Fact checking Full Fact

It is hard to create accurate stories about numerical data.

Note: Even as I wrote this blog events have overtaken us.  The blog is principally about analysing how fact checking can go wrong; this will continue to be an issue, so remains relevant.  But it is also about the specific issues with FullFact.org’s discussion of the community deaths that emerged from my own modelling of university returns.  Since Full Fact’s report a new Bristol model has been published which confirms the broad patterns of my work and university cases are already growing across the UK (e.g. LIverpool,Edinburgh) with lockdowns in an increasing number of student halls (e.g. Dundee)).
It is of course nice to be able to say “I was right all along“, but in this case I wish I had been wrong.

A problem I’ve been aware of for some time is how difficult many media organisations have in formulating evidence and arguments, especially those involving numerical data.  Sometimes this is due to deliberately ‘spinning’ an issue, that is the aim is distortion.  However, at other times, in particular fact checking sites, it is clear that the intention is offer the best information, but something goes wrong.

This is an important challenge for my own academic community, we clearly need to create better tools to help media and the general public understand numerical arguments.  This is particularly important for Covid and I’ve talked and written elsewhere about this challenge.

Normally I’ve written about this at a distance, looking at news items that concern other people, but over the last month I’ve found  myself on the wrong side of media misinterpretation or maybe misinformation.  The thing that is both most fascinating (with an academic hat on) and also most concerning is the failure in the fact-checking media’s ability to create reasoned argument.

This would merely be an interesting academic case study, were it not that the actions of the media put lives at risk.

I’ve tried to write succinctly, but what follows is still quite long.  To summarise I’m a great fan of fact checking sites such as Full Fact, but I wish that fact checking sites would:

  • clearly state what they are intending to check: a fact, data, statement, the implicit implications of the statement, or a particular interpretation of a statement.
  • where possible present concrete evidence or explicit arguments, rather than implicit statements or innuendo; or, if it is appropriate to express belief in one source rather than another do this explicitly with reasons.

However, I also realise how I need better ways to communicate my own work both numerical aspects, but also textually.  I realise that often behind every sentence, rather like an iceberg, there is substantial additional evidence or discussion points.

Context

I’d been contacted by Fullfact.org at the end of August in relation to the ‘50,000 deaths due to universities’ estimate that was analysed by WonkHE and then tweeted by UCU.  This was just before the work was briefly discussed on Radio 4’s More or Less … without any prior consultation or right of reply.  So full marks to Full Fact for actually contacting the primary source!

I gave the Full Fact journalist quite extensive answers including additional data.  However, he said that assessing the assumptions was “above his pay grade” and so, when I heard no more, I’d assumed that they had decided to abandon writing about it.

Last week on a whim, just before gong on holiday, I thought to check and discovered that Fullfact.org had indeed published the story on 4th September, indeed it still has pride of place on their home page!

Sadly, they had neglected to tell me when it was published.

Front page summary – the claim

First of all let’s look at the pull out quote on the home page (as of 22nd Sept).

At the top the banner says “What was claimed”, appearing to quote from a UCU tweet and says (in quote marks):

The return to universities could cause 50,000 deaths from Covid-19 without “strong controls”

This is a slight (but critical) paraphrase of the actual UCU tweet which quoted my own paper::

“Without strong controls, the return to universities would cause a minimum of 50,000 deaths.”

The addition of “from Covid-19” is filling in context.  Pedantically (but important for a fact checking site), by normal convention this would be set in some way to make clear it is an insertion into the original text, for example [from Covid-19].  More critically, the paraphrase inverts the sentence, thus making the conditional less easy to read, replaces “would cause a minimum” with “could cause”. and sets “strong controls” in scare quotes.

While the inversion does not change the logic, it does change the emphasis.  In my own paper and UCU’s tweet the focus on the need for strong controls comes first, followed by the implications if this is not done; whereas in the rewritten quote the conditional “without strong controls” appears more like an afterthought.

On the full page this paraphrase is still set as the claim, but the text also includes the original quote.  I have no idea why they chose to rephrase what was a simple statement to start with.

Front page summary – the verdict

It appears that the large text labelled ‘OUR VERDICT’ is intended to be a partial refutation of the original quote:

The article’s author told us the predicted death toll “will not actually happen in its entirety” because it would trigger a local or national lockdown once it became clear what was happening.

This is indeed what I said!  But I am still struggling to understand by what stretch of the imagination a national lockdown could be considered anything but “strong controls“.  However, while this is not a rational argument, it is a rhetorical one, emotionally what appears to be negative statement “will not actually happenfeels as though it weakens the original statement, even though it is perfectly consonant with it.

One of the things psychologists have known for a long time is that as humans we find it hard to reason with conditional rules (if–then) if they are either abstract or disagree with one’s intuition.  This lies at the heart of many classic psychological experiments such as the Wason card test.   Fifty thousand deaths solely due to universities is hard to believe, just like the original Covid projections were back in January and February, and so we find it hard to reason clearly.

In a more day-to-day example this is clear.

Imagine a parent says to their child, “if you’re not careful you’ll break half the plates

The chid replies, “but I am being careful”.

While this is in a way a fair response to the implied rider “... and you’re not being careful enough“, it is not an argument against the parent’s original statement.

When you turn to the actual Full Fact article this difficulty of reasoning becomes even more clear.  There are various arguments posed, but none that actually challenge the basic facts, more statements that are of an emotional rhetorical nature … just like the child’s response.

In fact if Full Fact’s conclusion had been “yes this is true, but we believe the current controls are strong enough so it is irrelevant“, then one might disagree with their opinion , but it would be a coherent argument.  However, this is NOT what the site claims, certainly in its headline statements.

A lack of alternative facts

To be fair to Full Fact the most obvious way to check this estimated figure would have been to look at other models of university return and compare it with them.  It is clear such models exist as SAGE describes discussions involving such models, but neither SAGE nor indie-Sage‘s reports on university return include any estimated figure for overall impact.  My guess is that all such models end up with similar levels to those reported here and that the modellers feel that they are simply too large to be believable … as indeed I did when I first saw the outcomes of my own modelling..

Between my own first modelling in June and writing the preprint article there was a draft report from a three day virtual study group of mathematicians looking at University return, but other than this I was not aware of work in the public domain at the time. For this very reason, my paper ends with a call “for more detailed modelling“.

