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Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter admits he was ‘overly optimistic’ about Covid-19 pandemic

University of Cambridge statistician Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter has admitted he was “overly optimistic” at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The chairman of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication acknowledged that he initially “didn’t take it seriously enough”, which he put down to his optimistic outlook.

David Spiegelhalter. Picture: Ilan Goodman
David Spiegelhalter. Picture: Ilan Goodman

Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, the 68-year-old also spoke about being an expert witness at the public inquiry into the Harold Shipman murders, saying his team had shown that “if someone had been looking at the data and blown the whistle, you might have been able to save 200 lives”.

Sir David has regularly appeared as an expert commentator on news programmes to discuss the pandemic and writes for The Observer.

He told the programme: “I think it’s very important that we have to acknowledge that we can never take an objective view about evidence, we always bring our, I think, personalities into it, and mine is unfortunately very optimistic and that’s why I’m very glad I’m not a government adviser, I don’t think I’d be very good at it because I do tend to hope for the best and sort of expect the best as well.

“I was terribly over optimistic at the start of the pandemic and didn’t take it seriously enough.”

Sir David also added a characteristically optimistic view of the consequences of lockdowns, with one important caveat.

He said: “The pandemic has been a net life saver for younger people, if you look at people between 15 and 30 in 2020, 300 fewer died than would normally have died and that includes the 100 that died from Covid sadly. So that’s 300 fewer families mourning the death of a young person because of the pandemic.

“Now that’s because young people were essentially locked up, they couldn’t go out driving fast, they couldn’t go out and get drunk, and they couldn’t get into fights and whatever, and so all these lives were saved.”

Sir David added: “The problem is, when I talk about that people might say ‘do you think it’s a good thing therefore that young people should be locked up?’ and say ‘no, I’m not saying this is a good thing’ because on the flip side of that you have a big increase in mental health problems and so on.”

The professor was knighted in 2014 for his services to medical statistics, including leading the statistical team for the public inquiry into high rates of deaths among babies following heart surgery at the Bristol Royal Infirmary.

During the Desert Island Discs episode, he also talked about his work as an expert witness to the public inquiry into serial killer doctor Harold Shipman.

Shipman was jailed for life in January 2000 for murdering 15 patients while working in Hyde, Greater Manchester, though official predictions are that he killed between 215 and 260 people over a 23-year period in Hyde and Todmorden, West Yorkshire.

Sir David said: “I was part of the team that was asked to say ‘well, could he have been caught earlier if people had been looking at the data?’

“And so we looked at the statistical methods that were used in industrial quality control, where you monitor whether a process is going out of kilter by seeing whether you’re getting more failures than you would expect and, in Harold Shipman’s case, it was looking for when more people were dying in his practice than you would expect.

“And we adapted the methods used in industrial quality control and showed that, actually Shipman could have been caught much earlier and if someone had been looking at the data and had blown the whistle you might have been able to save 200 lives.”

Sir David also opened up about his lighter side, revealing a surprising love of Europop and a penchant for adventure by taking part in TV’s Winter Wipeout, complete with academic gown and mortar board.

Selecting his second disc, Dragostea Din Tei by Moldovan pop group O-Zone, he said: “If you ask my friends and my family, they’ll tell you that I do quite like to have a drink and dance around to loud, raucous rock music, and I’ve got particular fondness for sort of Eurotrash and this is a prime example by a Moldovan group and I call it ‘Numa Numa’ because I can’t pronounce its real name.

“You know, back in 2007 we made a Christmas video at home, my daughter worked out a dance routine and I filmed everybody and put it together and it’s on YouTube and it’s really funny.

“And recently, my other daughter’s 39th birthday, we all did the dance routine of getting something out of Bollywood, I just love dancing to this one.”

Desert Island Discs airs on BBC Sounds and BBC Radio 4 on Sundays at 11am.

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