The coronavirus lockdown debate in Britain turned personal last month when the man the tabloids call “Professor Lockdown” was found to have violated his own strictures on “very intensive social distancing.” A woman with whom Neil Ferguson was carrying on an extramarital affair visited him twice, the first time a week into the lockdown. Mr. Ferguson, whose advice to lock down had been pivotal, was forced to resign from the government’s Covid response team.
You might call Sunetra Gupta “Professor Reopen.” Ms. Gupta, 55, is a theoretical epidemiologist in Oxford’s Department of Zoology. She’s also a novelist and has translated the poems of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) from Bengali into English. She tells me in a telephone interview that the “costs and consequences” of lockdown outweigh the benefits. “I’m not worried about what might happen,” she says. “I’m worried about what is happening.”
She demurs when I ask what she thinks of Mr. Ferguson’s troubles, but it’s clear her own objections to the lockdown aren’t personal. She says she’s having “a great lockdown, tending to the garden” at her Oxford home while her 21-year-old daughter, back from college and taking exams online, keeps her company.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially resisted calls to lock down as countries in Europe and Asia moved in early March to prohibit public gatherings and shut down schools, workplaces and restaurants. Britain kept calm and carried on in a bid to build “herd immunity” to Covid-19. The Lancet, a venerable medical journal, warned that the government was “playing roulette with the public.” Mr. Johnson publicly acknowledged on March 12 that “many families, many more families, are going to lose loved ones before their time.”
Four days later Mr. Ferguson, a mathematical biologist at Imperial College London, published the hair-raising study that prompted a U-turn by the government on March 23. That’s when Mr. Johnson imposed a stiff nationwide lockdown that includes a ban on “nonessential travel” and staying overnight away from home, as well as limits on leaving home without “reasonable excuse.” As in Europe and much of the U.S., only businesses deemed essential were permitted to stay open. (The prime minister himself contracted Covid-19 and spent a week in the hospital in April before recovering.)
Using a computer model, Mr. Ferguson projected that as many as 500,000 people in Britain could die without a lockdown. (He also foresaw 2.2 million deaths in the U.S.) Spooked by this study, which Mr. Ferguson delivered personally to the prime minister’s residence on Downing Street, the British government decreed a lockdown and appointed Mr. Ferguson to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, the engine room for Britain’s response to Covid.
Meanwhile at Oxford, Ms. Gupta and her researchers—studying “the evolutionary ecology of infectious disease”—had produced their own predictive model. Their conclusion: “The death rate or the likelihood of dying from infection was very low.” As the government announced the lockdown, an indignant Ms. Gupta rushed to make her own group’s findings public hours later.
“The lockdown really made me feel very worried indeed for the future,” she says. “The main motivation for putting out this piece of work was to get people to reconsider, to think a bit more carefully about putting in place such drastic measures.” Mr. Ferguson told Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee he didn’t think that the Oxford model was “consistent with the observed data.” But the raw data were the same; only the conclusions differed.
Ms. Gupta calls Mr. Ferguson’s the “worst-case scenario,” and says “it didn’t make any sense to only look at this worst case.” If it was Mr. Ferguson’s contention that there was a 1% chance of death on infection, Ms. Gupta believes that the likely number is between 0.1% and 0.01%.
How does she explain the difference? One way, she says, “is simply by a few heuristics,” or mental shortcuts. “There was a vulnerable sector of the population in which all these deaths were occurring”—namely the old and sick. That deaths were largely restricted to this sector implied that “the death rate across the population might be a lot lower.”
Ms. Gupta also believes that Covid-19 had already reached the U.K.—and elsewhere—by the time the first reports of the virus emerged from Wuhan, China. “It seems to me inconceivable,” she says, “given international travel, that by the time something had been detected in China, it wouldn’t have spread quite widely globally.”
The timing of Covid’s U.K. landfall is a critical unknown. “For the death rate to be high,” Ms. Gupta says, “the epidemic needs to have only just arrived at the time that you start to detect the deaths.” The Ferguson scenario entails assuming “that it arrived, it was starting to take off, and lockdown came just as it would have completely swept through and killed 1% of everyone it infected.” Ms. Gupta’s research puts forth “a scenario where the epidemic has essentially swept through already.” What we’re seeing now, she believes, is “an accumulation of deaths at a much, much lower rate, because it’s not as virulent as they think it is.”
