Imperial College London: Neil Ferguson on scientific advice, lockdown and countering new outbreaks

The UK may need “targeted” interventions to suppress coronavirus flare-ups as lockdown eases, says the head of Imperial’s COVID-19 Response Team.

In his most in-depth interview since the emergence of COVID-19, infectious disease modeller Professor Neil Ferguson spoke to the BBC’s Nick Robinson about what we can learn from the crisis.

“It benefits us all, and scientists in particular, to think back about what lessons can be learned and what can be done better next time,” Professor Ferguson said.

Professor Ferguson reflected on his early life, from programming a Commodore PET as a child in 1970s rural Wales to university where his enthusiasm for physics and engineering was transformed by a talk on the HIV epidemic. That lecture, by Lord May, the Imperial and Oxford scientist who died this April, helped Ferguson see the power of infectious disease modelling.

Collective efforts

On his media portrayal as ‘Professor Lockdown’, Ferguson said “I slightly wince at that” because the Imperial team modelled multiple policy options and were never involved in the operational details of lockdown, “so it doesn’t feel like a true moniker for me.”

“I also don’t particularly like it because it implies that one person was responsible for this huge policy decision and that’s always been a myth. It’s been hundreds of people inputting into that decision, both hundreds of scientists and people from other disciplines. Recognising the collective nature of decision making and advice going into the decision would be a much more productive way of looking at it.”

The Imperial team’s high-profile report 9 was not as pivotal as is often portrayed.  “There was nothing in that paper the government wasn’t already aware of in previous weeks,” he said. “It wasn’t just that paper – the work of my group at Imperial College – it was the work of multiple groups,” including at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, making similar predictions.

Advising government

It feels good to make a difference, regardless of the political controversy.Professor Neil FergusonImperial College COVID-19 Response Team

On the UK’s SAGE system of scientific advice, Professor Ferguson said: “Our system has a lot of checks and balances which ensures that the advice, which goes through to policy, is really based on the consensus of many, many scientists. The downside perhaps is that it is little more cumbersome, a little slower in its operation and maybe a little more conservative in terms of how quickly policy can pivot. So if you compare it with how policy has been made in many European countries in this crisis, that was based on small groups of scientists largely talking directly to ministers in those cases and of course those countries moved faster.”

He added: “There’s no perfect system. It’s interesting how the Scottish equivalent of Sage is now operating is that on occasion the First Minister attends those meetings.”

Easing lockdown with caution

As the UK lifts its lockdown, Professor Ferguson said: “I think we just need to look around Europe at the clusters of cases popping up in different contexts to have a good understanding of what we might expect to see here after 4th July. I don’t expect to see a uniform, very large growth of cases across the country. What I do expect to see, depending on how sensible people are, how much they judge the risks themselves and reduce those risks, is clusters of cases – outbreaks in some individual facilities like food production plants, but also maybe in social contexts, particular work places and particular schools.

“We will be playing in some senses, and it’s not a nice metaphor, a game of Whack-A-Mole of trying to suppress those outbreaks. I think as we go into the autumn and winter there’s a bigger potential risk of more widespread community transmission.”

Making a difference

A lot of scientists publicly identified with the lockdown “have been subject to quite vitriolic attacks both in personal emails and in the media,” he noted.

Despite the personal attacks and criticisms, Professor Ferguson sustains a positive view of his team’s work on the novel coronavirus. “It is exciting to undertake scientific research at such rapidity and in real time.

“We were the first group to really give a proper assessment of the scale of the outbreak in Wuhan, back when China was reporting two-dozen cases, we estimated it had to be thousands… then we were first to estimate the severity of the illness… while all those estimates have been subject to uncertainty and they have been improved and revised, they have turned out to be basically right.

“It feels good to make a difference frankly, regardless of the political controversy and everything else. It feels good to be contributing to something which is so important.”

The full BBC Radio 4 Political Thinking interview can be heard on BBC Sounds and all major podcast services. 

by Andrew ScheuberDr Sabine L. van Elsland


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