Happily, in the last two weeks two pre-print papers have come from the modelling group at Bristol, one with a rapid review of University Covid models and one on their own model.  Jim Dickinson has produced another of his clear summaries of them both.  The Bristol model is far more complex than those that I used including multiple types of teaching situation and many different kinds of students based on demographic and real social contact data.  It doesn’t include student–non-student infections, which I found critical in spread between households, but does include stronger effects for in-class contagion.  While very different types of modelling, the large-scale results of both suggest rapid spread within the student body.  The Bristol paper ends with a warning about potential spread to the local community, but does not attempt to quantify this, due the paucity of data on student–non-student interactions.

Crucially, the lack of systematic asymptomatic testing will also make it hard to assess the level of Covid spread within the student population during the coming autumn and also hard to retrospectively assess the extent to which this was a critical factor in the winter Covid spread in the wider population.  We may come to this point in January and still not have real data.

Full page headlines

Following through to the full page on Full Fact, the paraphrased ‘claim’ is repeated with Full Fact’s ‘conclusion’ … which is completely different from the front page ‘OUR VERDICT’.

The ‘conclusion’ is carefully stated – rather like Boris Johnson’s careful use of the term ‘controlled by’ when describing the £350 million figure on the Brexit bus.  It does not say here whether Full Fact believes the (paraphrased) claim, but they merely make a statement relating to it.  In fact at the end of the article there is rather more direct conclusion berating UCU for tweeting the figure.  That is Full Fact do have a strong conclusion, and one that is far more directly related to the reason for fact checking this in the first place, but instead of stating this explicitly, the top of page headline ‘conclusion’ in some sense sits on the fence.

However, even this ‘sit on the fence’ statement is at very least grossly misleading and in reality manifestly false.

The first sentence:

This comes from a research paper that has not been peer-reviewed

is correct, and one of the first things I pointed out when Full Fact contacted me.  Although the basic mathematics was read by a colleague, the paper itself has not been through formal peer review, and given the pace of change will need to be changed to be retrospective before it will be.  This said, in my youth I was a medal winner in the International Mathematical Olympiad and I completed my Cambridge mathematics degree in two years; so I do feel somewhat confident in the mathematics itself!  However, one of the reasons for putting the paper on the preprint site arXiv was to make it available for critique and further examination.

The second statement is not correct.  The ‘conclusion’ states that

It is based on several assumptions, including that every student gets infected, and nothing is done to stop it.

IF you read the word “it” to refer to the specific calculation of 50,000 deaths then this is perhaps debatable.  However, the most natural reading is that “it” refers to the paper itself, and this interpretation is reinforced later in the Full Fact text, which says “the article [as in my paper] assumes …”.  This statement is manifestly false.

The paper as a whole models student bubbles of different sizes, and assumes precisely the opposite, that is assuming rapid spread only within bubbles.  That is it explicitly assumes that something (bubbles) is done to stop it. The outcome of the models, taking a wide range of scenarios, is that in most circumstances indirect infections (to the general population and back) led to all susceptible students being infected.  One can debate the utility or accuracy of the models, but crucially “every student gets infected” is a conclusion not an assumption of the models or the paper as a whole.

To be fair on Full Fact this confusion between the fundamental assumptions of the paper and the specific values used for this one calculation is echoing Kit Yates initial statements when he appeared on More or Less. I’m still not sure whether that was a fundamental misunderstanding or a slip of the tongue during the interview and my attempts to obtain clarification have failed.  However, I did explicitly point this distinction out to Full Fact.

The argument

The Full Fact text consists of two main parts.  One is labelled “Where did “50,000 deaths” come from?”, which is ostensibly a summary of my paper, but in reality seems to be where there are the clearest fact-check style statements.  The second is labelled “But will this happen?” which sounds as if this is the critique.  However, it is actually three short paragraphs the first two effectively setting me and Kit Yates head-to-head and the third is the real conclusion which says that UCU tweeted the quote without context.

Oddly I was never asked whether I believed that the UCU’s use of the statement was consistent with the way in which it was derived in my work.  This does seem a critical question given that Full Fact’s final conclusion is that UCU quoted it out of context. Indeed, while the Full Fact claims that UCU tweeted “the quote without context“, within the length of a tweet the UCU both included the full quote (not paraphrased!) and directly referenced Jim Dickinson’s summary of my paper on WonkHE, which itself links to my paper.  That is the UCU tweet backed up the statement with links that lead to primary data and sources.

As noted the actual reasoning is odd as the body of the argument, to the extent it exists, appears to be in the section that summarises the paper.

First section – summary of paper

The first section “Where did “50,000 deaths” come from?”, starts off by summarising the assumptions underlying the 50,000 figure being fact checked and is the only section that links to any additional external sources.  Given the slightly askance way it is framed, it is hard to be sure, but it appears that this description is intended to cast doubt on the calculations because of the extent of the assumptions.  This is critical as it is the assumptions which Kit Yates challenged.

In several cases the assumptions stated are not what is said in the paper.  For example, Full Fact says the paper “assumes no effect from other measures already in place, like the Test and Trace system or local lockdowns” whereas the paragraph directly above the crucial calculation explicitly says that (in order to obtain a conservative estimate) the initial calculation will optimistically assume “social distancing plus track and trace can keep the general population R below 1 during this period“.  The 50,000 figure does not include additional more extensive track and trace within the student community, but so far this is no sign of this happening beyond one or two universities adopting their own testing, and this is precisely one of the ‘strong controls’ that the paper explicitly suggests.

Ignoring these clear errors, the summary of assumptions made by the calculation of the 50,000 figure says that I “include the types of hygiene and social distancing measures already being planned, but not stronger controls” and then goes on to list the things not included. It does seem obvious and is axiomatic that a calculation of what will happen “without strong controls” must assume for the purposes of the calculation that there are no strong controls.

The summary section also spends time on the general population R value of 0.7used in the calculation and the implications of this.  The paragraph starts “In addition to this” and quotes that this is my “most optimistic” figure. This is perfectly accurate … but the wording seems to imply this is perhaps (another!) unreasonable assumption … and indeed it is crazily low.  At the time (soon after lockdown) it was still hoped that non-draconian measures (such as track and trace) could keep R below 1, but of course we have seen rises far beyond this and the best estimates for coming winter are now more like 1.2 to 1.5.

Note however the statement was “Without strong controls, the return to universities would cause a minimum of 50,000 deaths.”  That is the calculation was deliberately taking some mid-range estimates of things and some best case ones in order to yield a lower bound figure.  If one takes a more reasonable R the final figure would be a lot larger than 50,000.

Let’s think again of the child, but let’s make the child a stroppy teenager:

Parent, “if you’re not careful you’ll break half the plates

Child replies, throwing the pile of plates to the floor, “no I’ll break them all.”

