The actuaries who changed the conversation on Covid

Published in: Risk, Risk management, Longevity - mortality, People, Covid-19

Companies: Covid-19 Actuaries Response Group

The Covid-19 Actuaries Response Group won the Judges' award for contribution to the industry in the InsuranceERM 2021 UK & Europe awards. Christopher Cundy speaks to the protagonists about their collaborative project and the impact it's had on society

The Judges’ award is usually made to an individual, but this year our panel decided to bestow it to a group of actuaries who contributed to efforts to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Their research and analysis – all done voluntarily and shared freely – has showcased the risk management and modelling skills of actuaries. That their work has been recognised throughout the industry, in the public sector, by the media and right at the very top of government is testament to their communication skills.

The Covid-19 Actuaries Response Group (ARG) was formed in early March 2020 by several individuals who had become very concerned about the spread of the virus.

Matthew EdwardsOne of those was Matthew Edwards, a consulting actuary specialising in longevity and mortality.

“Some of us had built models for our employers and could see how bad an unmitigated epidemic might be. Half a million Covid deaths in the UK seemed plausible. But little was being said publicly and we felt a dangerous complacency in all sectors,” he says.

Joseph Lu, a longevity expert and actuary, says during February, communications were beginning to happen between actuaries and medics, both personally and through social media.

Edwards explains how another member of the group, Stuart McDonald, posted on Twitter about the odds of catching Covid-19 if the virus was unconstrained and the mortality implications.

This reached Tan Suee Chieh, then president-elect of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, and they agreed to bring together actuaries from across the profession to discuss how they might respond. 

“On Sunday 6 March, Stuart sent an email to ‘the people I thought might be better informed than me’ noting: ‘We are of the view that a global pandemic is a possibility …  immediate response to the emerging crisis may be required’,” Edwards says. 

“Within hours it was clear from the responses and the freeing up of busy diaries that concern was widespread among the group. Two days later the ARG met for the first time.”

Unfolding the plan

Lu says the idea for the ARG was to “serve as a forum to learn, educate, inform and influence the unfolding Covid-19 crisis constructively”.

He adds: “We wanted rapid, yet credible, communications. We value early engagement, while awaiting further information. We aim to produce short and accessible bulletins which have been peer-reviewed for quality.”

Joseph LuThe group produces a report every Friday and a handful papers during an average week. With a multitude of possible research topics, deciding what the group should cover is a task in itself.

Writing in the group’s 100th bulletin on 2 February, Edwards notes: “What started off as a ‘classical’ pandemic analysis quickly changed, mutating and spreading as fast as the virus itself.

“We were soon working on problems such as misinformation, data accuracy and case reporting, confounding risk factors, the life expectancy of octogenarian diabetics, behavioural economics, how the precautionary principle should be applied, how late reporting affects R calculations … and these were just the early months!”

The group takes input from a diverse group of talents and, while its core is actuarial, it includes medical experts, actuaries with epidemiological backgrounds and catastrophists, for example.

The process for planning bulletins is resolutely down to earth, Edwards tells InsuranceERM:

“During our weekly calls, and sometimes also via our WhatsApp group, individuals note what’s emerging in the scientific literature or is in the news, and we quickly discuss what a bulletin would look like, and agree authors and reviewers according to expertise and availability. We used a simple spreadsheet to keep track of who was writing what.”

Satisfying moments

Asked what the most satisfying moments for the group have been over the last 12 months, Edwards points to how well its work has been received.

“Many people have said that we’ve become their most trusted source on the pandemic – that’s been a great achievement, helping extract a reliable signal from the noise.”

The group’s work has been widely cited, notably by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), a panel which provides scientific advice to the UK government.

Stuart McDonaldEven the Prime Minster quoted from one of its papers, regarding the mortality benefit of vaccinating priority groups.

Edwards says the group has helped keep the focus on “reliable narratives” and aided people to make good decisions that avoid false narratives.

Communication activities were intense, with McDonald in particular emerging as a force on social media, engaging with experts and non-experts, and combatting misinformation spread by Covid-19 deniers.   

Edwards adds: “We have achieved something remarkable as a whole. The coming together of a multi-skilled group, and the rapid development of a culture of trust and collaborative working.”

Achieving expectations

Lu says the group has achieved above his expectations.

“We began by volunteering our multi-disciplinary expertise to help the public make sense of this complex and tragic global situation. We have summarised facts, debated issues and analysed complicated statistics. The results are regular outputs in LinkedIn, disseminated through Twitter, websites and Facebook.”

Social media impressions are above 6m, the group reports.

Edwards says the group’s original purpose was “to help actuaries in thinking and responding to the Covid-19 crisis.”

“I think we’ve definitely succeeded, and in fact gone well beyond that as a lot of our audience are non-actuaries.”

What’s next

As vaccination programmes begin to roll out across society, the end of the pandemic is coming into sight. That poses the inevitable question of what next for the group.

“We came about to help as a ‘response group’ not a research group – so although the ramifications and recovery have a long future, we should not,” says Edwards.

“We are one of those rare groups that would like to not have a reason to exist! Perhaps a few more months – unlike the virus, we don’t want to become endemic.”

The Covid-19 Actuaries Response Group has relied on many guest contributors but the core of the group comprises Adrian Baskir, Tan Suee Chieh, Matthew Edwards, Matt Fletcher, Andrew Gaches, Adele Groyer, Stephen Kramer, Joseph Lu, Stuart McDonald, Nicola Oliver, Adrian Pinington, John Roberts, Josephine Robertson, Louis Rossouw, Dan Ryan and Gordon Woo.

For more information see www.covid-arg.com

Details on all the winners of the InsuranceERM 2021 UK & Europe awards can be found here