Did a British Scientist Retract His Prediction That the U.K. Would Have 500,000 Coronavirus Deaths?

This week, several news stories claimed that a leading scientist in the U.K. who had previously predicted that COVID-19 would result in 500,000 deaths in that country had retracted his prediction and was now saying that there would be fewer than 20,000 deaths. This led many on Twitter, at least, to wonder whether the U.K.’s nationwide lockdown, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Monday, was based on a panicky prediction by one rogue scientist.

Dr. Neil Ferguson, one of the authors of the Imperial College report on coronavirus, testified before the U.K. Parliament’s Science and Technology Select Committee on Thursday. During his testimony he stated: “We are reasonably confident—it’s all we can be at the current time—that at a national level [for the United Kingdom], we’ll be within capacity” and that ICUs “won’t be breached at a national level.” In all, Dr. Ferguson testified that he believes coronavirus deaths are not likely to surpass 20,000 in his country.

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  • Although I am not a conspiracist, I do see an error here. If you read his initial report, he is saying the 20,000ish comes if the suppression lasts as long as 18 months. Now, it's a few months. It seems to me that's not a tweak, but a pretty big adjustment.

  • It literally only takes about five seconds to understand this... if understanding it is what you want. The Trumpish Right quite obviously doesn't. Whether it's this little made-up flap or Ann Coulter and her graphs, the willful ignorance on display is just remarkable.

    This leads me to two related thoughts about the Trumpers. 1) They've absorbed Trump's combination of trollishness and short-term thinking. Who cares if this is true? Who cares if it can be decisively proven false tomorrow? As long as we did something to own the Libs right now, in this moment, it's a win.

    2) They've been operating the same way for quite some time. We knew that, but it was just so exhausting to keep track. Finally, though, I feel like the fact-checks are... largely... catching up to them. Sure, there are some brainwashed MAGA-heads still prepared to believe whatever's best for Dear Leader and overall Lib-ownership. But normal people's wits have been sharpened by the pandemic. We care what the truth is because our health and way of life depend on it. So it's been satisfying to see that MAGA-style "alternative facts," which once would get enough traction to become the official narrative on Fox News et al, are now getting debunked pretty swiftly and thoroughly. And it's fun to see these clowns embarrassed when they're the last ones to realize they can no longer get away with it, like that one fool who keeps singing when everyone else knows the song is over.

  • Which is why I said it’s not fully accurate to call the claim Ferguson changed his position false without also acknowledging the report was represented differently in the early reporting. Ferguson et.al. did fine work (though the conclusions could ha e been clearer). No one that used their numbers in public in the US mentioned the lower estimates so while the scientists didn’t change their tune, someone sure did.

  • Thank you Ramesh for saying all this so much better than I could.


  • Some of these posts are, ummm, painful. No he *obviously* didn't retract his initial estimate. The first estimate was based on the policy in place. The second estimate was based on the new policy. I have done this sort of modeling myself, and can tell you that the different policies would have led to very different predictions.

    1. Here is the link to the report. https://www.imperial.ac.uk/media/imperial-college/medicine/sph/ide/gida-fellowships/Imperial-College-COVID19-NPI-modelling-16-03-2020.pdf

      You can't just wave this off as poor reading skills on the part of the rubes out there. This is the part of the conclusion that gets repeated.

      "Perhaps our most significant conclusion is that mitigation is unlikely to be feasible without emergency surge capacity limits of the UK and US healthcare systems being exceeded many times over. In the most effective mitigation strategy examined, which leads to a single, relatively short epidemic (case isolation, household quarantine and social distancing of the elderly), the surge limits for both general ward and ICU beds would be exceeded by at least 8-fold under the more optimistic scenario for critical care requirements that we examined. In addition, even if all patients were able to be treated, we predict there would still be in the order of 250,000 deaths in GB, and 1.1-1.2 million in the US."

      That has been repeatedly represented as the best case scenario in our press. The alternative they offer of suppression for 18 months isn't what Britain is doing now and the report is dubious of whether its even possible to sustain.

      It isn't wrong to say at the very least the initial report was grossly misrepresented. It also isn't wrong to say the conclusion that we were sold on by the US was tossed out the window. So I don't think it is fully accurate to say reports of him changing his position are wrong without also saying its largely because the initial reports themselves were wrong.