The teenager might be making a point, but is not invalidating the parent’s statement.

Maybe I am misinterpreting the intent behind this section, but given the lack of any explicit fact-check evidence elsewhere, it seems reasonable to treat this as at least part of the argument for the final verdict.

Final section – critique of claim

As noted, the second section “But will this happen?”, which one would assume is the actual critique and mustering of evidence, consists of three paragraphs: one quoting me, one quoting Kit Yates of Bath, and one which appears to be the real verdict.

The first paragraph is the original statement that appeared as ‘OUR VERDICT’ on the first page where I say that 50,000 deaths will almost certainly not occur in full because the government will be forced to take some sort of action once general Covid growth and death rates rise.  As noted if this is not ‘strong controls‘ what is?

The second paragraph reports Kit Yates as saying there are some mistakes in my model and is quoted as generously saying that he’s “not completely damning the work,”.  While grateful for his restraint, some minimal detail or evidence would be useful to assess his assertion.  On More or Less he questioned some of the values used and I’ve addressed that previously;  it is not clear whether this is what is meant by ‘mistakes’ here.  I don’t know if he gave any more information to Full Fact, but if he has I have not seen it and Full Fact have not reported it.

A tale of three verdicts

As noted the ‘verdict’ on the Full Fact home page is different from the ‘conclusion’ at the top of the main fact-check page, and in reality it appears the very final paragraph of the article is the real ‘verdict’.

Given this confusion about what is actually being checked, it is no wonder the argument itself is somewhat confused.

The final paragraph, the Full Fact verdict itself has three elements:

  • that UCU did not tweet the quote in context – as noted perhaps a little unfair in a tweeted quote that links to its source
  • that the 50,000 “figure comes from a model that is open to question” – well clearly there is question in Kit Yates’ quote, but this would have more force if it were backed by evidence.
  • that it is based on “predictions that will almost certainly not play out in the real world

The last of these is the main thrust of the ‘verdict’ quote on the Full Fact home page.  Indeed there is always a counterfactual element to any actionable prediction.  Clearly if the action is taken the prediction will change.  This is on the one hand deep philosophy, but also common sense.

The Imperial Covid model that prompted (albeit late) action by government in March gave a projection of between a quarter and a half million deaths within the year if the government continued a policy of herd immunity.  Clearly any reasonable government that believes this prediction will abandon herd immunity as a policy and indeed this appears to have prompted a radical change of heart.  Given this, one could have argued that the Imperial predictions “will almost certainly not play out in the real world“.  This is both entirely true and entirely specious.

The calculations in my paper and the quote tweeted by UCU say:

Without strong controls, the return to universities would cause a minimum of 50,000 deaths.”

That is a conditional statement.

Going back to the child; the reason the parent says ““if you’re not careful you’ll break half the plates“, is not as a prediction that half the plates will break, but an encouragement to the child to be careful so that the plates will not break.  If the child is careful and the plates are not broken, that does not invalidate the parent’s warning.

Last words

Finally I want to reiterate how much I appreciate the role of fact checking sites including Full Fact and also fact checking parts of other news sites as as BBC’s Reality Check; and I am sure the journalist here wanted to produce a factual article. However, in order to be effective they need to be reliable.  We are all, and journalists especially, aware that an argument needs to be persuasive (rhetoric), but for fact checking and indeed academia, arguments also need to be accurate and analytic (reason).

There are specific issues here and I am angered at some of the misleading aspects of this story because of the importance of the issues; there are literally lives at stake.

However, putting this aside, the story raises the challenge for me as to how we can design tools and methods to help both those working on fact checking sites and the academic community, to create and communicate clear and correct argument.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More or Less: will 50,000 people really die if the universities reopen?

Last Wednesday morning I had mail from a colleague to say that my paper on student bubble modelling had just been mentioned on Radio 4 ‘More or Less’ [BBC1].    This was because UCU (the University and Colleges Union) had tweeted the headline figure of 50,000 deaths from my paper “Impact of a small number of large bubbles on Covid-19 transmission within universities” [Dx1] after it had been reviewed by Jim Dickinson on Wonkhe [DW].  The issue is continuing to run: on Friday a SAGE report [SAGE] was published also highlighting the need for vigilance around University reopening and a Today interview with Dame Anne Johnson this morning [BBC2], who warned of “a ‘critical moment’ in the coronavirus pandemic, as students prepare to return to universities.

I’m very happy that these issues are being discussed widely; that is the most important thing.   Unfortunately I was never contacted by the programme before transmission, so I am writing this to fill in details and correct misunderstandings.

I should first note that the 50,000 figure was a conditional one:

without strong controls, the return to universities would cause a minimum of 50,000 deaths

The SAGE report [SAGE] avoids putting any sort of estimate on the impact.  I can understand why! Like climate change one of the clear lessons of the Covid crisis is how difficult it is to frame arguments involving  uncertainty and ranges of outcomes in ways that allow meaningful discussion but also avoid ‘Swiss cheese’ counter-arguments that seek the one set of options that all together might give rise to a wildly unlikely outcome.  Elsewhere I’ve written about some of the psychological reasons and human biases that make it hard to think clearly about such issues [Dx2].

The figure of 50,000 deaths at first appears sensationalist, but in fact the reason I used this as a headline figure was precisely because it was on the lower end of many scenarios where attempts to control spread between students fail.  This was explicitly a ‘best case worst case’ estimate: that is worst case for containment within campus and best case for everything else – emphasising the need for action to ensure that the former does not happen.

Do I really believe this figure?  Well in reality, of course, if there are major campus outbreaks local lockdowns or campus quarantine would come into place before the full level of community infection took hold.  If this reaction is fast enough this would limit wider community impact, although we would never know how much as many of the knock-on infections would be untraceable to the original cause. It is conditional – we can do things ahead of time to prevent it, or later to ameliorate the worst impacts.

However, it is a robust figure in terms of order of magnitude.  In a different blog I used minimal figures for small university outbreaks (5% of students) combined with lower end winter population R and this still gives to tens of thousands of knock-on community infections for every university [Dx3].

More or less?

Returning to “More or Less”, Dr Kit Yates, who was interviewed for the programme, quite rightly examined the assumptions behind the figure, exactly what I would would do myself.  However, I would imagine he had to do so quite quickly and so in the interview there was confusion between (i) the particular scenario that gives rise the the 50,000 figure and the general assumptions of the paper as a whole and (ii) the sensitivity of the figure to the particular values of various parameters in the scenario.

