‘We will only do better next time if we learn the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic.’
The Year the World Went Mad: A Scientific Memoir
By Mark Woolhouse
Published by Sandstone Press
Hello Mark, and congratulations on the publication of your book The Year The World Went Mad. In a strange way, is it a book you really would’ve liked not to have written?
Whichever way the pandemic unfolded there would have been stories to tell and books to write. Happily, there many positive stories about the Covid-19 pandemic, not least the extraordinary efforts to produce effective vaccines in just a few months. You’re right though, I never expected nor wanted to write this particular book. I’d been working on pandemic responses for many years but the possibility that we’d devise interventions that would make a bad situation even worse hadn’t crossed my mind.
Do you recall the moment when you realised it was a book that you had to get out to the public?
Yes, I do. My wife first suggested I write a book in July 2020 after one of our many, many conversations about the deficiencies of the pandemic response (she is a professor of global health and is even more sceptical about lockdowns than I am). It was a great idea and I put pen to paper the very next day. A few weeks later I shared the idea and some text with two science writers I know, Matt Ridley and Dorothy Crawford. Both were encouraging and so I kept going.
How have you enjoyed your publication process?
It’s quite different from publishing scientific papers, which is what I have mostly been doing for the last forty years. Publishing a book is much more of a joint enterprise. Naturally, I want the book to succeed, but so too do many other people: my agents, the publishers, the publicists and the retailers. I have enjoyed that sense of a collective endeavour very much.
The title of your book is called The Year the World Went Mad and you give an excellent overview of how the COVID-19 pandemic played out in 2020. How would you characterise this collective ‘madness’? With so many competing voices, scenarios, political affiliations, theories, economies, how difficult is it to foster sensible consensus on crises such as COVID-19?
The first thing to say is that surely there should be open and vigorous debate about decisions that have an enormous impact on everyone’s lives. I think it was wrong that alternatives to lockdown were summarily dismissed despite it being obvious that lockdown would be highly damaging in a number of ways.
It is true that public health policy has to be built on evidence, consensus and trust, but that need not and should not preclude debate. For example, issues around the pros and cons of vaccination were handled well and the upshot was that the great majority of people chose to get vaccinated. Why did we not have an equally collective and informed discussion about lockdown?
I don’t agree with the argument that we had no choice but to go into lockdown. I think that if we’d had more faith in ourselves, our data, our systems and our science then we’d have made different decisions. We’d have saved more lives and spent less time in lockdown too. Instead, we went down a path that wasn’t consistent with basic public health principles and wasn’t supported by the evidence, which is what I mean when I say that the world went mad.
Your book gives clear ideas on how the UK could’ve reacted to the pandemic differently. Now that we’re in 2022, how confident are you that we will approach major health scares in a less damaging way?
We will only do better next time if we learn the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic. The word ‘lockdown’ (meaning legally enforced restrictions on people leaving their homes) was nowhere to be found in public health text books written before 2020, but it’s part of the public health vocabulary now. We need to change the narrative before it becomes embedded.
I take the view that lockdown is what you do when you’ve failed to implement more proportionate and sustainable interventions effectively. Therefore, lockdown should be regarded not as a public health policy but as a failure of public health policy. If we adopt that attitude then hopefully we can manage the next pandemic in a way that doesn’t make a bad situation worse.
Finally, though your background is in the scientific method, do you have any suggestions on how the public can build up confidence, trust and control in their day-to-day living again?
For me, one of the most depressing features of the pandemic years has been the loss of people’s confidence, trust and control of their day-to-day lives. Some of that may be starting to return, but the damage runs deep and it’s looking to be a slow process. It turns out that it is much easier to frighten people than it is to persuade them that they don’t have to be frightened any more. We got some of our public health messaging – particularly our communication of risk – badly wrong in 2020.
This brings me back to the importance of good decision-making. We cannot make good decisions – as individuals or as policy makers – if we don’t understand the risks we face. I think that too many people did not fully understand the risks we faced in 2020 and the public health policies we ended up with reflected this.
The Year the World Went Mad: A Scientific Memoir by Mark Woolhouse is published by Sandstone Press, priced £16.99.