Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Vallance vs Vallance vs SAGE: Letter to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry

I’ve sent the following letter to the Public Inquiry, noting the significant and repeated inconsistencies between what Vallance has recently testified about the events in mid-March 2020, and what the contemporaneous documentary evidence of that period actually says. This evidence includes, rather amusingly, Vallance himself in one of the daily PM statements and press conferences. I will of course post any response(s) received.

To: contact@covid19.public-inquiry.uk

To whom it may concern.

I have noticed a discrepancy between the witness statements made to the Inquiry by Sir Patrick Vallance concerning the events of March 2020, and documentary evidence from that period. It primarily concerns the estimation of the doubling time of the pandemic, which was of great importance in planning the policy response to it. The reason why this is important is that changing the estimate of doubling time from 5 days to 3 days would indicate that the problem was far greater, more urgent, and harder to deal with, than was previously thought. It would inevitably lead to an abrupt and urgent change in policy requirements. However, there is no evidence to support the claim made by Vallance that SAGE was calling for urgent and strict action from March 16 onwards, and that the Govt delayed action for a further week.

Vallance’s evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry

To the Inquiry, Vallance stated that he, and other members of SAGE, changed their minds about the growth rate of the pandemic over the weekend of 14-15 March (bold emphasis added by me):

“I think the new understanding on the weekend of 14 and 15 March was that we were much further ahead in the pandemic than we realised, and the numbers that came in that week showed that there were many more cases, it was far more widespread, and was accelerating faster than anyone had expected.”

“We got information on 13 March which unambiguously showed that the pandemic was far more widespread and far bigger and moving faster than we had anticipated

“The advice given on 18 March was a consequence of our concerns about the rapid doubling time and number of infections”

“A major reason SAGE did not advise earlier and more extensive interventions, for example on 10 March rather than 16 March, was that we were unaware of how widely seeded the virus was in the UK and how short the doubling time had become.”

“I am asked if the models underestimated the spread of the virus early in the pandemic. I think that they did, at least in terms of speed until shortly before the four day period of 13 to 16 March, which I discuss above. This was a function of poor and time delayed data and a consequent under-estimation of the virus’ doubling time.”

The conclusions that we are inescapably being asked to draw from these multiple statements is that (a) SAGE was underestimating the growth rate of the pandemic prior to the weekend of 14/15 March, but corrected their error at that time and (b) the correction of this error was critical in changing their advice from a measured program of mitigation to a much more urgent suppression of the pandemic.

Vallance’s evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, July 2020

This mirrors the testimony Vallance gave previously to the House of Commons Science and Technology committee in July 2020:

“When the SAGE sub-group on modelling, SPI-M, saw that the doubling time had gone down to three days, which was in the middle of March, that was when the advice SAGE issued was that the remainder of the measures should be introduced as soon as possible.”

“The advice changed because the doubling rate of the epidemic was seen to be down to three days instead of six or seven days. We did not explicitly say how many weeks we were behind Italy as a reason to change; it was the doubling time, and the realisation that, on the basis of the data, we were further ahead in the epidemic than had been thought by the modelling groups up until that time.”

SAGE minutes of mid-March and other contemporaneous evidence 

However, contrary to these claims, the minutes of the SAGE meeting on the 16th March very clearly stated:

“UK cases may be doubling in number every 5-6 days.”

and later that day, Vallance personally repeated the 5 day doubling figure live on TV:

“…the epidemic, you’d expect to double every 5 days or so…”

Two days later, the minutes of the SAGE meeting on the 18th March again stated:

Assuming a doubling time of around 5-7 days continues to be reasonable, but this is before any of the measures brought in have had an effect; these measures are likely to slow the doubling time even if there is still an exponential curve.”

The first time 3 day doubling was hinted at in any official documentation appears to be the SPI-M-O meeting on the 20th March:

“Nowcasting and forecasting of the current situation in the UK suggests that the doubling time of cases accruing in ICU is short, ranging from 3 to 5 days.”

and this was finally endorsed in the SAGE minutes of the 23rd March:

The doubling time for ICU patients is estimated to be 3-4 days

It looks like Sir Patrick may have confused the weekends of 14-15 March, with 21-22 March. For example, the SPI-M meeting he referred to above as taking place prior to SAGE’s change of heart “in the middle of March” is actually documented as having taken place on the 20th March. I hope you will be able to contact him to ask him about these discrepancies.

At the very least, the documentary evidence proves that SAGE was still underestimating the growth rate of the pandemic right through their meetings of the 16th and 18th March, only finally correcting their error on the 23rd. But perhaps a more worrying implication here is that Sir Patrick’s recollection of SAGE’s approach towards mitigation and lockdown at this time is also in error. In fact, the minutes of the meetings of the 16th and 18th appear entirely supportive of the Govt actions at that time, which were to continue with the gradual extension of the measured program of (mostly voluntary) measures. On the 16th:

“SAGE cannot be certain that the measures being considered by HMG will be sufficient to push demand for critical care below NHS capacity but they may get very close under the RWC scenario.

While SAGE’s view remains that school closures constitutes one of the less effective single measure to reduce the epidemic peak, it may nevertheless become necessary to introduce school closures in order to push demand for critical care below NHS capacity. However school closures could increase the risks of transmission at smaller gatherings and for more vulnerable groups as well as impacting on key workers including NHS staff. As such it was agreed that further analysis and modelling of potential school closures was required (demand/supply, and effects on spread).”

and on the 18th:

“SAGE advises that the measures already announced should have a significant effect, provided compliance rates are good and in line with the assumptions. Additional measures will be needed if compliance rates are low.”

They even argued that the measures implemented on the 18th (including the new school closures) were probably adequate to fully suppress the pandemic:

“SAGE reviewed available evidence and modelling on the potential impact of school closures. The evidence indicates that school closures, combined with other measures, could help to bring the R0 number below 1, although there is uncertainty.”


The claims that the Govt was responsible for a week of delay at this time, and that SAGE was arguing for much more immediate and stringent action, is not supported by a reasonable reading of the evidence. Indeed, SAGE had no reason to be doing this, since they still believed (contrary to Vallance’s testimony above) that the pandemic was doubling at a rate no more rapidly than 5 days (at worst) and furthermore, as they explicitly stated on the 18th, was probably being significantly slowed beyond this figure by existing policies already introduced at that time.

All of the quotations I have given above are directly copied from official documentation available on the Govt’s own web site, other than that taken from the youtube video of the PM statement and press conference of the 16th March which is my own transcription. Please contact me if you require any help in validating the provenance or accuracy any of this evidence.


James Annan



William M. Connolley said...

Good luck getting them to care. It looks like everyone has quietly decided not to; perhaps it would interfere with whatever they've stiched up behind the scenes. Perhaps send a copy to the Tories, or Boris?

James Annan said...

Don't think the Tories really care either, it's all about massaging their reputations and there's so much blame to spread around that this one component of it probably doesn't register. I mean, it is indisputable that the govt were ill-prepared and the response was poor in multiple ways, but the scientists did contribute to this and have their own lessons to learn.