New data, new models, new policies

We woke up this morning to quite a turn in the COVID-2019 containment policy, according to this Financial Times article (£):

This is a very interesting development, again driven by mathematical modelling (but with changed data), something I anticipated last week and yesterday. But it also illustrates how difficult and fraught with dangers the interface between modelling and politics is.

At the end of the day, our mathematical models are only worth as much as the data we have and the assumptions we make. As mathematicians, we are (or should be) very aware of the limitations of our work and have a duty to present the results in such a way that the uncertainties are clear. In this particular case, it seems that the assumptions about the death rates of hospitalised people were wrong, as they were based on a different disease.

The problem is that politicians expect clear-cut, simple answers and expect them now – and some politicians probably expect more clear-cut and even simpler answers and to have them by yesterday. And sometimes, we as scientists are perhaps too quick to comply and to give the politicians the answers they want.

As I said in my earlier post:

But even more important is that the government is very clear and open with the public why the particular decision is taken and when.

I am concerned that we might be at a crunch time for mathematical models, similar to the aftermath of foot-and-mouth disease, and that people will stop trusting us. It is very good that the Centre for Epidemiological Analysis and Modelling of Infectious Diseases changed its advice. It is also good that the politicians seem to have listened to it and changed (albeit only partially and probably insufficiently) their policy. I hope this will save lives and I am glad modelling is helping to do this.

Mathematicians and historians will be debating for years how the ‘UK strategy’, as opposed to the ‘continental strategy’, came to be formulated and accepted and how it came to its end last night. The key thing now is to see that we suppress the outbreak, save lives, and learn to live together as a community that cares.

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