Fact check: claim about Neil Ferguson’s Covid-19 predictions

Ferret Fact Service | Scotlands impartial fact check project

Among those who are sceptical about the impact of Covid-19, scientists advising the government on policy have become a target of criticism. 

One of the more high-profile people to face scrutiny is Professor Neil Ferguson, a mathematical epidemiologist from Imperial College London. He was part of the team advising the government on strategies to contain the coronavirus pandemic, until he resigned over a breach of lockdown rules

A widely-shared claim on social media in Scotland and across the UK suggested that Professor Ferguson’s predictions about the number of deaths from Covid-19 were inaccurate, and he had vastly overestimated deaths from previous public health scares such as bird flu, BSE and foot and mouth disease. Similar claims also appeared in The Spectator and National Review.

Ferret Fact Service looked at this claim and found it False.

Evidence

Professor Neil Ferguson and the team at Imperial College London have been involved in modelling the impact of infectious disease outbreaks in animal and human populations. 

He was part of the team behind the modelling which appears to have inspired the UK Government’s decision to lockdown. 

The graphic shared about Ferguson claims he predicted 500,000 deaths in the UK. This is misleading. The 500,000 figure appears in a report produced by the Imperial College Covid-19 response team in March 2020, led by Professor Ferguson. 

It was widely cited as the reasoning behind the UK’s decision to move towards strict measures against the spread of Covid-19, resulting in the national lockdown in March. 

The report team produced a model which showed predicted fatalities from Covid-19 if different measures were put in place. The model estimated that if no measures were put in place, deaths over the next two years could reach more than 500,000. This was not a prediction of how many people would die from coronavirus in the UK. 

The model focussed on five measures to slow the spread of the virus: home isolation of cases, home quarantine, social distancing, social distancing of those over 70 years, closure of schools and universities.

The UK Government did put in place many of these measures, with a full national lockdown coming into force on 23 March 2020, and social distancing rules in place. 

Ferguson’s historical predictions are also criticised in the image, which refers to projected deaths for swine flu, bird flu, BSE and foot and mouth disease. 

It is claimed he predicted in 2009 that 65,000 people would die from swine flu, but in fact only 457 lost their lives. These figures refer to the UK, where swine flu (also known as H1N1), did indeed cause 457 deaths

The 65,000 figure comes from a UK government announcement based on Ferguson’s modelling, and represented “reasonable worst-case estimates against which to plan” rather than predictions about the numbers of deaths.

The publication of this “worst-case scenario” was described as “unhelpful” in a report into the pandemic response, and Professor Ferguson told a 2011 UK government committee that the publicised projections did not “communicate as clearly” to the public what the likely health risks were.

Professor Ferguson’s comments on the possible deaths from the bird flu outbreak in 2005 were published by the Guardian

“Around 40 million people died in [the] 1918 Spanish flu outbreak,” he told the newspaper. “There are six times more people on the planet now so you could scale it up to around 200 million people probably.”

The number of deaths from Spanish Flu has been estimated at around 50 million. There have been 455 worldwide deaths from the bird flu strain known as H5N1 but it has not been detected in humans in the UK. 

Professor Ferguson also produced a paper estimating the number of potential deaths from bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) infection in the sheep population in the UK in 2002.

This report estimated that future mortality from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) which can be caused by BSE would be 50 to 50,000. There have been 178 deaths since 1995, with no deaths from vCJD recorded since 2016.

The image also claims Professor Ferguson predicted 150,000 deaths from foot and mouth disease, which had a significant outbreak in 2001 leading to the culling of millions of animals. 

Ferret Fact Service could find no evidence for this claim. Professor Ferguson’s modelling was a central part of the controversial response to the foot and mouth outbreak in farm animals, which resulted in mass culling of cattle and sheep, but we could not find any reference to forecasts of 150,000 human deaths from the disease. 

There have been no reported deaths from the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in the UK, and it is rare for the disease to transfer to humans. There has not been a reported human case in the UK since 1966.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: False

The image shared features a number of inaccuracies about Professor Neil Ferguson’s record. It incorrectly states he predicted 500,000 deaths from coronavirus, when in fact this was a projection if no action had been taken by the government to suppress the virus. The figures mentioned are upper limit projections and worst-case scenario plans, not predictions of deaths.

This claim is false

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, and a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Want to suggest a fact check? Go to ideas.theferret.scot, email us at factcheck@theferret.scot or join our Facebook group.

Header image thanks to Daniel Naczk, CC BY-SA 4.0.

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