The last of these, the sensitivity, is most critical: some parameters make little difference to the eventual result and others make a huge difference.  Dr Yates suggested that some of the values (each of which have low sensitivity) could be on the high side but also one (the most sensitive) that is low.   If you adjust for all of these factors the community deaths figure ends up near 100,000 (see below).  As I noted, the 50,000 figure was towards the lower end of potential scenarios.

The modelling in my paper deliberately uses a wide range of values for various parameters reflecting uncertainty and the need to avoid reliance on particular assumptions about these.  It also uses three different modelling approaches, one mathematical and two computational in order to increase reliability.  That is, the aim is to minimise the sensitivity to particular assumptions by basing results on overall patterns in a variety of potential scenarios and modelling techniques.

The detailed models need some mathematical knowledge, but the calculations behind the 50,000 figure are straightforward:

Total mortality = number of students infected
                  x  knock-on growth factor due to general population R
                  x  general population mortality

So if you wish it is easy to plug in different estimates for each of these values and see for yourself how this impacts the final figure.  To calculate the ‘knock-on growth factor due to general population R’, see “More than R – how we underestimate the impact of Covid-19 infection” [Dx4], which explains the formula (R/(1-R)) and how it comes about.

The programme discussed several assumptions in the above calculation:

  1. Rate of growth within campus: R=3 and 3.5 days inter-infection period. –  These are not assumptions of the modelling paper as a whole, which only assumes rapid spread within student bubbles and no direct spread between bubbles.  However, these are the values used in the scenario that gives rise to the 50,000 figure, because they seemed the best accepted estimate at the time.  However, the calculations only depend on these being high enough to cause widespread outbreak across the student population.  Using more conservative figures of (student) R=2 and 5-6 day inter-infection period, which I believe Dr Yates would be happy with, still means all susceptible students get infected before the end of a term  The recent SAGE report [SAGE] describes models that have peak infection in November, consonant with these values. (see also addendum 2)
  2. Proportion of students infected. –  Again this is not an assumption but instead a consequence of the overall modelling in the paper.  My own initial expectation was that student outbreaks would limit at 60-70%, the herd immunity level, but it was only as the models ran that it became apparent that cross infections out to the wider population and then back ‘reseeded’ student growth because of clumpy social relationships.  However, this is only apparent at a more detailed reading, so it was not unreasonable for More or Less to think that this figure should be smaller.  Indeed in the later blog about the issue [Dx3] I use a very conservative 5% figure for student infections, but with a realistic winter population R and get a similar overall total.
  3. General population mortality rate of 1%. – In early days data for this ranged between 1% and 5% in different countries depending, it was believed, on the resilience of their health service and other factors. I chose the lowest figure.  However, recently there has been some discussion about whether the mortality figure is falling [MOH,LP,BPG].  Explanations include temporary effects (younger demographics of infections, summer conditions) and some that could be long term (better treatment, better testing, viral mutation).  This is still very speculative with suggestions this could now be closer to 07% or (very, very speculative) even around 0.5%.  Note too that in my calculations this is about the general population, not the student body itself where mortality is assumed to be negligible.
  4. General population R=0.7. – This is a very low figure as if the rest of society is in full lockdown and only the universities open. It is the ‘best case’ part of the ‘best case worst case’ scenario. The Academy of Medical Science report “Coronavirus: preparing for challenges this winter” in July [AMS] suggests winter figures of R=1.2 (low) 1.5 (mid) and 1.8 (high). In the modelling, which was done before this report, I used a range of R values between 0.7 and 3; that is including the current best estimates.  The modelling suggested that the worst effects in terms of excess deaths due to universities occurred for R in the low ‘ones’ that is precisely the expected winter figures.

In summary, let’s look at how the above affects the 50,000 figure:

  • 1.  Rate of growth within campus – The calculation is not sensitive to this and hence not affected at all.
  • 2 and 3.  Proportion of students infected and general population mortality rate – These have a linear effect on the final calculation (some sensitivity).  If we take a reduction of 0.7 for each (using the very speculative rather than the very, very speculative figure for reduced mortality), this halves the estimated impact.
  • 4. General population R. This an exponential factor and hence the final result is very sensitive to this. It was unreasonably low, but reasonable figures tend to lead to frighteningly high impacts.  So let’s still use a very conservative figure of 0.9 (light lockdown), which multiplies the total by just under 4 (9/2.3).

The overall result of this is 100,000 rather than 50,000 deaths.

In the end you can play with the figures, and, unless you pull all of the estimates to their lowest credible figure, you will get results that are in the same range or a lot higher.

If you are the sort of person who bets on an accumulator at the Grand National, then maybe you are happy to assume everything will be the best possible outcome.

Personally, I am not a betting man.

 

Addendum 1: Key factors in assessing modelling assumptions and sensitivity

More or Less was absolutely right to question assumptions, but this is just one of a number of issues that are all critical to consider when assessing mathematical or computational modelling:

  • assumptions – values, processes, etc, implicitly or explicitly taken as given
  • sensitivity – how reliant a particular result is on the values used to create it
  • scenarios – particular sets of values that give rise to a result
  • purpose – what you are trying to achieve

I’ve mentioned the first three of these in the discussion above. However, understanding the purpose of a model is also critical particularly when so many factors are uncertain.  Sometimes a prediction has to be very accurate, for example the time when a Mars exploration rocket ‘missed’ because of a very small error in calculations.

For the work described here my own purpose was: (i) to assess how effective student bubbles need to be, a comparative judgement and (ii) to assess whether it matters or not, that is an order of magnitude judgement.    The 50K figure was part of (ii).  If this figure had been in the 10s or 100s even it could be seen to be fairly minor compared with the overall Covid picture, but 10,000, 50,000 or 100,000 are all bad enough to be worth worrying about.  For this purpose fine details are not important, but being broadly robust is.

 

Addendum 2:  Early Covid growth in the UK

The scenario used to calculate the 50K figure used the precise values of R=3 and a 3.5 day inter-infection period, which means that cases can increase by 10 times each week..  As noted the results are not sensitive to these figures and much smaller values still lead the the same overall answer.

The main reason for using this scenario is that it felt relatively conservative to assume that students post lockdown might have rates similar to overall population before awareness of Covid precautions – they would be more careful in terms of their overall hygiene, but would also have the higher risk social situations associated with being a student.

