Demis Hassabis, CEO and co-founder of DeepMind, now part of Google, is said to have been instrumental in convincing the UK prime minister’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings to “hit the panic button and ditch the official plan” in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the early months of 2020.
During testimony to a meeting of Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee and Health and Social Care Committee, Cummings painted an alarming picture of how a combination of groupthink and poor data led the UK authorities to stick with a response to the spread of the virus, characterised by a flawed plan to acquire herd immunity.
You can watch his testimony yourself, here.
The plan was to try to suppress, but not halt, the spread during the spring and summer of 2020, in the hope of achieving herd immunity by the autumn which would avoid a second wave of infections hitting the NHS during its usual winter challenges.
“You will either have herd immunity by September after a single peak, or you will have herd immunity by January, with a second peak. Those are the only two options that we have. That was the whole logic of all of the discussions in January and February, early March,” Cummings told MPs.
The Warner Brothers, the DeepMind founder and British mathematician Tim Gowers
These assumptions were only effectively challenged after he sought the view of Cambridge maths professor Tim Gowers, Hassabis and Ben Warner, a scientist at SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) and a former scientist at Faculty, the controversial AI firm Cummings had worked with since his Brexit days and who was already working with the political string-puller in government.
Cummings told the joint committee he became convinced of a need to change the government’s plan during the week starting 9 March 2020.
“I got in touch with [Gowers], and I started sharing SAGE documents with him in the week… then shortly afterwards, Hassabis, who I also started sharing documents with and talking to. They actually could understand these things.
"The combination of Marc Warner, Hassabis, Tim Gowers – you had three incredibly able people who could understand the technicalities in a way that I couldn't do, saying this to me, and that gave me the kind of confidence to say to the Prime Minister we should change,” Cummings said.
During that same week, the cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill was urging Prime Minister Boris Johnson to go on television and explain the herd immunity plan, and say it was “like the old chickenpox parties,” Cummings said.
“He said, ‘We need people to get this disease because that's how we get herd immunity by September’. And I said, Mark, you've got to stop using this chickenpox analogy: it's not right’,” Cummings claimed.
“This wasn't some weird thing that the Cabinet Secretary come up with. He was saying what the official advice to him, to the Department of Health, was. It was a big deal for me and for Ben Warner, to say: basically we think that this whole thing is wrong,” Cummings added.
The problem was that the new data was showing the country was much further along the pandemic curve than its leadership appreciated.
New figures had shown that the number of COVID-19 case in the UK would “completely smash through” the NHS capacity.
Only when SAGE data scientist Ben Warner and Marc Warner, Ben’s brother and CEO and founder of AI company Faculty, sat down with Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser to the government, to discuss the new number, did the problem become clear.
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“The evening of Friday the 13th I'm sitting with Ben Warner.. and [the] prime minister's private secretary in the Prime Minister's study. And we basically say we're going to sit down with the Prime Minister, tomorrow and explain to him that we think that we're gonna have to ditch the whole Official Plan, and we're heading for the biggest disasters have you seen since 1940,” he said.
Even then, it wasn't unanimous in SAGE that the country should be locked down, Cummings claimed.
“Demis Hassabis came in at my request. [I asked] Patrick Valance to bring him in. He's one of the top, data science and AI people on the planet and four people in SAGE argued with him, and said ‘You’re being too simplistic about all of this’. Then Tim Gowers, said, ‘No, that's not correct’. The scientists were still arguing about that at the same time on the 18th, and after that meeting,” Cummings said.
The UK did not enter a full legal lockdown [PDF] until 26 March. ®