    2. Honestly, I don't understand why people were confused. Maybe they are not reading entire articles and are just going from what the headlines say? If you read them and think about it, he makes absolute sense. Maybe because I work in healthcare--I am accustomed to this?

    3. I thought this was obvious too, but then I remembered I'm biased by my own experience. I've had explicit training on how to create, maintain, interpret, and present models, most people haven't. I don't know what the answer here is.

  • The problem is that so many people in mass media (as opposed to academic publications) embrace "scientism" not science. "I am on the side of science" as if scientists are (1) all in agreement and (2) infallible. Neither is true. Jim Geraghty of NR has a great article on Mayor Deblasio's response to COVID-19 that shows that many public health experts, even Dr. Fauci, were wrong in their early assessments. Much of that was due to faulty data from China.

    I think the early press coverage of the initial model predictions DID give the impression that millions of people would die no matter what we did. So the revision does come across as a "walkback".

    BTW I am not a populist, but I realize that much of populism arises as a backlash against the attitude that "elite experts know better than you plebes, all you need to do is blindly follow them, don't bother trying to figure out the reasons for their recommendations." Especially when experts disagree or seem to flip flop.

    1. I wish all PhD's had to take a "Talking to the Media 101" class, but I fear that wouldn't make much of a difference. A publication can its job and just reporting the facts, but that doesn't attract click. If there's one thing I've learning as a modeling engineer, it's that you always state your assumptions UP FRONT. Unfortunately that doesn't make for a short headline.

      1. Maybe a compliment to your idea is a curriculum requirement for how to read science in the news? I've not taught high school for a while, so I'm not sure where the curriculum is; however, I think deciding how to evaluate a source gets pushed on English teacher's plates as part of learning how to use sources. I think we do a good job, but science teachers we are not.

  • Government: ...
    Neil Ferguson: My models says bad things happen if we do nothing
    Government: *does something*
    Neil Ferguson: Cool if we keep doing this my model says it won't be as bad
    Alec Dent: No

    Seriously though, the media has done a terrible job of covering scientific issues for decades, especially when it comes to "predictions". The natural result is the astounding distrust the public has towards scientific expertise. This is gonna bite us where it hurts soon enough.

    1. Yep, exactly my fear. Some day we actually need to understand this stuff and this mess will hurt us.

  • To put this in plain English (from my understanding): Because Britain took severe social distancing measures, Dr. Ferguson's model now predicts (thankfully) that they will have a lower forecasted mortality. If Britain hadn't taken these measures, they would have a higher mortality rate per the same model.

    1. I can’t find the graph graph everyone is using right now. It’s not in the version of the report currently up and I’m not sure why because it was earlier. But the substantive graph in the original report was clear. Their conclusion is even extreme intervention will not prevent overwhelming the system and they say it. In some cases it happens later, but it always happens. Now the position is it doesn’t happen. The change requires better explanation. I’m sure the motives and substance is legit, but the story is very suspect.

      1. There were multiple graphs and tables in the original report, investigating what the government would do if it adopted different social mitigation or social suppression strategies. While this report is technically challenging to read, as I understand it Table 4 in the original report appears to show multiple fatality estimates given different parameters used and different social mitigation and social suppression strategies the UK chooses to adopt. All of the estimates that show fatality numbers lower than 26,000 people are found in scenarios in which at least social distancing, case isolation, and closure of schools and universities is used (as defined in Table 2 of the report). The original report can be found here: https://www.imperial.ac.uk/media/imperial-college/medicine/sph/ide/gida-fellowships/Imperial-College-COVID19-NPI-modelling-16-03-2020.pdf

  • More opinion. IDK...going from 250,000 to 20,000 seems like a big deal to me. He certainly retracted is initial call..BTW nobody knows anything. Nobody. We haven't and can't test enough and likely never will. It is important that nobody distract from what we know. Most Americans will recover if they get this virus...Despite the hair on fire crap coming from media...those are the facts. As a Paramedic who sees flu season every year...I find it interesting that now a Flu is reported like a murder on the local news... If it bleeds it leads...Journalists and pundits are so elite and predictable and so out of touch of regular Americans.

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