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A Wise Old Sage Once Said

Mathematical Models Don't Always Add Up

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. SAGE and it’s sub-SAGE advisers meet twice weekly with Government officials to advise Government on its handling of the pandemic. The labeling of it as a pandemic was largely down to SAGE. A March 2020 report from an Imperial College Response Team led by Neil Ferguson, used mathematical modelling which led to an estimated final death toll from COVID-19 as 510,000. The calculation assumed no prior immunity in the population even though The World Health Organisation, having learned from the Swine Flu virus, acknowledged “the vulnerability of a population to a pandemic virus is related in part to the level of pre-existing immunity to the virus.” Yet this epidemiological model (as the report itself claimed modestly) informed policymaking in the UK and other countries.

A quick note on mathematical models. Mathematical models are a ‘process of encoding and decoding reality, in which a natural phenomenon is reduced to a formal numerical expression by a casual structure’. In other words, they are based on assumptions when wet data is limited or absent. For example, if asked to provide a mathematical model on the potential outcomes of a meteor striking Earth, you might start with a death toll range of between zero and 7.38 billion. The model would then be expanded to include calculations such as speed and size of meteor, place of impact, time of day, axis position etc. What a mathematical model can’t accurately predict is how people will respond to certain events. It can’t predict anomalies such as Elon Musk destroying the meteor before impact and what it absolutely doesn’t do, is factor in the reliability of the modeller. So if previous models by Modeller A (let’s call him Neil) predicted 200M would die from Bird Flu (it was under 300), 65,000 from Swine Flu (under 500), 50,000 from BSE (under 200) and led to the needless culling of 6.5m cattle during the foot and mouth crisis in the mistaken belief animals were infectious for days before showing any symptoms (sound familiar), you’d surely factor this into the model, if not mathematically then logically or instinctively.

It was SAGE who advised on lockdown. Not because they were following the science but – according to one sub-SAGE member - as a ‘panic measure’ because they ‘couldn’t think of anything better to do’. Yet still they call for lockdown. So perhaps it isn’t the science they’re following, but a narrative.

This would explain why, of those on the SAGE committee not directly employed by Government Departments (all young Professors with newly minted OBEs) there are so few epidemiologists, virologists and immunologists. There are, however, plenty of mathematicians and experimental psychologists who between them have published papers on subjects like how best the public can be persuaded, incentivized, coerced and engineered to become more compliant using a Behavioral Change Wheel (BCW) aimed at increased and sustained adherence. For the optimists who maybe think severe COVID-19 won’t happen to them (understandably considering the estimated WHO survival rate of 99.5-99.998%) a quick spin of the Behavioral Change Wheel could make them think again. A King’s College study concluded that ‘Future research is needed on the implications of comparatively optimistic thinking for future compliance with government guidelines on managing COVID-19’.

And it’s not just Boris being SAGED. BBC, ITV and Channel Four News perhaps less in need of coercion (after all, bad news sells) are all on board, spoon-feeding the dystopian narrative to a nightly captive audience who feast their eyeballs on flickering images of overstretched morgues, coffin shortages and eye-watering fatalities as they work their way through yet another case of wine in their brand new dressing gowns. A 24/7 drip-fed tsunami of bad news on warp speed that never lets up. And for those who dare venture to The Outside, throw a snowball, enjoy coffee with a friend or – God forbid – sit on a park bench - the narrative suddenly mutates. Thought you were enjoying some harmless risk-free fun? Wrong. You are a granny killer, a plague-infested jogger, an anti-vaxxer who not only disables 5G masts at weekends, but does so without even social distancing.

Years from now when the dust has settled, the world is vaccinated and all the numbers are in, numbers which will include deaths from those who – as a direct result of lockdown - missed cancer treatments, committed suicide, suffered a cytokine storm or died from any number of alcohol related illnesses, the estimated number of deaths may well have hit 510,000. And for once, Ferguson might be right.

Suzie Halewood


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