Imperial College London
Artillery Row

The Fatal Hubris of Professor Lockdown

It wasn’t an attractive 38 year-old that brought down Neil Ferguson

Following the resignation of Professor Neil Ferguson, I’m fascinated by the details about Antonia Staats, the woman he is having an affair with. According to the Telegraph, which broke the story last night, she lives in a £1.9 million house in south London with her husband and two children and has an “open marriage”. Guido has dug up a podcast she did on March 31st (now offline), 24 hours after visiting Professor Ferguson, in which she complains that the lockdown is putting a strain on her marriage. But it’s her politics I’m really interested in. The Telegraph has her down as a “left wing-wing campaigner”, a reference to the fact that she campaigned against leaving the EU and is a long-standing environmental activist who supported Greta Thunberg’s climate strike. Many of the papers have included this picture of her standing outside Number 10 delivering a petition to the Prime Minister about ending fossil fuel subsidies:

Some people have asked what the relevance of Ms Staat’s politics is. The answer, obviously, is that her politics are likely to be Professor Ferguson’s politics – and we know that he co-authored a paper in 2016 warning of the terrible consequences of leaving the EU and we can see from his Twitter feed that he’s not exactly a Tory. For instance, he sent the following tweet to the Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran when she won Oxford West and Abingdon in 2017: “Great news – so happy to wake up to hear you won! Fingers crossed that last night means at least a softer Brexit.” 

The reason for looking into the political affiliations of the scientists and experts who’ve been advising governments across the world during this crisis is that it may throw some light on why those governments have made such poor policy decisions. Will the vast majority of those advisers turn out to be left-of-centre, like Professor Ferguson? I’m 99% sure of it, and I think that will help us to understand what’s happened. 

I don’t mean they’ve deliberately given right-of-centre governments poor advice in the hope of wrecking their economies for nefarious party political reasons or because they’re members of Extinction Rebellion and want to destroy capitalism. Nor do I believe in any of the conspiracy theories linking these public health panjandrums to Bill Gates and Big Pharma and some diabolical plan to vaccinate 7.8 billion people. I have little doubt they’ve acted in good faith throughout – and that’s part of the problem. The road they’ve led us down has been paved with all the usual good intentions.

The “solutions” these left-leaning experts come up with make the problems they’re grappling with worse

The mistakes these liberal policy-makers have made are depressingly familiar to anyone who’s studied the breed: overestimating the ability of the state to solve complicated problems as well as the capacity of state-run agencies to deliver on those solutions; failing to anticipate the unintended consequences of large-scale state interventions; thinking about public policy in terms of moral absolutes rather than trade-offs; chronic fiscal incontinence, with zero inhibitions about adding to the national debt; not trusting in the common sense of ordinary people and believing the only way to get them to avoid risky behaviour is to put strict rules in place and threaten them with fines or imprisonment if they disobey them (and ignoring those rules themselves, obviously); arrogantly assuming that anyone who challenges their policy preferences is either ignorant or evil; never venturing outside their metropolitan echo chambers; citizens of anywhere rather than somewhere… you know the rest. We’ve seen it a hundred times before. 

More often than not, the “solutions” these left-leaning experts come up with make the problems they’re grappling with even worse, and so it will prove to be in this case. The evidence mounts on a daily basis that locking down whole populations in the hope of “flattening the curve” was a catastrophic error, perhaps the worst policy mistake ever committed by Western governments during peacetime. Just yesterday we learnt that the lockdowns have forced countries across the world to shut down TB treatment programmes which, over the next five years, could lead to 6.3 million additional cases of TB and 1.4 million deaths. There are so many stories like this it’s impossible to keep track. We will soon be able to say with something approaching certainty that the cure has been worse than the disease.

Neil Ferguson isn’t single-handedly responsible for this world-historical blunder, but he does bear some responsibility. His apocalyptic predictions frightened the British Government into imposing a full lockdown, with other governments quickly following suit. And I’m afraid he’s absolutely typical of the breed. He suffers from the same fundamental arrogance that progressive interventionists have exhibited since at least the middle of the 18th Century – wildly over-estimating the good that governments can do, assuming there are no limits to what “science” can achieve and, at the same time, ignoring the empirical evidence that their ambitious public programmes are a complete disaster. At bottom, they believe that nature itself can be bent to man’s will. 

It isn’t an attractive, 38 year-old woman in a red dress that has brought down Professor Lockdown. It’s a nucleic acid molecule in a protein coat.

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