I was a little surprised therefore that, on ‘More or Less’, Kit Yates suggested that this was an unreasonably high figure because the week-on-week growth had never been more than 5 times.  I did wonder whether I had misremembered the 10x figure, from the early days of the crisis unfolding in February and March.

In fact, having rechecked the figures, they are as I remember.  I’ll refer to the data and graphs on the Wikipedia page for UK Covid data.  These use the official UK government data, but are visualised better than on Gov.UK.

UK Cases:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/COVID-19_pandemic_in_the_United_Kingdom#New_cases_by_week_reported

I’m focusing on the early days of both sets of data.  Note that both new cases and deaths ‘lag’ behind actual infections, hence the peaks after lockdown had been imposed. New cases at that point typically meant people showing serious enough symptoms to be admitted to hospital, so lags from infection by say a week or more. Deaths lag by around 2-3 weeks (indeed not included after 28 days to avoid over-counting).

The two data sets are quite similar during the first month or so of the crisis as at that point testing was only being done for very severe cases that were being identified as potential Covid. So, Iet’s just look at the death figures (most reliable) in detail for the first few weeks until the lockdown kicks in and the numbers peek.

week deaths growth (rounded)
29 Feb — 6 March 1
7–13 March 8 x8
14–20 March 181 x22
21–27 March 978 x5
28 March — 3 April 3346 x3.5
4–10 April 6295 x2

Note how there is an initial very fast growth, followed by pre-lockdown slowing as people became aware of the virus and started to take additional voluntary precautions, and then peeking due to lockdown.  The numbers for initial fast phase are small, but this pattern reflects the early stages in Wuhan with initial, doubling approximately every two days before the public became aware of the virus, followed by slow down to around 3 day doubling followed by lockdown.

Indeed in the early stages of the pandemic it was common to see country-vs-country graphs of early growth with straight lines for 2 and 3 day doubling drawn on log-log axes. Countries varied on where they started on this graph, but typically lay between the two lines.  The UK effectively started at the higher end and rapidly dropped to the lower one, before more dramatic reduction post-lockdown.

It may be that Kit recalled the x5 figure (3 day doubling) is it was the figure once the case numbers became larger and hence more reliable.  However, there is also an additional reason, which I think might be why early growth was often underestimated.  In some of the first countries infected outside China their initial growth rate was closer to the 3 day doubling line. However this was before community infection and when cases were driven by international travellers from China.  These early international growths reflected post-public-precautions, but pre-lockdown growth rates in China, not community transmission within the relevant countries.

This last point is educated guesswork, and the only reason I am aware of it is because early on a colleague asked me to look at data as he thought China might be underreporting cases due to the drop in growth rate there.  The international figures were the way it was possible to confirm the overall growth figures in China were reasonably accurate.

References

[AMS] Preparing for a challenging winter 2020-21. The Academy of Medical Sciences. 14th July 2020. https://acmedsci.ac.uk/policy/policy-projects/coronavirus-preparing-for-challenges-this-winter

[BBC1] Schools and coronavirus, test and trace, maths and reality. More or Less, BBC Radio 4. 2nd September 2020.  https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000m5j9

[BBC2] Coronavirus: ‘Critical moment’ as students return to university.  BBC News.  5 September 2020.  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-54040421

[BPG] Are we underestimating seroprevalence of SARS-CoV-2? Burgess Stephen, Ponsford Mark J, Gill Dipender. BMJ 2020; 370 :m3364  https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m3364

[DW] Would student social bubbles cut deaths from Covid-19?  Jim Dickinson on Wonkhe.  28 July 2020.  https://wonkhe.com/wonk-corner/would-student-social-bubbles-cut-deaths-from-covid-19/

[DW1] Could higher education ruin the UK’s Christmas?  Jim Dickinson on Wonkhe.  4 Sept 2020.  https://wonkhe.com/blogs/could-higher-education-ruin-the-uks-christmas/

[Dx1] Working paper: Covid-19 – Impact of a small number of large bubbles on University return. Working Paper, Alan Dix. created 10 July 2020. arXiv:2008.08147 stable version at arXiv |additional information

[Dx2] Why pandemics and climate change are hard to understand, and can we help?  Alan Dix. North Lab Talks, 22nd April 2020 and Why It Matters, 30 April 2020.  http://alandix.com/academic/talks/Covid-April-2020/

[Dx3] Covid-19, the impact of university return.  Alan Dix. 9th August 2020. https://alandix.com/blog/2020/08/09/covid-19-the-impact-of-university-return/

[Dx4] More than R – how we underestimate the impact of Covid-19 infection. Alan Dix.  2nd August 2020. https://alandix.com/blog/2020/08/02/more-than-r-how-we-underestimate-the-impact-of-covid-19-infection/

[LP] Why are US coronavirus deaths going down as covid-19 cases soar? Michael Le Page. New Scientist.  14 July 2020. https://www.newscientist.com/article/2248813-why-are-us-coronavirus-deaths-going-down-as-covid-19-cases-soar/

[MOH] Declining death rate from COVID-19 in hospitals in England
Mahon J, Oke J, Heneghan C.. The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine. June 24, 2020. https://www.cebm.net/covid-19/declining-death-rate-from-covid-19-in-hospitals-in-england/

[SAGEPrinciples for managing SARS-CoV-2 transmission associated with higher education, 3 September 2020.  Task and Finish Group on Higher Education/Further Education. Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. 4 September 2020. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/principles-for-managing-sars-cov-2-transmission-associated-with-higher-education-3-september-2020

 

How much does herd immunity help?

I was asked in a recent email about the potential contribution of (partial) herd immunity to controlling Covid-19.  This seemed a question that many may be asking, so here is the original question and my reply (expanded slightly).

We know that the virus burns itself out if R remains < 1.

There are 2 processes that reduce R, both operating simultaneously:

1) Containment which limits the spread of the virus.

2) Inoculation due to infection which builds herd immunity.

Why do we never hear of the second process, even though we know that both processes act together? What would your estimate be of the relative contribution of each process to reduction of R at the current state of the pandemic in Wales?

