why shouldn’t Cummings attend SAGE?

One of the key committees advising the government is SAGE — the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies. At the weekend, there was a rumpus after the Guardian reported that Dominic Cummings had been present for some of its meetings; though given the enormity of what was being discussed there would have been problems if no one from Downing Street was at these meetings. Last night, Bloomberg reported on the SAGE meeting of 18 March. Alex Morales and Suzi Ring wrote that Dominic Cummings had at that meeting raised questions, including asking ‘why a lockdown was not being imposed sooner’. I am informed that at that meeting Tim Gowers, a Cambridge maths professor and