by Freddie Sayers
Thursday, 1
July 2021
Video
15:06

Govt modeller: What our Covid forecasts got wrong

SPI-M member Dr Mike Tildesley considers whether June 21st could have gone ahead
by Freddie Sayers


SPI-M  (the “Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling) is the government committee in charge of producing forecasts for the future direction of the pandemic in different circumstances. It was their report in early June, combining mathematical models from Imperial, Warwick and LSHTM, than persuaded Boris Johnson to delay the planned re-opening of society on 21st June to its current scheduled date of 19th July.

In the weeks since that report, two things have become clear: the raw case numbers have been rising very rapidly, but the hospital admissions have been much lower than expected when the PM made his decision. As of today, 1st July, just over 250 people per day are being admitted into hospital with Covid, compared to over 600 as forecast by SPI-M.

Freddie Sayers spoke to Dr Mike Tildesley, an infectious disease modeller from the University of Warwick who sits on the committee and works the models himself, about how his forecasts have performed against reality, and whether the PM made the right decision.

Why were the SPI-M models overly pessimistic?

  1. Underestimated vaccine efficacy
I think the vaccine efficacies throughout have been slightly underestimated, shall we say, by the modelling groups, we are actually find that the vaccines are much more effective than previously we thought they would be. Now when these models are parameterised,  the vaccine efficacy data came through from Public Health England, so we’re not making up these values, we are using the best estimates of values that are coming through from those on the ground that have their estimates of them.
- Dr Mike Tildesley, UnHerd
  1. Overestimated behavioural change
I suspect this is something else that perhaps some of these models have slightly overestimated as to what we might expect that we’ll do in terms of the R numbers. This is partly because of people’s behaviour. So just because controls have relaxed, it looks like looking at the data that actually people haven’t gone back to  ‘normal’ in terms of what we might have expected prior to the pandemic. So people are still being a little bit more cautious. Maybe they’re not going to the pub in the way that they were, say, back in January 2020. And that, obviously has some implications upon these forecasts that when these models were done.
- Dr Mike Tildesley, UnHerd

So, had we known then what we know now, should the PM have gone ahead with June 21st?

In hindsight, possibly — we’re in a position that the vaccine efficacy is much more effective, but the delay has also enabled us to vaccinate a lot more people with slightly higher level of restrictions in place. This is where it’s always a bit of a challenge because in a way if you wait, you’re always going to have a smaller wave. But of course, if you wait, then that’s much more damaging for the economy and for people’s well being and mental health and so forth. So there’s always a little bit of a trade off. The epidemiologist in me would always say it’s slightly better to err on the side of caution, but I was always very adamant when I said this delay was in place that it is really important that we get back to normal. I think it’s really important that we do get back to normal on the 19th of July. And the delay was probably necessary to allow us to resolve that uncertainty.
- Dr Mike Tildesley, UnHerd

Why 19th July should go ahead as planned

Looking at the data, looking at possible admissions and deaths, there’s nothing at the moment that really worries me. And I think if we are going to get back to normal, we’ve really got to do it over the summer, when the virus is less likely to transmit anyway. Otherwise I think we’re going to be in a situation where it’s going to be really hard. So I’m hopeful 19th of July does go ahead as planned.
- Dr Mike Tildesley, UnHerd

Is the Government placing too much emphasis on models?

The model should only form part of the decision making process. You also need health experts, economists, people from all these social sciences with a huge range of different expertise to advise the government, because it’s not just what the models are predicting. There isn’t certainty in those models, I think our responsibility is to make sure that we communicate what we expect from the models, but also communicate the uncertainty in those models. That’s really, really crucial. I don’t ever think it’s helpful to go in the media and say, if we’d locked down three weeks earlier, we would have saved 100,000 lives or whatever that’s not productive. Because any one of those decisions, there’s uncertainty around what we might expect to see. So I do worry a little bit that too much of the responsibility has been put on modellers. And I also worry a little bit about some of the rhetoric and in among some members of the government, who have always used the mantra “we’re following the science”, which almost seems like it’s a little bit of a get out of jail free card.  
- Dr Mike Tildesley, UnHerd

