‘Wildly incorrect’ Covid modelling bounced Boris Johnson into second lockdown, MPs told

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Boris Johnson plunged the UK into a second coronavirus lockdown in November 2020 after 'terrifying' modelling was shown to him - Leon Neal /Getty Images Europe
Boris Johnson plunged the UK into a second coronavirus lockdown in November 2020 after 'terrifying' modelling was shown to him - Leon Neal /Getty Images Europe

Boris Johnson was bounced into the second coronavirus lockdown after a “terrifying” and “wildly incorrect” model warning of 4,000 deaths a day was leaked to the press, MPs have heard.

Speaking at a debate at Westminster Hall on the use of models in the pandemic, Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the Covid recovery group, described how the Prime Minister had contacted him shortly before announcing new restrictions on October 31 2020 asking for advice.

Modelling from Cambridge University and Public Health England (PHE) had suggested that without immediate restrictions there could be 4,000 deaths per day by the end of December.

Mr Baker said that he had told Mr Johnson to challenge the model, and Prof Tim Spector, of King’s College London, and Prof Carl Heneghan, of Oxford University, were called into Downing Street to go over the data.

But by the time the models were shown to be inaccurate, it was too late to stop public calls for restrictions.

Mr Baker said: “By Monday, Carl Heneghan had taken the wheels of those death projections, by which time the Prime Minister had, disgracefully, been bounced using a leak into a lockdown. This is absolutely no way to conduct public policy.

“The reality is the Prime Minister was shown a terrifying model which was subsequently proven to be widely incorrect but he took away freedoms from tens of millions on that basis.

“It is monstrous that millions of people were locked down, effectively under house arrest, their businesses destroyed, their children prevented from getting an education.

“The situation is now perfectly plain that even our most basic liberties can be taken away by the stroke of a pen, if a minister has been shown sufficiently persuasive modelling that tells them there is trouble ahead.”

Steve Baker, MP for Wycombe, told the Prime Minister to challenge the Covid deaths model put forward by scientists in October 2020 - Matt Dunham /AP
Steve Baker, MP for Wycombe, told the Prime Minister to challenge the Covid deaths model put forward by scientists in October 2020 - Matt Dunham /AP

Mr Baker, the MP for Wycombe, called for the establishment of an Office for Research Integrity within the Cabinet Office to challenge the data coming from modelling.

The Westminster debate was called by Bob Seely, the MP for the Isle of Wight, who argued that the use of the modelling in the pandemic was approaching a national scandal.

Mr Seely warned that the “doomsday public health scenarios” had been used to create a “despicable” and “unforgivable” climate of fear, based on “a sort of glorified guesswork.”

“Never before has so much harm been done to so many, by so few based on so little questionable and potentially flawed data,” he said.

“We had a nervous Government presented with doomsday scenarios which panicked it into a course of profound acting with shocking outcomes.

"I believe the use of modelling is pretty much getting up there for a national scandal."

Mr Seely told MPs that there was a growing body of evidence suggesting that the models were flawed and the wrong assumptions made.

“Why did we think it was in our nation's interest to create a grotesque sense of fear to manipulate behaviour?”, he added.

“Never again should the Government rely on dubious modelling.”

Miriam Cates, the MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, said far too little attention had been paid to the collateral damage of lockdowns.

“This wasn’t just a paper exercise,” she said. “These models and the weight they have been given has caused serious destruction to lives,

“Who was modelling the outcomes of child abuse, of poverty, of loneliness and despair and fear?”

Responding to the debate, Maggie Throup, the vaccines minister, said that an inquiry into modelling should form part of the official pandemic inquiry and promised that “lessons will be learned”.

But she said the Government did not just rely on models but also looked at what was happening in the real world.

“Modelling is helpful but it must be considered alongside what is happening to real people at home, in schools or in hospitals,” she said.

“Comparisons between past scenarios and what actually happened should be made with caution and we’re comparing apples and pears.”

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