Things (I think) I was wrong about this year

31st December, 2020

A few weeks ago, Toby Young, the editor of the Lockdown Sceptics website, tweeted: “New study suggests more than five million Britons have had the coronavirus. Given that ~50,000 people have died from it, that means an IFR [infection fatality rate] of <0.1%.”

There was just one small problem with that tweet: the arithmetic. Young duly clarified: “That last tweet was wrong . . . had a brain fart. If 5 million Brits have been infected and ~50,000 have died, that equals an IFR of 1%.”

In case your own brain is also feeling flatulent, Young’s second tweet is an acknowledgment that the virus was 10 times more deadly than he had thought. Rather than expecting just one death per thousand infections, his revised calculation suggests we brace ourselves for 10.

It’s not a small error, but I sympathise. I’ve put decimal points in the wrong place before, and I’ve also mistakenly made false claims about the risks of Covid. It is never easy to admit that you were wrong, but it is important. So for my own sake, then, here is a list of the things that I think I was wrong about this year.

Fatality rates. I kept hoping that the true infection fatality rate of Sars-Cov-2 would be well below 0.5 per cent in the UK — and believing it too, because that is how wishful thinking works. I did not dare to believe it would be as low as Young’s 0.1 per cent. Antibody tests and other evidence soon strongly suggested that the IFR in the first wave really was what it had seemed to be all along: not far off 1 per cent in the UK and other rich (and elderly) societies.

The news is not all bad. With better treatments and better shielding of the elderly, infection fatality rates are falling, while in developing countries with younger demographics they are much lower. Imperial College’s Covid-19 Response Team estimates that the IFR in poor countries is less than 0.25 per cent. Lest you think they are a coven of Covid-deniers, the same team believes the IFR is above 1 per cent in rich countries. (A word to the wise: next time somebody makes a claim about the infection fatality rate, ask them which country they have in mind.)

The competence of our governments. Having given up on both the UK and US governments as hopelessly outmatched by the crisis, I am forced to admit that the UK really did scale up testing to an impressive level (they were late, and dishonest, but they got there), while the US Warp Speed programme has delivered astonishingly rapid progress on vaccines. It is a tempting mistake to believe that because a person or institution is bad at something, they are bad at everything. I was wrong; credit must be given where due.

Lockdowns. I have wavered all year about lockdowns. In theory, an early lockdown stops the spread early, saves many lives and can be released after only a few weeks — the British government’s initial approach, then, was disastrously hesitant compared with (for example) Germany. But are lockdowns really essential? Sweden is having a very tough December, and the architect of its strategy, Anders Tegnell, seems to have been wrongfooted. It is not clear that Sweden’s voluntarism was so catastrophic. Many more people died in Sweden than in their neighbours, and Sweden’s economy was badly hit by the pandemic despite the lack of strict rules. But the Swedes did no worse on either metric than the UK — and unlike us, they kept schools open and were trusted to make their own decisions. That is not a small thing.

Indeed, the strongest argument in favour of lockdowns is the kind of misinformation peddled by some lockdown sceptics. When you see demonstrably false claims that most people who died with Covid-19 did not die of it, that we are seeing a “casedemic” founded on false positives or that most infections are asymptomatic throughout — that’s the point at which you think: gosh, maybe we really can’t be trusted after all.

So was I wrong about lockdowns? I’m still sitting on the fence. I am too indecisive even to be wrong. And I recognise that the governments which I instinctively criticise have had no such luxury.

Economic flexibility. If you had told me in mid-March that almost half the UK would be working from home in April, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had told me that this massive rearrangement would happen almost overnight, and with few hitches, I would have been even more incredulous. The pandemic has done enormous economic damage to some sectors, but despite my tendency to spout platitudes about the miracle of market forces, I still found myself shocked by the ability of a modern economy to adapt in the way it did.

That is a selection of things I know I was wrong about this year. No doubt there are other examples that I have forgotten, or remembered with a self-serving slant. (As I describe in my most recent book, when our predictions are proved wrong, we have an impressive capacity to recall that we were right all along.)

And what about the times I was wrong and never realised? Kathryn Schulz, author of the wonderful book Being Wrong, points out the problem: being wrong without realising it feels exactly like being right. So while I think we should try to face up to our own errors more often, we should be realistic about what that will achieve. It is easy to correct a tweet, just ask Toby Young. It is not so easy to correct an entire mistaken worldview.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 18 December 2020.

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