Uploaded: September 2021
Hannah Fry and the Peacock Feather.
Part One: The Spooky Coincidence.


In 2017-18, the UK carried out a simulation exercise to “predict the impact of the next pandemic more accurately than ever before…”
Billed as “the biggest science experiment of this kind powered by citizens…” 
They called it…

Minutes 1-6
Footage from “Contagion! The BBC Pandemic.”
And paper from the Epidemics Journal: “The Model Behind the Documentary”.
@6mins 10 sec: Numberphile podcast: Crystal Balls and Coronavirus - with Hannah Fry

@8 mins: ANALYSIS
Spooky indeed. What are the odds that the small market town of Haslemere played host to Patient Zero in both the simulated BBC pandemic of 2018 AND the real deal two years later? I don’t know the answer to that, but I bet Hannah Fry could work them out, and I bet they are pretty damn long.
On the day the news broke of the “FIRST COMMUNITY TRANSMISSION OF COVID 19” in the UK, everything changed. This was the moment when the starting pistol on the pandemic was fired, and grim-faced news readers began the daily ritual of announcing the ever-mounting death toll to an increasingly terrified nation. Headlines about Haslemere, and the hunt for patient zero, were quickly forgotten.
So… what’s going on here? Is it just a spooky coincidence, or is there something more to it?
Let’s go back to the BBC pandemic simulation exercise to look at it in more detail.
It’s still available to watch in full on youtube, and it’s definitely worth 1hour 14minutes of your life.
And all the show notes are still available too. You can see straight away that a lot of work has gone into this production. Commissioned by BBC4 to coincide with the centenary of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, and fronted by “TRUSTED AND WELL RECOGNISED” presenter Hannah Fry, it says that “SHE SETS OUT TO RECRUIT THE NATION TO DOWNLOAD THE BBC PANDEMIC  APP IN A GROUND-BREAKING EXPERIMENT TO HELP PLAN FOR WHEN THE NEXT DEADLY VIRUS COMES TO THE UK”
Now, I’m not sure Hannah Fry really did “mastermind the experiment”, but she was certainly pushed centre stage into the role of Patient Zero. And you can see why. She’s a very experienced and talented presenter, with a natural style, and her academic credentials mean she can speak with genuine confidence and enthusiasm about her subject.
Watching the documentary, I get the feeling that she’s not altogether comfortable acting the role of disease super-spreader for the BBC.
I could be wrong about that. But either way, she had her team of trusty academics on side… [PIC OF THE TEAM] more on them later.
So, the idea of the experiment was to simulate the next pandemic using a smart phone app…[CLIP 11.04 FROM DOC]
Volunteers were recruited from across the UK to download the apps and – once Hannah Fry had seeded the deadly infection around Haslemere, the digital pathogen passed via the phones of those who interacted with one another for a certain length of time.
Does that sound familiar? [SLIDE OF PINGDEMIC]
(Indian report 24 July2021)
(BBC report 24 July 2021)
As an aside, it’s worth taking a look at the production company that was hired by the BBC for this programme. [SCREEN SLIDE OF BELFAST PRODUCTION FIRM WINS BBC WORK]
This is it… Belfast based 360 Production.
Now, I tried to do some digging into this company and I didn’t get very far, but this is the interesting bit… [HIGHLIGHT PARA ON BIG MOTIVE]
Big Motive, also based in Northern Ireland.
Big Motive is the company that developed the BBC Pandemic app, and look at what they’re up to now. [screen slide of BM website]
“Designing an award-winning contact tracing service to fight the pandemic” for the department of health. Category winner of the IDI 2020 Awards.
[CLICK ON LINK] “The world’s first working cross border solution and first contact tracing app for usage by 11-17 year olds”
Hmm, fancy website. Looks like Big Motive did pretty well out of the BBC Pandemic simulation.

