Edinburgh University public health expert Devi Sridhar's memoir Preventable is about her experience as an expert giving advice to government, but also an examination of what, globally, we could have done differently and how the pandemic affected us all. Here's what we learned when I interviewed Sridhar about the book.


In her new book, Preventable, the global public health expert wrote that, as of January, she had still not yet had Covid. But that all changed.

“I had it!” she declares. “I knew I’d eat my words. Actually I found it hit me pretty hard. I was hoping I’d be asymptomatic. But it took me a few weeks to recover.”

The 37-year-old was in bed for three or four days. “Having had it,” she says. “I don’t want to get it again. Even if it makes you unwell for a week or two with exhaustion, to have productive adults out of the workforce for two weeks or a month, isn’t good.”


Omicron, Sridhar observes, is very transmissible. “It makes the wild type [original strain] look easy to control in comparison. I think in some ways looking back, we can see that probably if countries had worked together, we could have probably stopped the development of very many variants at the start. It got so much more transmissible with each variant, that now we’re seeing that it’s pretty much uncontrollable – which is what China discovering.”


Though in 2020 she was already The Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, highly respected in her field, she was not yet the kind of person to cause a Twitter storm and appear regularly on television.

“I’m not sure when it hit me that life had changed irrevocably. Was it when a local officer rang my doorbell after an anti-masker social media influencer sent out a request for my address on Facebook, so the police had to mark my home as a high-risk target?”

“That was a moment, “ she says, “where I thought, ‘What has my life become?’ To get to that point where you’re speaking to your neighbours and saying, ‘In case, anyone’s looking for me could you not mention that I live here? And also call the police.’”

After eight years of living in this country, in a relatively quiet way, she became both a target of threats, and figure of admiration, such that she even gets marriage proposals from strangers and puppies named after her.


In those early months many countries were too slow to wake up to the significance of this disease – and the UK was among them. “My book looks at the way deaths could have been preventable. One way is that many governments didn’t wait for vaccines and didn’t anticipate vaccines. They said, okay, we’ve got to take this wave of infections. Perhaps if the British government had known that we were going to have a vaccine in a year, their strategy would have been different. If they had known there were going to be reinfections, it might have been different. At different stages we fumbled, and the virus took advantage of every one of those.”

For Sridhar, a big moment, early on in the pandemic, was when she stuck her head well above the parapet with a response to Boris Johnson’s announcement on March 12, 2020, that the UK was adopting a herd immunity strategy, endorsed by “best science”. In a tweet the following day she wrote, “Part of my job is speaking truth to power. And the UK govt is (in my view) getting it wrong.” She also wrote an article titled Britain’s Gamble, and in that flagged the issue of reinfections, which, as we have since discovered, have made it impossible for us to gain herd immunity.


She would become a member of the DELVE (Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics) team, giving advice to SAGE, the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, as well as the Scottish Government’s “time limited expert group”.

Frequently Sridhar got what she describes as pushback. “Right from the start there were a lot of people criticising me. But I wasn’t trying to be difficult. I was just saying if they are following the science, show us the science, publish it. Sage wasn’t publishing their minutes then.”

That often vitriolic reaction surprised her. “It was really weird because in public health, we’re usually the good guys. I work with Save the Children and the Scotland Office. We would go to the poorest schools and try to help and we’re there to help, right?

“It’s not a glamorous profession, and you’re never really accused of being the bad guy. To go from that to becoming a villain!”

She lists the various groups that over the past few years have attacked her: the anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, anti-lockdowners. On one occasion, she recalls, she even received an envelope in the post containing a surgical facemask, with the words ‘I am done’ written in black Sharpie, as well as traces of white powder.

She froze, caught between the possibility that it was a hoax or anthrax – fortunately it turned out to be harmless.


Her other gripe about with the UK Government's SAGE advisory group was its narrow vision. “It was largely male, and that’s generally true of professors, even today. It was very UK focused and it had a lot of scepticism towards looking at other countries that maybe are considered poor, or less smart like Senegal or South Korea, instead of thinking, well, actually, they have a lot of experience in infectious disease management.”


Sridhar is an American, who grew up in Miami, in a family from India. She lives alone, and has done throughout the pandemic, with only her pet tortoise as company – a companion which she heartily recommends, as “very low maintenance”.

She frequently emphasising the joy of simple pleasures, spotting an otter on Dunsapie Loch, the pleasures of paddleboarding at Wardie Bay, and she is a big keep fit fan.


She has little regard for the conduct of the UK Prime Minister. Amongst her complaints is that, early on, Johnson missed “so many, many” COBRA meetings. “Your job, if you’re going to be Prime Minister, is to show up to the meetings.”

She was also horrified to see the example he set when he was in a Covid hospital shaking the hands of everybody, some of whom had Covid.

“I think now,” she observes, “what’s really painful is the parties, to learn it all happened when so many people weren’t able to be there funerals and weren’t able to be there at the birth of their child. People made enormous sacrifices. And the idea that leadership didn’t make similar sacrifices is quite a difficult one.”


She speaks of Nicola Sturgeon, the woman whose ear she had, in glowing terms. She didn’t know the First Minister before the pandemic, but, she says, came to “really like her”.

“I think it’s because she always wanted from me the direct, blunt analysis. She didn’t want to hear sugarcoating. She didn’t want spin on it. She was really like, ‘What do you think?’ Or, ‘What is Hong Kong doing?’ Or, ‘What do you think about the United States’ position on this?’ And I would just say it and then put the analysis behind it and offer the logic.”

“I found with her, she wanted to do the right thing. I think she very much wanted to protect life. And she understood the cost of restrictions to the economy, so it had to be proportional. I think I feel quite lucky that we had a leader who wanted that kind of direct expert input. There was never an idea of, ‘Tell me what I want to hear. It was quite the opposite.’”

Preventable: How A Pandemic Changed The World And How To Stop The Next One by Devi Sridhar is published bv Penguin, £20