Ms. Gupta also thinks many people have forms of resistance to Covid-19 other than the antibodies generated in response to the virus. “Much of this resistance would have come from previous exposure to other coronaviruses circulating in humans, typically causing mild respiratory ailments.” She says this idea is a “running theme” in her work on infectious diseases: “Cross-immunity occurs as a result of exposure to related pathogens.”
It’s “unfortunate,” she says wryly, that people who fight off Covid-19 with cross-immunity “don’t always make the antibodies.” She had hoped that “all the answers would just come from an antibody test,” and that “those who have religiously stuck to the idea that the infection fatality rate is very high—and for whom the only reason that deaths have fallen is the lockdown—might be reassured if they saw that 80% of the population’s had it already.”
Ms. Gupta’s calls to end the lockdown have earned her much ire. “There was a backlash from certain sectors of the academic community,” she says, “saying that this was irresponsible. It saddens me that I’ve met with so much resistance.” Her detractors worried that she would, in her words, “disincentivize the public from following the lockdown strictures.”
What if the prime minister had called her on March 22 to seek her opinion? “I would not have recommended lockdown,” she says emphatically. “I’d tell him, ‘Let’s try and protect the vulnerable. Let’s pump as much money as we can into the health-care system. Let’s put all our efforts into testing the population to see to what extent it’s already spread through. And let’s design a policy that doesn’t imperil the economically underprivileged and the economy in general.’ ”
She then imagines Mr. Johnson’s hypothetical response: “He’d say, ‘Look, I don’t know what’s going on. The worst-case scenario is not absolutely improbable. So it’s my duty, as the government, to go by the worst-case scenario. So I’m going to lock down.’ ” Ms. Gupta concedes that’s not a crazy response. She’d have countered: “OK, how long can we afford it before the costs of the lockdown are going to surmount the costs of the death toll? And after two or three weeks of lockdown, can we please focus on trying to figure out whether the worst-case scenario has legs?”
Even so, she says that by lockdown day, it was “pretty clear . . . that the people who were dying everywhere were those who had very serious predisposing conditions or were very old.“ She underlines the point by citing the case of New York, which has seen more deaths from Covid than anywhere else in the U.S. “It’s very important to remember that when we speak about infection fatality rates, that this isn’t a fundamental property of the pathogen,” she says. The infection can be “very virulent in a fraction of the population that’s vulnerable, and almost not at all virulent in the general population.” The overall mortality rate on infection will “vary from place to place, depending on what fraction is vulnerable. It would seem that New York City does have a pretty large segment of vulnerable people.”
Ms. Gupta’s concern about the harm of lockdowns isn’t confined to the U.K. She also worries about the impact on such countries as her native India. “I’m reading about migrant workers walking home over hundreds of miles, dying on the way. It seems the costs are not in proportion.” She stresses that her push for a reopening doesn’t rest on a “libertarian rhetoric of entitlement.” Instead, hers is “an entirely communitarian position,” driven mainly by the plight of the economically disadvantaged.
The lockdown has taken on a moralistic dimension, which explains why Ms. Gupta is being treated as a heretic. People feel that “lockdown is a worthy state of being,” she says, because of “this sense that this is a sacrifice they’re making to protect the vulnerable.” But the burden falls unevenly: “It’s not that difficult to stay at home in a nice house on full pay and the assurance of a job afterwards,” she says. “It’s not the same order of sacrifice as others have had to make.”
If the Ferguson scandal Illustrates the point about the unevenness of sacrifice, so does the case of Dominic Cummings. Opposition parties called for his resignation as Mr. Johnson’s chief adviser after he drove north from London to his parents’ home in Durham, England, last month. He had symptoms of Covid-19 at the time, but says he made the 260-mile trip with his wife and young son because the boy needed “child care.” Durham police said he might have committed a “minor breach” of lockdown rules when he visited a local castle, and Mr. Johnson has stood by him.
As with Mr. Ferguson, Ms. Gupta declines to comment on Mr. Cummings. But she suggests that the idea of sacrifice might be framed another way: “You could also argue that going out there and risking infection itself is a sacrifice, and that sacrifice would create herd immunity.”
She pauses to suppress a chuckle. “Somebody asked me the other day—I think it was the BBC—why ‘herd immunity’ had become such a ‘toxic term.’ ” The question perplexed her. “Because really, you know, herd immunity is how we deal with most diseases.”
Mr. Varadarajan Is executive editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
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