Going back to the BBC Pandemic website, I just want to say a bit about the broadcast dates for this programme. It first went out on BBC 4 at 9pm on March 22nd 2018. Now, I don’t remember seeing it then, and it’s the kind of thing that would’ve attracted my attention. BBC 4 is not one of the main channels – it’s something of a niche, geeky channel – there’s a lot of good stuff on there, but my guess is that this programme didn’t reach a wide audience when it was first broadcast.
I had a look for reviews of the show written at the time, and the only one I could find was this catty little number by Lucy Mangan in the Guardian.
She says…
“The pandemic modelling experiment recruited people from all over the country but turned out to be miraculously pedestrian.”
And that sets the tone for the whole piece.
But the thing that really strikes me about this article is this publicity shot credited to BBC/360 Production. This is Hannah’s co-presenter from the show, Dr Javid Abdelmoneim visiting a vaccine factory. He’s all togged up in PPE garb, and sporting the now all too familiar blue magic mask, that gapes around the edges, and yet still inexplicably prevents the transmission of airborne pathogens.
On the same day the programme was first broadcast, this paper was published in the journal “Epidemics”.
“Contagion!  The BBC Four Pandemic – The model behind the documentary”, authored by three of the mathematicians on the team. I’ll come on to this later, but first I want to go back to these broadcast dates.

The programme was next shown on Tuesday 11th February 2020. Now, this was the one that got my attention, and my guess is that it reached a much larger audience this time, for obvious reasons. By the beginning of February, tension was starting to build about the possible spread of what was then called “a novel coronavirus”. Interestingly, it was on February 11th 2020 that the World Health Organisation announced the official new name for the disease as COVID-19, and people were on tenterhooks, wondering what would happen next.

So, the BBC Pandemic programme was still fresh in my mind on the morning of 29th February when I heard on the radio that the first case of community transmission in the UK had been detected in the town of Haslemere.
I remember that moment vividly… it was like I had missed my footing in a shallow pool of water, and suddenly slipped out of my depth. I wonder if any of the team behind the BBC Pandemic documentary felt the same way? My guess is that they did, but then soon dismissed it as a strange coincidence. But I couldn’t do that… I had questions.
My first question being… How was the town of Haslemere chosen for the BBC Pandemic simulation experiment?
I’ll say straight out that my investigations didn’t provide a definitive answer to this, but I did discover a few interesting clues along the way.
CLICK ON LINK TO EPIDEMICS PAPER “The Model Behind the Documentary”.

First of all, I’ll say with confidence that I don’t think it was Hannah Fry’s idea, despite her being credited with “masterminding the experiment”. My hunch is that she was brought in at a later stage to front the show. I’ve also ruled out the mathematicians who appeared alongside her in the studio. Here’s why.
This paper was written by three of Hannah’s maths team. It’s a major piece of work, and I can’t pretend to understand the complex technicalities of the modelling.
 It says here that “As the maths team, we were asked to use the data from the app to build and run a model of how a pandemic would spread. The headline results are presented in the TV show” This sounds to me like they were simply presented with the mobile phone data once it had been gathered, and that they weren’t involved with setting up the Haslemere scenario.
A search for the word “Haslemere” brings up 12 results.
These paragraphs in the introduction are interesting, but I’ll come back to them later. Here’s the telling bit.