One of the UK government’s early options was (2) developing herd immunity1.  That is you let the disease play out until enough people have had it.
For Covid the natural (raw) R number is about 3 without additional voluntary or mandated measures (depends on lots of factors).   However, over time as people build immunity, some of those 3 people who would have been infected already have been.  Once about 2/3 of the community are immune the effective R number drops below 1.  That corresponds to a herd immunity level (in the UK) of about 60-70% of the population having been infected.  Of course, we do not yet know how long this immunity will last, but let’s be optimistic and assume it does.
The reason this policy was (happily) dropped in the UK was the realisation that this would need about 40 million people to catch the virus, with about 4% of these needing intensive care.  That is many, many times the normal ICU capacity, leading to (on the optimistic side) around half a million deaths, but if the health service broke under the strain many times that number!
In Spain (with one of the larger per capita outbreaks) they ran an extensive antibody testing study (that is randomly testing a large number of people whether or not they had had any clear symptoms), and found only about 5% of people showed signs of having had the virus overall, with Madrid closer to 10%.  In the UK estimates are of a similar average level (but without as good data), rising to maybe as high as 17% in London.
Nationally these figures (~5%) do make it slightly easier to control, but this is far below the reduction needed for relatively unrestricted living (as possible in New Zealand, which chose a near eradication strategy)   In London the higher level may help a little more (if it proves to offer long-term protection).  However, it is still well away from the levels needed for normal day-to-day life without still being very careful (masks, social distancing, limited social gatherings), however it does offer just a little ‘headroom’ for flexibility.  In Wales the average level is not far from the UK average, albeit higher in the hardest hit areas, so again well away from anything that would make a substantial difference.
So, as you see it is not that (2) is ignored, but, until we have an artificial vaccine to boost immunity levels, relying on herd immunity is a very high risk or high cost strategy.  Even as part of a mixed strategy, it is a fairly small effect as yet.
In the UK and Wales, to obtain even partial herd immunity we would need an outbreak ten times as large as we saw in the Spring, not a scenario I would like to contemplate 🙁
This said there are two caveats that could make things (a little) easier going forward:
1)  The figures above are largely averages, so there could be sub-communities that do get to a higher level.  By definition, the communities that have been hardest hit are those with factors (crowded accommodation, high-risk jobs, etc.) that amplify spread, so it could be that these sub-groups, whilst not getting to full herd-immunity levels, do see closer to population spread rates in future hence contributing to a lower average spread rate across society as a whole.  We would still be a long way from herd immunity, but slower spread makes test, track and trace easier, reduces local demand on health service, etc.
2)  The (relatively) low rates of spread in Africa have led to speculation (still very tentative) that there may be some levels of natural immunity from those exposed to high levels of similar viruses in the past.  However, this is still very speculative and does not seem to accord with experience from other areas of the world (e.g. Brazilian favelas), so it looks as though this is at most part of a more complex picture.
I wouldn’t hold my breath for (1) or (2), but it may be that as things develop we do see different strategies in different parts of the world depending on local conditions of housing, climate, social relationships, etc.

Update

Having written the above, I’ve just heard about the following that came out end of last week in BMJ, which suggests that there could be a significant number of mild cases that are not
detected on standard blood test as having been infected.
Burgess StephenPonsford Mark JGill DipenderAre we underestimating seroprevalence of SARS-CoV-2? https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m3364
  1. I should say the UK government now say that herd immunity was never part of their planning, but for a while they kept using the term! Here’s a BBC article about the way herd immunity influenced early UK decisions, a Guardian report that summarises some of the government documents that reveal this strategy, and a Politco article that reports on the Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance ‘s statement that he never really meant this was part of government planning.  His actual words on 12th March were “Our aim is not to stop everyone getting it, you can’t do that. And it’s not desirable, because you want to get some immunity in the population. We need to have immunity to protect ourselves from this in the future.”  Feel free to decide for yourself what ‘desirable‘ might have meant.[back]

Covid-19, the impact of university return

For many reasons, it is important for universities to re-open in the autumn, but it is also clear that this is a high-risk endeavour: bringing around 2% of the UK population together in close proximity for 10 to 12 weeks and then re-dispersing them at Christmas.

When I first estimated the actual size of the impact I was, to be honest, shocked; it was a turning point for me. With an academic hat on I can play with the numbers as an intellectual exercise, but we are talking about many, many thousands of lives at risk, the vast majority outside the university itself, with the communities around universities most at risk.

I have tried to think of easy, gentle and diplomatic ways of expressing this, but there are none; we seem in danger of creating killing zones around our places of learning.

At the very best, outbreaks will be detected early, and instead of massive deaths we will see substantial lockdowns in many university cities across the UK with the corresponding social and economic costs, which will create schisms between ‘town and gown’ that may poison civic relationships for years to come.

In the early months of the year many of us in the university sector watched with horror as we watched the Covid-19 numbers rising and could see where this would end. The eventual first ‘wave’ and its devastating death toll did not need sophisticated modelling to predict; in the intervening months it has played out precisely as expected. At that point the political will was clearly set and time was short; there was little we could do but shake our heads in despair and feel the pain of seeing our predictions become reality as the numbers grew, each number a person, each person a community.

Across the sector, many are worried about the implications of the return of students and staff in the autumn, but structurally the nature of the HE sector in the UK makes it near impossible even for individual universities to take sufficient steps to mitigate it, let alone individual academics.

Doing the sums

For some time, universities across the UK have been preparing for the re-opening, working out ways to reduce the risk. There has been a mathematical modelling working group trying to assess the impact of various measures, as well as much activity at individual institutions.  It appears too that SAGE has highlighted that universities pose a potential risk [SN], but this seems to have gone cold and universities are coping as best they can with apparently no national plan. Universities UK have issued guidance to universities on what to do as they emerge from lockdown [UUKa], but it does not include an estimate of the scale of the problem.

As I said, the turning point for me came when I realised just how bad this could be. As with the early national growth pattern, it does not require complex mathematics to assess, within rough ranges, the potential impact; and even the most conservative estimates are terrifying.

We know from freshers’ flu that infections spread quickly amongst the student community.  The social life is precisely why many students relocate to distant cities.  Without strong measures to control student infections it is clear that Covid-19 will spread rapidly on campuses, leading to thousands of cases in each university. Students themselves are at low (though not zero) risk of dying or having serious complications from Covid-19, but if there is even small ‘leakage’ into the surrounding community (via university staff, transport systems, stay-at-home students or night life), then the impact is catastrophic.

For a mid-sized university of 20,000 students, let’s say only 1 in 20 become infected during the term; that is around 1,000 student cases. As a very conservative estimate, let’s assume just one community infection for every 10 infected students. If city bars are open this figure will almost certainly be much higher, but we’ll take a very low estimate. In this case, we are looking at 100 initial community cases.

Now 100 additional cases is already potentially enough to cause a handful of deaths, but we have got used to trading off social benefits against health costs; for any activity there is always a level of risk that we are prepared to accept.