On the forthcoming Delta wave in other countries

We’re doing pretty well — getting back to domestic freedom, as it were, is looking really possible over the next few weeks. Internationally it’s a much more bleak picture…. In certain countries in Europe this is a real worry, because of course, if they start to relax, and vaccine uptake is really low, then they’re going to see a wave. And actually, their wave is likely to be not just a wave in cases that we’re seeing, but potentially a wave of hospital admissions and deaths as well, which is a big worry.
- Dr Mike Tildesley, UnHerd

THE END GOAL

Should we stop publishing daily death numbers?

I think, ultimately, we’ve got to do that. I think particularly with the deaths as I said, I’ve talked in the media before about how we don’t say how many deaths there are every day from, say, cancer, or from road accidents and all these other things. Actually, we’re at the stage at the moment where the number of deaths are sort of in the 10s, significantly lower than deaths from many other causes. And I think we need to put it into perspective. As I said, we don’t want hundreds or 1000s of deaths, but having a situation where for the foreseeable future, we report the number of deaths from COVID, even when it’s really, really low numbers, I don’t think is helpful in terms of enabling us to get back to normality.
- Dr Mike Tildesley, UnHerd

On why we need to start treating Covid like flu

In the longer term, we have to get more into a kind of a flu type relationship. We don’t want 1000 deaths per day, clearly, that’s catastrophic. But if we get into the winter, and we have a rise in cases and a rise in hospital admissions, similar to what we’ve seen in previous years for flu, do we consider that to be acceptable? Anyway, everyone will have their own opinion as to what the answer to that question is. But clearly, in the longer term, we need to develop that more of that kind of flu relationship with COVID.
- Dr Mike Tildesley, UnHerd

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Norman Powers
Norman Powers
1 year ago

Wrong answer for three reasons:

  1. SAGE models are systematically pessimistic even before vaccines came onto the scene at all.
  2. They’ve known for a year that British people comply very strongly with government recommendations, partly due to psychological manipulation put in place by SAGE itself.
  3. Epidemiological models have a long track record of drastically over-estimating the severity of disease pre-dating COVID. Zika, Swine Flu and foot-and-mouth disease were all mispredicted in the same way.

So no, Tildesley, you don’t get to blame PHE data or mis-estimating people’s compliance for why the projections failed. They failed because they always fail. They failed because epidemiology has never seriously analyzed prior failures, so it can never learn anything from them. They failed because epidemiologists have noticed that nobody with any power over them complains if real world data is ignored and they just keep predicting.
They have failed because despite decades of extravagant funding epidemiologists cannot explain even basic questions about the epidemiology of infectious respiratory diseases. They have no explanations for:

  • The seasonal patterns of COVID and influenza in Europe/USA.
  • Why these diseases seem to exist at low background rates for long periods and then suddenly see explosive growth.
  • Why those sudden explosions only last a few weeks and then end spontaneously.
  • Why outbreaks start simultaneously everywhere instead of spreading outwards geographically.
  • Why large scale events like lockdowns, mask mandates or US elections don’t seem to impact case curves even a little bit.
  • How it is possible for a group of healthy people in entirely isolated conditions (like Antarctic bases) to spontaneously fall sick from a cold virus.

In the end this is a stagnant and corrupt field of research that not only cannot answer the questions humanity demands from it, it barely even tries.

Last edited 1 year ago by Norman Powers
Max Beran
Max Beran
1 year ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

Interesting set of bullet points though I suspect that the first four are not relevant to the modelling end of the epidemiological community – more biological than statistical. Presumably their effects can be parameterised and incorporated in the model runs that go into the appendix with the sensitivity analyses. Of course they couldn’t be if you had your way and defunded the area of research. Is funding “extravagant”? There aren’t that many groups, no labs so those sort of costs will be minimal and I guess they’re all on salary scales that are common across their organisations.
Is the fourth bullet point right? Variants tend to get associated with geographical locations suggesting a pattern of radiation rather than simultaneously popping up everywhere.
I know from my own field, hydrology, that modellers tend to fall in love with their models and they are as subject as much as any of the others in the chain from the basic medial science via epidemiological modelling through to policy of minding their backs. So everybody nudge their conclusions to the end where they are least likely to suffer opprobrium from the biens pensants and each nudge en route accumulates. It’s certainly the case with climate change whose chain has many more links than epidemics and a lot more nudging.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
1 year ago
Reply to  Max Beran