“We attempted to make the transmission model as realistic as possible, but due to the programme narrative, some liberties were taken. In particular, we were asked to ensure that the epidemic was seeded in Haslemere.”
“We were asked to ensure that the epidemic was seeded in Haslemere.”
So, the choice of Haslemere clearly wasn’t the decision of the maths team. And there’s more…
“The simulated spread pattern across the UK therefore does not include any further international introductions. Pandemics are global events, and in a real pandemic setting we would expect additional importations of infection, some of which would trigger successful infection chains within the UK. It is commonly believed that these epidemic establishment sites are likely to be major population centres, but the evidence for this is far from clear. Gog et al. (2014), for example, note that the autumn 2009 A/H1N1pdm influenza pandemic wave in the United States appears to have been initiated in a relatively minor city. So, while the single introduction in Haslemere may be contrived, there is also no reason to reject the possibility of a major outbreak being introduced in a such a town.”
This word CONTRIVED is interesting. It suggests to me that the team were scratching their heads about the choice of Haslemere as the location of Patient Zero.
Going back to the introduction… it says…
“This virtual outbreak was to start in Haslemere, a town in Surrey, in the south of England, to follow the programme's narrative, with the documentary's presenter acting as a hypothetical index case.”
And here it mentions a “companion paper” authored by Kissler et al 2018b.
“Detailed data from Haslemere formed the basis for an individual based model used to simulate an outbreak in Haslemere that was to seed the virtual national outbreak.”
The companion paper is mentioned again here…
To meet the tight production and filming deadlines, we had to make quick decisions, often responding to requested outputs and changes in under a day. The bulk of our work here took place in three weeks: starting from the maths team finishing modelling and filming for the previous part of the programme (the part on the Haslemere outbreak, Kissler et al 2018b)
So, what’s this “companion paper”? It sounds important as it is referenced twice in the introduction. Going to the list of references, we find the paper is called “Contagion! The BBC 4 Pandemic – infecting Haslemere”, and it was published in the journal “Epidemics.”
But when I click on the link, this happens… [CLICK ON LINK] whereas all the other papers have active links… [CLICK ON ANOTHER LINK]
When I tried to hunt this paper down via the Internet, I could find neither hide nor hair of it, so I decided to contact the author to ask for a copy.
And I was very pleased to receive a speedy reply. Here it is.
 "Thanks for your interest in the work. You can find the text here and the underlying data here (also linked on the bioRxiv page under "Data/Code"). Unfortunately that was a mis-citation in the original article, but this linked manuscript contains all of the information that was referenced in the article by Klepac et al."

And here’s the paper he sent. There are a few things about it that jump out straight away. The first is that it was posted on May 12th 2020, more than two years after the BBC Pandemic companion paper. The next is that the title has been changed to Sparking “The BBC 4 Pandemic”: Leveraging citizen science and mobile phones to model the spread of disease.” The third is that it has gained an author: Andrew JK Conlon. And finally: This article is a preprint and has not been certified by peer review.
Now, I’m pretty confident that the original companion paper, “Infecting Haslemere” had been peer-reviewed, and was either published, or at least cleared for publication in the Epidemics journal, in 2018, so it strikes me as odd that this one has not gained full approval.
Despite this, I do believe that this paper is pretty much the one that was referenced in the article by Klepac et al. The tone of it sounds as though the bulk of it was written prior to the 2020 pandemic, but certain things have clearly been altered, removed or inserted.
Going back to Stephen Kissler’s email, the word “mis-citation” sounds evasive to me, but I didn’t want to press him further on that, so I emailed him back to say…
Thank you very much for this, it will keep me busy for a while. I am trying to compare the BBC 4 pandemic model from 2018 with the real-world spread of COVID-19 in 2020. Haslemere is a significant point on the map in both cases.
I wasn’t expecting him to reply, but he did… Indeed - we were shocked when Haslemere popped up in the early transmission of the COVID pandemic. I'd be very curious to hear what you find!
“We were shocked when Haslemere popped up in the early transmission of the COVID pandemic.” This sounds genuine, and the use of the word “we” suggests that the maths team had talked about it amongst themselves.
Here is my theory about the missing companion paper “Infecting Haslemere”. The authors had submitted it to the Epidemics journal, it had been peer reviewed, and was cleared for publication. The paper was scheduled to be published on 22nd March 2018 alongside the main paper entitled: “The model behind the documentary”, and so they felt confident about citing it in that paper. Hyper-links to the companion paper were set up, and the two were all set to appear in Epidemics on the day the TV programme was broadcast.
My hunch is that companion paper was pulled at the last minute by the UK editor-in-chief of the Epidemics journal.

The current editor in chief for the UK is Professor Steven Riley.

He is a professor of Infectious Disease Dynamics at Imperial College London
He is also a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) which advises the government on the UKs response to the Coronavirus.
And, from the early days of the COVID pandemic, he has been a prominent voice in the media.

[PLAY CLIP FROM 25th March 2020 from 14.30 - 1550]
“The next two to three weeks…” Indeed.
But was Professor Riley editor-in-chief at Epidemics in early 2018 when the BBC Pandemic paper was approved for publication? The Epidemics website doesn’t say when he was appointed to the role, so I had to do a bit of digging to find out.

