Professor Christina Pagel’s very informative, factual, and well-reasoned take-down of Lord Jonathan Sumption’s Guardian opinion article on lockdowns, infection rates, herd immunity, protecting the NHS and the economy.


First published in November 2020.


Last week, Lord Sumption wrote an article in the Guardian, where he argued that the disadvantages of lockdown outweigh the potential benefits of reducing new Covid cases, hospitalisations and deaths. There is a genuine debate to be had about this, but unfortunately many of the arguments Lord Sumption makes are based on a misunderstanding of the numbers and ignoring important pieces of evidence.

The Guardian, 4 November 2020.

So, basically I have a lot of problems with the article and so have written a detailed response – what follows will be easier to follow if you read his article first but you’ll get the gist either way!

I am just going to start by saying that no one thinks lockdowns are a good thing and everyone agrees they have serious and bad consequences. They are a last resort measure. I agree with Lord Sumption that they should be avoided if at all possible. But that is about all we agree on!

He starts off by saying,

That’s his premise. But many countries have shown there ARE things you can do to stop the spread. China, South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, New Zealand, Uruguay... This list includes countries with tens of millions and highly urbanised populations (e.g. Japan, South Korea).

AND then, of course, there is the promise of a vaccine which should start being rolled out next year. So, his base assumption is already wrong and skews the rest of the article.

True. BUT they also delay until better measures are available. If they are, then the delay will save lives.

For instance, we are now better at treating Covid in hospital, so people who get Covid now instead of March are less likely to die. We also know more about how it spreads whicb makes us better at protecting ourselves and our environments (which is probably why speed of growth in September and October were much slower than in March). If and when vaccines come, then this delay will save all the people who would have died if the virus was let to spread.

And most importantly, reducing cases gives time to build the systems that other countries have proven work: effective test, trace and isolate systems combined with strict border controls.

Not really, they stop the NHS from getting overwhelmed (which affects ALL sick people, not just those with Covid-19), i.e. they avert a much bigger crisis. Plus, if the virus is running rampant, people will limit their economic activity anyway, regardless of whether restrictions are in place (economies have done best where Covid-19 has been suppressed).

This is factually wrong, and not understanding R. Cases are lower in Cornwall than Liverpool, but it is spreading faster – so, R is higher in the South West than in the North. This is a bad situation.

This puts all the burden of understanding Covid-19 (which is hard) on people and totally ignores the fact that MY decision affects OTHER people – including strangers. Add into that that Covid often spreads in superspreader events like parties, restaurants or bars, and you can see even more clearly that just one person’s decision to ignore the risk that they have Covid and several other people’s decision to ignore the risk that they might catch Covid can lead to significant spread – including to any household or other close contacts who might be otherwise taking every precaution.

Then, somehow, allowing people to make their own judgements about risk, means:

I have no idea how this works and he doesn’t explain. What resources? How do people access them? How will it be coordinated?

Covid-19 has been terrible for the young – but again, the best solution is to get life as close to normal as possible by following the examples of countries that have managed it!

True, but young people can die. There is also Long Covid which affects young people too. Young people also interact with older people – you can’t sequester off populations like that. I suspect a lot of people advocating this strategy are well-off, older people, living in a nice house and able to isolate themselves very satisfactorily.

Some do not have the choice (see above why). Also, if many “take the risk”, this impacts on the whole health system! As they get sick and need care... And again if the NHS gets overwhelmed with Covid patients, this affects ALL care, with terrible consequences. (as we have learned from the last lockdown, and might learn again if the numbers keep going up).

Modelling provides framework for assessing future options. Evidence of the future is hard to find... Evidence of effectiveness of possible strategies is (slowly) starting to accumulate (e.g. indoors much worse than outdoors, aerosol transmission, risk factors, masks). There is evidence that countries CAN suppress Covid-19 successfully and open their economies. But Lord Sumption ignores that from his very first sentence onwards. Those countries offer the solution to lockdown. His argument for effectively going ahead with the Great Barrington Declarationto let run Covid-19 wild while “protecting the vulnerable” (with no discussion of how to do this, especially as up to 30% of UK population are at higher risk of severe Covid illness) – does NOT offer a solution. (a whole other thread is possible on the feasibility of natural herd immunity...)

Then, Lord Sumption writes a whole lot about how awful lockdowns are. Agreed. We shouldn’t be in this position, but the alternative at this point is worse (apart from thousands of deaths, hospitals overrun) and Covid-19 rampant will cause people to modify their behaviour. People will have a voluntary lockdown if you like (Sweden did in fact do this in the summer, with much reduced movement and spending, and still had lots of deaths. And is surging again now – worse than in the summer). This has just as bad an impact on economy and jobs.

This may be true of our current government. I certainly hope it isn’t true always (and it doesn’t seem to be the case for New Zealand and Australia for instance). The answer is to vote for those who care about public interest.🔷



Professor Christina Pagel, Professor of Operational Research, Clinical Operational Research Unit, University College London. Member of Independent SAGE.





[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 8 November 2020 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected, and published with the author’s consent. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

Creative Commons License
(Cover: Flickr/Tim Dennell. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)

PMP Magazine articles are FREE. Please do share this article widely.
Members of PMP Magazine can read our articles first. We call this “THE TIMEWALL”. If you too would like to receive all our articles in your inbox before everyone else, BECOME A MEMBER NOW!