The variants are being re-assigned arbitrary names because the geographical names are supposedly not meaningful, being more related to the vagaries of where the sequencing is being done than true geographical origins.
The lack of biology in epidemiological modeling is a rather glaring problem. Claiming “biological” issues like seasonality are not relevant to predicting disease is exactly the kind of alarming statement that should make us hold grave doubts about all academic modeling papers! Seasonality is obviously critical if you’re trying to plot future cases of a respiratory illness in the UK, given that such diseases are usually seasonal. That’s not even biological knowledge really, it’s the sort of common sense thing your grandmother could tell you, yet SAGE modeling only started trying to take it into account very recently and at least one model still isn’t doing so (see the recent analyses by Glen Bishop).
Meanwhile these models are still incapable of explaining when and why outbreaks start or end. It’s not even that they try but fail – they don’t even try. The models simply believe an outbreak of any infectious disease cannot stop until more or less the entire population is infected, a facile assumption that doesn’t hold up in the real world with any actual epidemic in the past. If you can’t explain why outbreaks of COVID suddenly go into reverse even in the absence of any government policy changes (and they do), then you have no business modeling COVID, yet this obvious fact hasn’t stopped anyone in academia from doing so.
As for costs, costs have to be seen relative to benefits. The job of a scientist is to produce accurate and generalizable theory. Modern model-based epidemiology appears to have produced no theories of disease whatsoever, not even non-viable ones. Instead every single outbreak of every single disease gets its own ad-hoc model, one that encodes no real insight into disease but instead is a mere exercise in curve fitting (at best). That is not science!

anna m
anna m
1 year ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

It fails to answer the questions of humanity so often, because it fails to consider humanity.

Jonathan Bagley
Jonathan Bagley
1 year ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

Thanks, Professor Powers. When’s the paper appearing?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago

I was encouraged at the beginning of this interview and was quite pulled in, but after a while the rambling and tap dancing in the face of this devastating injustice done to terrified and often ignorant populations left me stone cold. I am sick of these blatherers and shilly-shallying cowards. Give me the thought leaders and heroes who are speaking out and putting integrity ahead of money in the pocket – people who are putting their reputations on the line.

Glyn Reed
Glyn Reed
1 year ago

A thousand up-ticks to you!

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

Freddy massages one of the science guys who wrecked the economy and destroyed the nation’s freedoms.‘ should be the name of the video. ‘Freddy: Does that feel good rubbing there? Science Guy: ‘Yea that’s perfect, ohhhhh, maybe a bit more to the left, yes – that’s it, perfect, ohhhhh’.
Science Guy:
“But of course, if you wait, (re-opening) then that’s much more damaging for the economy and for people’s well being and mental health and so forth. So there’s always a little bit of a trade off. The epidemiologist in me would always say it’s slightly better to err on the side of caution,”
(google translate: ‘If it saves One life then removing freedom and destroying the economic well-being of a great many is always justified’) So we saved granny at the cost of the social/mental health, education, jobs, pension, and economic future of her grand-kids. Hope granny never wanted any Great-Grandchildren as they will not be able to be afforded now. But, hey, granny has a much better chance to squeeze in another couple years of dementia care home life, so it all balances out.

anna m
anna m
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I’m guessing that Freddy knew that the best way to allow this madmodeller to clearly demonstrate his own ridiculousness was to dig a very gentle hole in which the modeller could bury himself.
Additionally – the vaccines haven’t been nearly so amazing as the modeller says.
If you compare the mortality data now with that of the winter just gone (ie if you compare apples with oranges) – the vaccine (or some other factor?) does indeed look impressive.
However if you compare now with last July (apples with apples) the difference is very small (and non-existent in anyone under 65), and will be at least in some part due to better treatment.
The University of Cambridge Biostatistics Unit has this data available in graphical form for easy comparison.