Here’s the Wikipedia page for the Epidemics journal. It says that one of the founding editors was Professor Neil Furgeson. Yes, THAT Neil Furgeson.
Using the Wayback machine, I discovered that Neil Furguson was still editor-in-chief when the BBC Pandemic simulation experiment paper was published. And he stayed in the job until the beginning of 2020 at which point his close colleague at Imperial College London, Professor Riley, took over the reins.
They were both major players of the SAGE group during early months of 2020, and they are both credited with influencing the UK government to abandon its robust pandemic preparedness strategy, which had been painstakingly developed over many years, and dramatically switch course to emergency full-blown lockdown.

After exhausting all the avenues of the 2018 BBC Pandemic simulation exercise, my next question was: How did Haslemere hit the headlines as the location of the UKs REAL Patient Zero at the end of February 2020? To explore this, I put together a time-line of how the story unfolded in the mainstream media.
First up is this report by Surrey Live, published at around midday on 28th February 2020.
It gives us a pretty clear picture of what happened at the Health Centre that morning...
“A patient in the centre said they were sat waiting for an appointment when the centre announced it would be closing with immediate effect at about 8.50am.”
"There is no suggestion that anyone infected with coronavirus has been to the site and the closure is likely a precaution however the health centre would not comment other than to confirm its closure."
This naturally led to speculation on Social Media throughout the day that there WAS something Covid-related going on, but no official confirmation was forthcoming.
It wasn’t until around 7pm, that Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, issued this very short Press Release
“One further patient in England has tested positive for COVID-19.
The virus was passed on in the UK. It is not yet clear whether they contracted it directly or indirectly from an individual who had recently returned from abroad.”
This statement had been expected by 2pm, so it was over five hours late, and it gave no details about the location of the patient, leading to much fretful carping on Twitter late into the evening…

Moving on, we find that Chris Whitty’s statement was quickly picked up by the Science Media Centre.
The Science Media Centre is a UK based Registered Charity which pitches itself as an independent press office helping to ensure that the public have access to the best scientific evidence and expertise through the news media when science hits the headlines
“When science hits the news agenda, it’s our job to pass on to journalists as much accurate information as we can, as quickly as possible.”
Now, I’ve had dealings with the Science Media Centre in the past, and I worked the encounter into a comic strip.
But here, I’ll just say that some of the information they put out there isn’t nearly as “accurate and evidence-based” as they’d have you believe.

One of the main services provided by the Science Media Centre website is the “Roundups and Rapid Reactions” section. This is where mainstream journalists head for “expert reaction” to the latest science stories that are likely to hit the news. There’s a bit of “tail wagging the dog” here, because the Science Media Centre often puts out the lead stories for journalists to find.
So, if you come across a quote from an expert in a news article you are reading, it may sound like the journalist has sourced the quote directly from the experts, but the chances are it has come from here. Many BBC reports are peppered with quotes lifted from the Science Media Centre.

On the 28th February 2020, we find “expert reaction to new UK case of COVID-19, where transmission occurred within the UK”.
And we have three experts commenting on the story. One of them is Jonathan Ball, Professor of Molecular Virology at the University of Nottingham.
I’ll come back to him later.

Then, at 10.32pm, “Haslemere First” put up this statement…
This evening, the BBC reported a patient at Haslemere Health Centre (which has been closed for “deep cleaning” since this morning) is the first to be reported to be infected with the coronavirus in the UK. BBC article here.
When I click on the link to the BBC article, it says it was published on 29th February 2020, but it’s clear that the connection between the closure of the Haslemere Health Centre and the case reported in Chris Whitty’s press release had been made by the BBC some time before 10.32pm on Friday 28th…

