SAGE advisor says Whitty and Vallance have both 'made mistakes'

Prominent SAGE adviser says Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance have both ‘made mistakes’ during the pandemic and warns Covid will be with humanity FOREVER even with a vaccine

  • Sir Jeremy Farrar said scientists had been pushed to the forefront of the crisis
  • Mistakes had been made by the CMO and CSA, he said, while praising their work
  • Sir Jeremy said he was ‘very optimistic’ after a vaccine breakthrough  
  • But he suggested it won’t make the coronavirus go away because it is ‘endemic’ 

A prominent SAGE adviser today claimed that both Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance have made ‘mistakes’ during the pandemic.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, said scientists had been thrust into the forefront of debate during the coronavirus crisis. But during a virtual briefing today, he added: ‘I’ve made mistakes, Patrick and Chris would say they’ve made mistakes, but science has been front and centre.’

Sir Jeremy, who also ‘publicly thanked’ the pair’s contribution to navigating the UK out of the pandemic, did not refer to which ‘mistakes’ he meant. 

Sir Patrick and Professor Whitty have been criticised for presenting gloomy warnings of worst-case scenarios throughout the pandemic, including a now-revised model of 4,000 deaths a day by mid-October which spooked Boris Johnson into ordering the second national lockdown.

And in September they claimed diagnosed cases could soar from around 4,000 to 50,000 per day by mid-October, if no action was taken to stem the spread of the virus. The current average stands at around 23,000. 

The pair have had to publicly defend the projections, with Sir Patrick admitting he had regrets over having frightening people with terrifying graphs. 

Sir Jeremy Farrar said he was ‘very optimistic’ after a vaccine breakthrough this week. Drug giant Pfizer revealed it’s vaccine candidate is 90 per cent effective at preventing Covid-19 illness.

But he said despite the good news, he believes the coronavirus is ‘now party of humanity’, and it will be something the world will have to ‘learn to with’. 

Sir Jeremy Farrar said he was ‘very optimistic’ after drug giant Pfizer revealed this week it’s vaccine candidate is 90 per cent effective at preventing Covid-19 illness. But he said it won’t make the coronavirus go away, and it will be something the world will have to ‘learn to with’

Sir Jeremy said mistakes had been made by the Chief Medical Officer (left) and Chief Scientific Advisor (right) during the pandemic, but that they deserved credit for their work 


The pair have also been heralded for guiding a beleaguered Government through the pandemic and becoming public figures during a time of national crisis

Professor Whitty, 53, had been in the role of Chief Medical Officer for England for only five months when the coronavirus started spreading in the UK. 

He was previously the chief scientific adviser at the Department of Health and Social Care. 

Sir Patrick had been the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government for only one year, and was previously president of research and development at the drug giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said Covid-19 is now ‘part of humanity’, even if vaccines are developed to prevent infection.

The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced a coronavirus vaccine breakthrough this week when it said its vaccine, made with BioNTech, was 90 per cent effective.  

Its data will now go through rigorous review from regulators in order to ensure it is safe to start rolling out. No10 has already secured a deal of 40million doses for 20million people. 

Asked at the Royal Society of Medicine webinar how he felt about the news of Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine, Sir Jeremy said: ‘Yeah I do feel optimistic, very. But this virus is now in my view, part of humanity. It is an endemic infection now.

‘I don’t think it’s going away, I think we will have to learn to live with it. And I think vaccines, therapies and diagnostics, clinical care, public health, societal support for people who suffer from it, as part of health is now where it will be.

‘But I’m damn glad we will have drugs, vaccine and diagnostics to help us through that, as with every other infection.’

He added: ‘I hope what we have learnt in 2020 will not just be relevant for Covid-19, but actually help us think about how will we make vaccines and treatment for TB, malaria, mental health and cancer therapies.

‘I think we will look back at 2020 and say what a great year for innovation.’

The world has been thrust into a new way of living with what are called ‘non pharmaceutical interventions’ – such as social distancing and face mask wearing – to control the coronavirus.

But because the vast majority of people are still susceptible to some degree means that there is sufficient fuel for the virus to keep spreading and embed itself into society as a new disease.

But the virus may eventually stabilise at a constant level, in a way that can be predicted by scientists. Or, it may flare up for periods of time, interspersed with periods of low transmission.

This is what is known as ‘endemic’, also the case for diseases including the flu.

Both have been thrust in the limelight to inform panicked Britons of the coronavirus risk and inform the Government in order to make decisions.

Despite the criticism, the two have also been heralded by fellow scientists for guiding a beleaguered Government through the pandemic.

Sir Farrar, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said: ‘Having watched at very close quarters the role Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance have played has been nothing short of extraordinary. 

‘They deserve, I have to say, all of our respect, all of our thanks, and all of our support. What they’ve gone through has been extraordinary. I have enormous respect for the role they’ve played, and I would publicly like to thank them.

‘I don’t think there has been a year in past probably 100 years when science has been so front and central to the national debate. That has been very exposing and scientists have made mistakes.

‘I’ve made mistakes, Patrick and Chris would say they’ve made mistakes, but science has been front and centre.’

Speaking at a Royal Society of Medicine webinar on vaccines, Sir Farrar said the public had become more engaged with the scientific community than ever before in the midst of coronavirus confusion and panic.

‘We as scientists have got to learn how do we work in that new world, how to we make the most of science, and have the humility that science brings, to not promise more than we deliver,’ Sir Farrar added. 

