This is a slightly modified version of a speech I gave at the inaugural meeting of the Icelandic Free Speech Society on Saturday January 7th. You can watch a video of me giving it here.
In the run-up to Christmas, the journalist Christopher Snowdon posted a lengthy Twitter thread that reproduced the projections of various U.K. modelling teams in December 2021, many of them linked to SAGE, showing a range of outcomes in terms of infections, hospitalisations and deaths the new Omicron variant was likely to result in if the British Government failed to lock down over Christmas. These were, in the jargon of the modelling trade, ‘reasonable worst case scenarios’, or, as the U.K. Health Security Agency put it, “a range of plausible scenarios”.
As Christopher gleefully pointed out, none of these scenarios materialised, even though Boris Johnson held his nerve and refused to impose another lockdown (although, to the consternation of Lord Frost, he did impose ‘Plan B’, making masks mandatory in some indoor venues, access to large venues contingent on a negative test result and advising people to work from home). Not only did these ‘plausible scenarios’ fail to materialise, but the actual numbers of infections, hospitalisations and deaths that did occur weren’t even close to the lowest end of the range.
Neil Ferguson, for instance, told the Guardian that “most of the projections we have right now are that the Omicron wave could very substantially overwhelm the NHS, getting up to peak levels of admissions of 10,000 people per day”.
The U.K.HSA released a report on December 10th that included a model showing daily Omicron infections reaching 1,000,000 a day by December 24th.
In fact, only two million people were infected in the whole of December and hospital admissions peaked at less than 2,500 a day.
SAGE submitted a report, based on the work of its modelling subcommittees SPI-M and SPI-M-O, showing a ‘range of plausible scenarios’ in which deaths from Omicron would peak at between 600 and 6,000 a day.
In the event, deaths peaked at 210 a day.
Christopher’s reason for posting this thread, I suspect, was to encourage people to ignore the drumbeat for another lockdown in the run-up to Christmas 2022. If the doom-mongers had got it so badly wrong last Christmas, why should we take their projections about this Christmas seriously?
But, from the point of view of the lockdown lobby, this wasn’t a knock-down argument. Yes, the infections, hospitalisations and deaths from Omicron at the end of 2021 weren’t even in the lower range of SAGE’s ‘reasonable worst case scenarios’, but that didn’t prove the models had been wrong or that the Government was right to ignore them.
The definition of ‘reasonable worst case’ is not the scenario that will probably emerge if the government does nothing, merely a ‘plausible’ one, if the assumptions plugged into the model are correct – although, to confuse matters, the modellers do sometimes describe the outcomes they’re projecting as ‘likely‘ if the government does nothing, or only imposes light-touch restrictions, as Neil Ferguson and his co-authors did in Report 9.