Glyn Reed
Glyn Reed
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Granny never asked for any of this. Granny has been exploited by vested interests who never gave a stuff about granny or grandad for that matter.

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
1 year ago

The young and healthy gaining natural immunity once the vulnerable have been vaccinated seems to be what is missing from the models. True, we know little about the long-term reality of natural immunity but we know little about the long-term reality of the vaccines.

Charles Murray
Charles Murray
1 year ago

Outstanding interview Freddy.
When will see the authors of “climate change calamity” modelling subjected to the same level of scrutiny .
They seem to get away with almost unbridled freedom to terrorise our children.

Rob Britton
Rob Britton
1 year ago

In the end Dr Tildesley is right: advisers advise; governments decide. Epidemiologists will always err on the side of extreme caution. The claim of Boris Johnson to be “following the science” was always a deliberate policy of seeking a scapegoat, and avoiding having to make difficult decisions.

Last edited 1 year ago by Rob Britton
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Rob Britton

“Epidemiologists will always err on the side of extreme caution”

Will They? Because back a year ago Freddy interviewed ones who did not. What you mean is if the Government is pushing for a NEW WORLD ORDER, then they will use ‘experts’ who promote that agenda.
Because of this fiscal/Monetary MMT $ printing (maybe 50 Trillion) stocks,have been pushed up so high that the P/E ratios are insane, so produce very little dividends, Bond yeilds pushed so low they make no income, Interst will be kept at ZERO, so impossible to save money in a pension or any savings….hard assets terribly inflated, global debt is 300,000,000,000,000 so interest must be zero, and money printing to force inflation to inflate it away is ramped up further (inflation is a tax on all, especially savers, it is how governments pay for redistribution spending) so gaining wealth is now impossible for any but the rich.

You will own nothing, but will be happy. This is the new world order, no one can save, so all live asset free by renting or being given everything. Robots will make everything and software will do all the office work, you little people will live on UBI with no way out, with your drugs, computer games, sex doll wife, and tiny apartment to play your VR computer games, welcome to the future. (brought to you by the technocrats like the one above)

Kasia Chapman
Kasia Chapman
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Don’t forget soma – we will need it to never feel the slightest psychological discomfort.

I reread Brave New World in the first lockdown and was horrified how relevant it was. I daren’t reread 1984 . It gave me a cold sweat when I read it in 1990 and thought how lucky I was to escape such reality coming to the UK from the communist country. I could not believe how this country fell in love with the idea of Big Brother and how the world had embraced surveillance in the name of security and now how the woke is imposing Newspeak on us.
So glad to have discovered UnHerd . The articles and comments give me hope that we can push back. Like the Savage from Brave New World.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Kasia Chapman

I really liked the fun Dystopia
“The Space Merchants
The Space Merchants is a 1952 science fiction novel by American writers Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth. Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine as a serial entitled Gravy Planet, the novel was first published as a single volume in 1953, and has sold heavily since”

Great read, and fun. Naturally the classic

“The MarchingMorons” is a science fiction story by American writer Cyril M. Kornbluth, originally published in Galaxy in April 1951. It was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two after being voted one of the best novellas up to 1965.. The story follows John Barlow, who was put into suspended animation by a freak accident involving a dental drill and anesthesia.”