So what ‘mistakes’ may Sir Farrar have been referring to? 

The 4,000 deaths per day ‘doomsday dossier’ 

The Government recently came under fire for using inaccurate figures in a televised address to the nation, when Boris Johnson announced another nationwide lockdown amid fears the NHS would become overwhelmed without urgent action. 

Sir Patrick Vallance, No 10’s chief scientific adviser, presented a now-infamous graph suggesting there could be a shocking 4,000 deaths per day by December 20 if nothing was done. 

At the time, on October 31, the tiered system was in place, but SAGE had been banging the drum about a national lockdown for weeks. 

But the figures – created by statisticians at the University of Cambridge and Public Health England – were based on outdated data from October 9 – before the new tier system came into force. 

Scientists from Oxford University said if the forecasting was correct then there would currently be about 1,000 deaths per day. Yet the average on the day lockdown was announced was 300. 

The modelling was also based on the R rate being at 1.3 to 1.5 despite the government understanding it to be between 1.1 and 1.3. 

PHE and the team revised their numbers and lowered the possible numbers of deaths twice even before the worst version that was used in the meeting. 

The lowest projected deaths using the model were 497 deaths on November 15, which is likely to be more accurate considering yesterday, November 11, 595 deaths were announced.  

SAGE was accused of ‘misleading’ the public and MPs by cherry-picking the scariest data from a number of models in order to move the UK into a lockdown.  

Sir Patrick and Professor Whitty faced MPs on November 3 who challenged them about the evidence behind the lockdown.

During the grilling by members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Labour MP Graham Stringer asked Sir Patrick if he believed he had frightened people with the bleak deaths data presented during Saturday night’s press briefing.  

Sir Patrick said: ‘I think I positioned that – and if that didn’t come across then I regret that – but I positioned that as a scenario from a couple of weeks ago, based on an assumption to try and get a new reasonable worst-case scenario.’ 

The pair were asked by Tory MP Aaron Bell whether the ‘avalanche of data’ presented on Saturday was ‘an appropriate way’ to make their case to the nation.

Sir Patrick Vallance, No10’s Chief Scientific Adviser, suggested there could be a shocking 4,000 deaths per day by December 20 if nothing was done using a now-infamous graph. The scenario was based on the assumption that there would be 1,000 per day by the start of November. Real numbers of people dying are significantly lower

This slide presented on live TV on Saturday shows a projection of deaths hitting 4,000 per day by the end of December (blue line) but experts say they are ‘concerned’ about the decision to include this because it is based on old data that has since been updated


Members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee challenged Sir Patrick and Professor Whitty about their 4,000 deaths a day dossier on November 3

Sir Patrick told the committee: ‘I would always like to get things simpler than they were and clearer than they were.

‘That would always be an aim and clearly some of those slides were quite complicated, and it is a very complicated thing.’

Professor Whitty said that reaching the same levels seen during the peak in April is an ‘entirely realistic situation’, adding: ‘I think there has been some rather overblown rhetoric on this. People can take different projections if they wish.

‘But getting to the stage we got to in April – and if we do nothing, carrying on up from there – is entirely realistic.’

Days later the UK Statistics Authority — which has slammed ministers before for overblown claims about their testing capacity — argued that numbers presented to the public have not always been backed up by ‘transparent information in a timely manner’.

The body said: ‘As a result, there is potential to confuse the public and undermine confidence in the statistics.’

The 50,000 cases per day graph

Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick terrified the nation on September 21 by their gloomy prediction that cases may reach 50,000 per day by mid-October, if nothing is done. 

They claimed infections were doubling every week, in line with growing outbreaks in Spain and France. 

But experts slammed the ‘implausible’ claim, insisting that neither France nor Spain had yet to see anywhere near that level of infection, despite witnessing a clear resurgence in the disease.  

Critics accused Number 10 of trying to ‘scare’ people. Even the Prime Minister appeared to undermine the pair when he admitted cases in the UK could be taking as long as 20 days to double in number. 

It was quickly revealed the scenario – claimed not to be a ‘prediction’ – was ‘heavily’ based on findings of the weekly survey of the Office for National Statistics, and the React-1 survey by Imperial College London.

Sir Patrick  at a No10 Downing Street briefing on September 21 when he warned of 50,000 cases per day in mid-October

Professor Whitty (right, with Vallance on the left) appealed to the public’s selflessness in adhering to the rules and not just assuming they could ‘take their own risks’

The studies test a random sample of 100,000 people but, as the virus is circulating at low levels, they have to base their predictions off only a few hundred positive cases. 

The Government admitted it used these surveys as opposed to actual testing data because it was worried that the figures lagged behind the spread of the disease.

Figures based on diagnosed cases alone suggested the outbreak was doubling every 14 days, while growth rates suggested cases were doubling ‘between every 10 to 20 days’. 

Department of Health figures show that by mid-October, 15,000 to 18,000 people were diagnosed with Covid-19 per day – around three times smaller than the ‘worst case scenario’.

Even when including asymptomatic cases and anyone else who wouldn’t be tested, it was still estimated only 35,200 people were getting infected each day in England in mid-October, according to the Office for National Statistics.

The agency predicts coronavirus infection by swabbing thousands of random households in the UK. But it does not give a prediction of new cases per day in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick also said if cases reached 50,000 per day, it could lead to 200 deaths a day by November – which has turned out to be the case. 

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