My research has uncovered one more detail of note from that day, and it was recorded a few days later in Hansard on Tuesday 3rd March.
“Hansard is a “substantially verbatim” report of what is said in Parliament. Members’ words are recorded, and then edited to remove repetitions and obvious mistakes, albeit without taking away from the meaning of what is said.” 
Jeremy Hunt was Secretary of State for Health at the time of the BBC pandemic simulation experiment, and he is MP for South West Surrey. Here, he is addressing the then incumbent Health Secretary, Matt Hancock.
“I would like to commend the Health Secretary for the calm way in which he has been dealing with this crisis and for his very clear public messaging. He called me last Friday to tell me that there had been a CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK in my constituency. I would like to thank the staff at the Haslemere health centre for their extraordinary commitment in working over the weekend so that the health centre could be open again on Monday morning.”
From this we know that on 28th February 2020, Matt Hancock phoned Jeremy Hunt to tell him of an “outbreak” on his patch. The word “outbreak” is interesting because on that date there had, in fact, been only one confirmed case in his constituency. The reason this word jumps out for me is that it has echoes of the BBC Pandemic “Haslemere Outbreak” app. [FLASH UP SCREENSHOT OF BBC INFO ON APP]
Did Matt Hancock really use this word in his conversation to Jeremy Hunt? And what exactly did they discuss?
I’ll move on now to the BBC article dated Saturday 29th February. This was the morning I first heard the news about Haslemere on the radio. 

The first thing I notice is that there is no journalist’s name at the top, but further down is an inset “analysis” by senior health correspondent James Gallagher, so I’m guessing he’s the guy. It is illustrated with these moody shots of Haslemere Health Centre in the dark. These must’ve been taken on the Friday evening, and are accredited to a photographer at the Press Association.
It is quite a long article, but there is no mention of the “spooky coincidence” that Haslemere had also been the location of filming for the BBC Pandemic experiment. This connection was made by other media outlets over the following days, in particular The Sunday Papers on 1st March.
Here is the quote from Jonathan Ball which has been lifted from the Science Media Centre website. “Prof Jonathan Ball, from the University of Nottingham, said the Surrey case marks a "new chapter for the UK"”
A bit of liberty has been taken here because this implies he mentions Surrey, and yet this detail was not included in his original quote.
But the next paragraph is verbatim:
"This was always a concern - this is a virus that frequently causes symptoms very similar to mild flu or a common cold, and it's easily transmitted from person to person. This means it can easily go under the radar," the virology expert added.
Under the radar? I wanted to know more, so I did some digging.

In early 2020, Public Health England began issuing Guidance on the Investigation and initial clinical management of possible cases of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) infection. This guidance was updated frequently during the following weeks and months, but here’s the relevant page for 25th February, just 3 days before the Haslemere case was reported by the BBC. At this time, very few people in the UK were being tested for SARS Cov2 due to the stringent testing criteria put in place by Public Health England. A patient had to satisfy both epidemiological AND clinical criteria to be eligible for a test, the epidemiological criteria being…
In the 14 days before the onset of illness:
travel to specified countries and areas. This includes transit, for any length of time, in these countries
contact (see definition below) with confirmed cases of COVID-19
And yet, the Haslemere patient made headlines because he had NOT travelled abroad OR had contact with a confirmed case.
The restrictions on testing in place at the time means that, by definition, a case of community transmission within the UK could not be detected… so, how was it that Haslemere, of all places, became known as the location of the UK’s patient zero?

I decided to email Professor Ball to ask if he could shed some more light on the Haslemere case.
”I am currently researching the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK, and I have a couple of questions to run by you.
On 28th February 2020, the press announced that a man from Haslemere, Surrey had been identified as the 20th case in the UK. The BBC reported this as particularly significant because he was "the first to catch it in the UK", but given the way events unfolded from then on, I wonder if this is true.
At the time, you said:
“This case – a person testing positive for novel coronavirus with no known link to an affected area or known case – marks a new chapter for the UK, and it will be crucial to understand where the infection came from to try and prevent more extensive spread.
This was always a real possibility and one of the reasons that the government introduced more extensive surveillance."
I'm curious to know...
1. What was the "more extensive surveillance" introduced by the government? I seem to remember that it had something to do with GPs keeping a look out for potential cases in their patients, and (presumably) taking swabs for testing, but I can't find much about this on the internet. Do you know if this was how the Haslemere case was identified?
2. You said: "it will be crucial to understand where the infection came from..." This led to headlines in the press about "the hunt for Patient Zero". Events moved quickly after that, and the story was soon forgotten. Do you know if the source of infection was ever traced in the Haslemere case?
Any light you can shed on this pivotal moment in the COVID pandemic would be much appreciated.
And here’s his reply. He didn’t really answer my questions, but the extra evidence he sent was very useful.
“We did a look back study and found an earlier [case] of a community acquired case of COVID (Feb 21st she was admitted to hospital. She would have contracted the virus much earlier (early Feb). Also, we show that the virus strain she was infected with was very prevalent in various parts of UK subsequently, suggesting quite early introductions.”
here's the paper:
“Retrospective screening of routine respiratory samples revealed undetected community transmission and missed intervention” opportunities for SARS-CoV-2 in the United Kingdom | Microbiology Society (microbiologyresearch.org)