However, the one bit of mathematics you do need to know is the way that a relatively small R number still leads to a substantial number of cases. For example, an R of 0.9 means for every initial infection the total number of infections is actually 10 times higher (in general 1/(1-R), see [Dx1]).  When R is greater than 1 the effect is worse still, with the impact only limited when some additional societal measure kicks in, such as a vaccine or local lockdown.

A relatively conservative estimate for R in the autumn is 1.5 [AMS]. For R =1.5, those initial 100 community cases magnify to over 10,000 within 5 weeks and more than 600,000 within 10 weeks. Even with the most optimistic winter rate of 1.2, those 100 initial community infections will give rise to 20,000 cases by the end of a term.

That is for a single university.

With a mortality rate of 1% and the most optimistic figures, this means that each university will cause hundreds of deaths.  In other words, the universities in the UK will collectively create as many infections as the entire first wave.  At even slightly less optimistic figures, the impact is even more devastating.

Why return at all?

Given the potential dangers, why are universities returning at all in the autumn instead of continuing with fully online provision?

In many areas of life there is a trade-off to be made between, on the one hand, the immediate Covid-19 health impacts and, on the other, a variety of issues: social, educational, economic, and also longer term and indirect mental and physical health implications. This is no less true when we consider the re-opening of universities.

Social implications: We know that the lockdown has caused a significant increase in mental health problems amongst young people, for a variety of reasons: the social isolation itself, pressures on families, general anxiety about the disease, and of course worries about future education and jobs. Some of the arguments are similar to those for schools except that universities do not provide a ‘child minding’ role. Crucially, for both schools and universities, we know that online education is least effective for those who are already most economically deprived, not least because of continued poor access to digital technology. We risk creating a missed generation and deepening existing fractures in civil society.

Furthermore, the critical role of university research has been evident during the Covid crisis, from the development of new treatments to practical use of infrastructure for rapid production of PPE. Ongoing, the initial wave has emphasised the need for more medical training.  Of course, both education and research will also be critical for ‘post-Covid’ recovery.

Economic situation: Across the UK, universities generate £95 billion in gross output and support nearly a million jobs (2014–2015 data, [UUKb]).  Looking at Wales in particular, the HE sector “employs 17,300 full-time members of staff and spending by students and visitors supports an estimated 50,000 jobs across Wales”. At the same time the sector is particularly vulnerable to the effects of Covid-19 [HoC]. Universities across the UK were already financially straitened due to a combination of demographics and Brexit, leading to significant cost-cutting including job cuts [BBCa].  Covid-19 has intensified this; a Wales Fiscal Analysis briefing paper in May [WFA] suggests that Welsh universities may see a shortfall due to Covid-19 of between £100m and £140m. More recent estimates suggest that this may be understating the problem, if anything. Cardiff University alone is warning of a £168m fall in income [WO] and Sir Deian Hopkin, former Vice Chancellor of London South Bank and advisor to the Welsh Assembly, talks of a “perfect storm” in the university system [BBCb].

Government support has been minimal. The rules for Covid-19 furlough meant that universities were only able to take minimal advantage of the scheme. There has been some support in terms of general advice, reducing bureaucratic overheads and rescheduling payments to help university cashflow, but this has largely been within existing budgets, not new funding. The Welsh government has announced an FE/HE £50m support package with £27m targeting universities [WG], but this is small compared with predicted losses.

Universities across the UK have already cut casual teaching (the increase in zero-hour contracts has been a concern in HE for some years) and many have introduced voluntary severance schemes.  At the same time the competition over UK students has intensified in a bid to make up for reduced international numbers. Yet one of the principal ways to attract students is to maximise the amount of in-person teaching.

What is being done

To some extent, as in so many areas, coronavirus has exposed the structural weaknesses that have been developing in the university sector for the past 30 years. Universities have been forced to compete constantly and are measured in terms of student experience above educational impact. Society as a whole has been bombarded with messages that focus on individual success and safety rather than communal goals, and most current students have grown up in this context. This focus has been very evident in the majority of Covid-19 information and reporting [Dx2].

Everything we do is set against this backdrop, which both fundamentally limits what universities are able to do individually, and at the same time makes them responsible.  This is not to say that universities are not sharing good practice, both in top down efforts such as through Universities UK and direct contacts between senior management, and from the bottom up via person-to-person contacts and through subject-specific organisations such as CPHC.

Typically, universities are planning to retain some level of in-person teaching for small tutorials while completely or largely moving large-class activities such as lectures to online delivery, some live, some recorded. This will help to remove some student–student contact during teaching. Furthermore, many universities have discussed ways in which students could be formed into bubbles. At a large scale that could involve having rooms or buildings dedicated to a particular subject/year group for a day.  At a finer scale it has been suggested that students could be grouped into social/study bubbles of around ten or a dozen who are housed together in student accommodation and are also grouped for study purposes.

My own modelling of student bubbles [Dx3] suggests that while reducing the level of transmission, the impact is rapidly eroded if the bubbles are at all porous.  For example, if the small bubbles break and transmission hits whole year groups (80–200 students), the impact on outside communities becomes unacceptable. For students on campus the temptation to break these bubbles will be intense, both at an individual level and through bars and similar venues.  For those living at home, the complexities are even greater, and crucially they are a primary vector into the local community.

Combined with, or instead of, social/study bubbles some universities are looking at track and trace. Some are developing their own solutions both in terms of apps and regular testing programmes, but more will use normal health systems.  In Wales, for example, Public Health Wales regard university staff as a priority group for Covid-19 testing, although this is reactive (symptoms-based) rather than proactive (regular testing).

Dr Hans Kluge, the Europe regional director for the World Health Organization and others have warned that global surges across the world, including in Europe, are being driven by infections amongst younger people [BBCc].  He highlights the need to engage young people more in the science, a call that is reflected in a recent survey by the British Science Association which found that nine out of ten young people felt ignored by scientists and politicians [BSA].

As of 27th July, the UK Department for Education were “working to” two scenarios “Effective containment and testing” (reduce growth on campuses and reactive local lockdowns) and “On and off restrictions” (delaying all in-person teaching until January) [DfE].  Jim Dickinson has collated and analysed current advice and work at various government and advisory bodies including the DfE report above and SAGE, but so far there seems to be no public quantification of the risk [JD].

What can we do?

I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of high-level advice from national governments and pan-University bodies, and most individual university thinking, has been driven by safety concerns for students and staff rather than the potentially far more serious implications for society at large.

As with so many aspects of this crisis, the first step is to recognise there is a problem.