Dr Strange Glove, Catch 22, the 1950s were full of great, irreverent books.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
1 year ago
Reply to  Rob Britton

I am curious what sort of politician could have rejected scientists with clever-looking statistical models at the start of this pandemic, or even today, on the grounds that actually their science is incompetent and their advice is wrong.
Can you even imagine that? The outcry would have been out of this world. People would have demanded to know on what grounds Boris Johnson of all people believes he knows better than the experts, and why is he risking millions of lives when literally every other country is listening to theirs. Even if the politicians had somehow known what to look for and made good points, zero academics would have supported them, and many would have attacked them for questioning their superiority.
Even though BoJo is popular, I can’t imagine any politician surviving that. He’d have been replaced immediately. And scientists know that, they know full well that if they predict imminent disaster unless politicians do something drastic right now then the public will side with the professors every time. Look at climate change – decades of failed predictions, decades of arguments, and anyone who objects to the wisdom of the scientists is demonized, their views suppressed and anyone that expresses a smidgen of doubt isn’t even allowed anywhere near politics to begin with.
No. I have no patience for weaselly arguments by “scientists” that they are mere advisors and that therefore it’s OK for their advice to be ludicrously one sided; that it’s the politician’s fault if the models turn out to be wrong. SAGE have repeatedly presented completely unvalidated models with either no uncertainty bounds at all (e.g. Report 9) or a range of unfalsifiable “scenarios”. Despite constant failure they have insisted that drastic actions be taken right now, without even a few days to let people properly review their advice, and when politicians did hesitate or try to bring in third parties to analyze it they ran to the press and claimed every day of delay was going to murder millions.
In an environment where people are brainwashed into believing that academics are moral, selfless and wise, and in which academics will not under any circumstances criticize each other, what politician can push back? Picking a fight with one scientist means picking a fight with all of them simultaneously!

Last edited 1 year ago by Norman Powers
Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
1 year ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

As a scientist who has been very skeptical from the get-go of all the modeling and predictions produced by the so-called experts, most of which has not only turned out to be way way off but has had very severe negative consequences, I couldn’t agree with you more. And the whole situation has been made worse by the silencing of any alternative perspectives.
And now we have yet more panic porn with the delta variant, to be followed, of course, by the epsilon, kappa, etc.. variants, with the so-called experts claiming that each one in turn is more infectious and causes more severe illness, never mind the actual facts.
What a bizarre world we’re living in right now. It’s a bit like Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
What should have been done right from the get go in both the US, UK and EU countries is to have a red team/blue team approach where differing opinions and conclusions are presented and discussed, so that politicians can see all sides of the coin.

Last edited 1 year ago by Johann Strauss
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

What science are you in Johann? I think I remember you telling us once?

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
1 year ago

Biophysics/biochemistry/chemistry

Last edited 1 year ago by Johann Strauss
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

The great story is the Bret Weinstein interviews with real science guys saying how the mRNA is so specific, rather than generalized like live virus vaccines, as it targets just one protein, that the virus mutation will get around the vaccines very easily, yet the spiked protein cell creation is harmful to many body organs, so lots of costs with unsure benefits.

If you like Bret (once done here by Freddy) he has 100 Youtube videos, most over a hour long….

He always PI* ses me off because he is such a arch Liberal and was right at the entire woke scene on both sides, yet cannot help digging at Trump… And he is another Liberal/Atheist Evolution Biologist like Dawkins, so has no concept of what is cause and what is correlation, but he is very much a covid response rebel, and that is good – he is now banned from Youtube, but his last video gives a link to his new home…

Matthew Grainger
Matthew Grainger
1 year ago

it is frankly quite scary that people like this have so much indirect control over so many people. All we can hope is that the success of the vaccination campaign will out, the rump of the population finally catch up and folks like this go back to their cosseted university departments rather than constantly appearing on our screens.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

Goons like this terrify me. Back in his academia he will just continue the spread of destruction to humanity…..If only he had studied something equally unscientific, but less harmful, like Medieval Glass Making, he could be safely off working in some Starbucks making lattes and attending strange protests for obscure issues in weird costumes in Trafalgar Square, and be harmless.

Jonathan Bagley
Jonathan Bagley
1 year ago

I see all the boys from the village are here. A massive pool of unrecognised talent who could have given the Government far superior advice. You people are ridiculous: absolutely ridiculous. What on earth gives you the idea you are qualified to express an opinion on Mike Tildesley’s epidemic modelling. Would you tell a brain surgeon he was drilling the hole in the wrong place, or an F1 aerodynamicist he should bend that fin a bit? Bonkers and deluded.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jonathan Bagley