Friday April 23, 2021
A fascinating exchange played out in the UK’s House of Lords on June 2, 2020. Neil Ferguson, the physicist at Imperial College London who created the main epidemiology model behind the lockdowns, faced his first serious questioning about the predictive performance of his work.
Ferguson predicted catastrophic death tolls back on March 16, 2020 unless governments around the world adopted his preferred suite of nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to ward off the pandemic. Most countries followed his advice, particularly after the United Kingdom and United States governments explicitly invoked his report as a justification for lockdowns.
Ferguson’s team at Imperial would soon claim credit for saving millions of lives through these policies – a figure they arrived at through a ludicrously unscientific exercise where they purported to validate their model by using its own hypothetical projections as a counterfactual of what would happen without lockdowns. But the June hearing in Parliament drew attention to another real-world test of the Imperial team’s modeling, this one based on actual evidence.
As Europe descended into the first round of its now year-long experiment with shelter-in-place restrictions, Sweden famously shirked the strategy recommended by Ferguson. In doing so, they also created the conditions of a natural experiment to see how their coronavirus numbers performed against the epidemiology models. Although Ferguson originally limited his scope to the US and UK, a team of researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden borrowed his model and adapted it to their country with similarly catastrophic projections. If Sweden did not lock down by mid-April, the Uppsala team projected, the country would soon experience 96,000 coronavirus deaths.