I’ve read through this paper, published on 16th June 2021, and I am confident that it provides extremely robust evidence that community transmission was indeed taking place long before the Haslemere case was identified. This report in the Metro summarises it nicely… 
“The results suggest the virus was already circulating widely in local communities in the UK in early February and into March, and was undetected because of restrictive case definitions that informed testing policy at the time.”
Which means that the Haslemere case was nowhere near the first community transmission in the UK. So, how come it was picked up before any of the others?
I emailed Professor Ball again to press him further on the GP testing I seemed to recall from the time. Here is his reply…
“I think SARS2 sentinel testing came in around that time (it was 100 surgeries and some hospitals - Network of 100 GP practices to carry out coronavirus surveillance testing | GPonline)
I don't know any details about the Surrey case”

And here’s the answer. This article was published on 26th February 2020, and says…
“A network of 100 primary care sites across England will carry out opportunistic testing for coronavirus in patients with respiratory infections as part of an NHS surveillance strategy.”
The scheme aims to pick up early evidence if COVID-19 cases begin to spread in England to help the NHS 'prepare for and prevent wider transmission'.
So, the only sensible conclusion must be that Haslemere Health Centre was one of the hundred primary care sites carrying out “opportunistic testing for coronavirus” in patients from 26th February 2020, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they found a case straight away.
To put the number, 100, into perspective, there are around 7,000 GP Practices in England, and around 9,000 in the UK.

Was Haslemere really the only surgery in the scheme to pick up a case of coronavirus by the 28th February? Somehow, I doubt it, and yet it found its way into the headlines as the location of the UKs “index case”.

The first sample to test positive for SARSCOV-2 was on the 31st January 2020. Throughout February, another 18 samples returned a positive result. Haslemere was the 20th case. On Sunday March 1st, Chris Whittey put out another Press Release to say that “As of 9.00am this morning, 12 further patients in England have tested positive for COVID-19”.
From that date onwards, a tally of positive test results was published each day, and the solemn drumbeat of Case Count and Death Toll became a familiar background rhythm to all of our lives.

Taking everything that I’ve uncovered into account, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Haslemere “coincidence” did not happen by chance…
To accept that the pandemic simulation experiment “accidentally” foretold the exact location of the UK’s COVID Index Case is simply too much of a stretch. The unease expressed by Hannah Fry’s maths team about the contrived nature of the Haslemere scenario is telling as it suggests that the BBC selected the location without consulting with the modellers to check if such a scenario was plausible. Then there’s the “crazy prescient” nature of the whole simulation exercise with its many weird parallels, such as the depiction of the asymptomatic super-spreader, the concept of “Patient Zero”, and the uncanny correlation between the smartphone app developed for the simulation experiment and the track and trace COVID app downloaded by millions which caused the 2021 Pingdemic.
Moving on, the drama surrounding the “big reveal” of Haslemere as the location of the UK’s first case of community transmission marked a significant shift in gear in the unfolding of the pandemic narrative to one of heightened national anxiety and turmoil. It is now apparent that this moment itself was contrived as it has since been generally acknowledged that community transmission was well established in the UK by the end of February, which leads me to suspect that this episode was nothing more nor less than hackneyed theatre.
Behind the scenes there is jiggery pokery at play, which means that someone in the background, somewhere, is pulling the strings. Whoever this is, I am sure they are extremely happy to have flawlessly pulled off an illusion worthy of Derren Brown.

Except, of course, this is not a stage show… this is people’s lives.
*Now, I know that most people in the UK will never accept any of this; they will continue to insist it is just a coincidence, nothing to see here. And I ask myself… how was the population of Britain so easily led a merry dance down a very dark alley? I wonder…

Next time… I explore the mysteries and symbolism of the peacock feather.