Within universitiesacknowledge that the risk level will be far higher than in society at large because the case load will be far higher. How much higher will depend on mitigating measures, but whereas general population levels by the start of term may be as low as 1 in 5,000, the rate amongst students will be an order of magnitude higher, comparable with general levels during the peak of the ‘first wave’. This means that advice, particularly for at risk groups, which is targeted at national levels, needs to be re-thought within the university context. This means that advice that is targeted at national levels, particularly for at risk groups, needs to be re-thought within the university context.  Individual vulnerable students are already worried [BBCd]. Chinese and Asian students seem more aware of the personal dangers and it is noticeable that both within the UK and in the US the universities with the greatest number of international students are more risk averse. University staff (academics, cleaners, security) will include more at risk individuals than the student body. It is hard to quantify, but the risk level will considerably higher than, say, a restaurant or pub, though of course lower than for front line medical staff. Even if it is ‘safe’ for vulnerable groups to come out of shielding in general society, it may not be safe in the context of the university. This will be difficult to manage: even if the university does not force vulnerable staff to return, the long-term culture of vocational commitment may make some people take unacceptable risks.

Outside the universities, local councils, national governments and communities need to be aware of the increased risks when the universities reopen, just as seaside towns have braced themselves for tourist surges post-lockdown. While SAGE has noted that universities may be an ‘amplifier’, the extent does not appear (at least publicly) to have been quantified.  In Aberdeen recently a cluster around a small number of pubs has caused the whole city to return to lockdown, and it is hard to imagine that we won’t see similar incidents around universities. This may lead to hard decisions, as has been discussed, between opening schools or pubs [BBCe] – city centre bars may well need to be re-thought. Universities benefit communities substantially both economically and educationally. For individual universities alone the costs of, say, weekly testing of students and staff would be prohibitive, but when seen in terms of regional or national health protection these may well be worthwhile. Although this is a ‘for example’ it could well be critical given the likelihood of large numbers of asymptomatic student cases.

Educate students – this is of course what we do as universities!  Covid-19 will be a live topic for every student, but they may well have many of the misconceptions that permeate popular discourse.  Can we help them become more aware of the aspects that connect to their own disciplines and hence to become ambassadors of good practice amongst their peers? Within maths and computing we can look at models and data analysis, which could be used in other scientific areas where these are taught.  Medicine is obvious and design and engineering students might have examples around PPE or ventilators. In architecture we can think about flows within buildings, ventilation, and design for hygiene (e.g. places to wash your hands in public spaces that aren’t inside a toilet!). In literature, there is pandemic fiction from Journal of the Plague Year to La Peste, and in economics we have examples of externalities (and if you leave externalities until a specialised final year option, rethink a 21st century economics syllabus!).

Time to act

On March 16, I posted on Facebook, “One week left to save the UK – and WE CAN DO IT.” Fortunately, we have more time now to ensure a safe university year but we need to act immediately to use that time effectively. We can do it.

References

[AMS] The Academy of Medical Sciences. Preparing for a challenging winter 2020-21. 14th July 2020. https://acmedsci.ac.uk/policy/policy-projects/coronavirus-preparing-for-challenges-this-winter

[BBCa] Cardiff University to cut 380 posts after £20m deficit. BBC News. 12th Feb 2019.  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-47205659

[BBCb] Coronavirus: Universities’ ‘perfect storm’ threatens future.  Tomos Lewis  BBC News. 7 August 2020.  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-53682774

[BBCc] WHO warns of rising cases among young in Europe. Lauren Turner, BBc New live reporting, 10:05am 29th July 2020. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/world-53577222?pinned_post_locator=urn:asset:59cae0e7-5d3d-4e35-94ec-1895273ed016

[BBCd] Coronavirus: University life may ‘pose further risk’ to young shielders
Bethany Dawson. BBC News. 6th August 2020. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/disability-53552077

[BBCe]  Coronavirus: Pubs ‘may need to shut’ to allow schools to reopen. BBC News. 1st August 2020.  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-53621613

[BG]  Colleges reverse course on reopening as pandemic continues.  Deirdre Fernandes, Boston Globe, updated 2nd August 2020.  https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/08/02/metro/pandemic-continues-some-colleges-reverse-course-reopening/

[BSA] New survey results: Almost 9 in 10 young people feel scientists and politicians are leaving them out of the COVID-19 conversation. British Science Association. (undated) accessed 7/8/2020.  https://www.britishscienceassociation.org/news/new-survey-results-almost-9-in-10-young-people-feel-scientists-and-politicians-are-leaving-them-out-of-the-covid-19-conversation

[DfE] DfE: Introduction to higher education settings in England, 1 July 2020 Paper by the Department for Education (DfE) for the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). Original published 24th July 2020 (updated 27th July 2020).  https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/dfe-introduction-to-higher-education-settings-in-england-1-july-2020

[Dx1]  More than R – how we underestimate the impact of Covid-19 infection. . Dix (blog).  2nd August 2020  https://alandix.com/blog/2020/08/02/more-than-r-how-we-underestimate-the-impact-of-covid-19-infection/

[Dx2] Why pandemics and climate change are hard to understand, and can we help? A. Dix. North Lab Talks, 22nd April 2020 and Why It Matters, 30 April 2020 http://alandix.com/academic/talks/Covid-April-2020/

[Dx3] Covid-19 – Impact of a small number of large bubbles on University return. Working Paper. A. Dix. July 2020.  http://alandix.com/academic/papers/Covid-bubbles-July-2020/

[HEFCW] COVID-19 impact on higher education providers: funding, regulation and reporting implications.  HEFCW Circular, 4th May 2020 https://www.hefcw.ac.uk/documents/publications/circulars/circulars_2020/W20%2011HE%20COVID-19%20impact%20on%20higher%20education%20providers.pdf

[HoC]  The Welsh economy and Covid-19: Interim Report. House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee. 16th July 2020. https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/1972/documents/19146/default/

[JD]  Universities get some SAGE advice on reopening campuses. Jim Dickinson, WonkHE, 25th July 2020.  https://wonkhe.com/blogs/universities-get-some-sage-advice-on-reopening-campuses/

[SN]  Coronavirus: University students could be ‘amplifiers’ for spreading COVID-19 around UK – SAGE. Alix Culbertson. Sky News. 24th July 2020. https://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-university-students-could-be-amplifiers-for-spreading-covid-19-around-uk-sage-12035744

[UUKa] Principles and considerations: emerging from lockdown.   Universities UK, June 2020. https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Pages/principles-considerations-emerging-lockdown-uk-universities-june-2020.aspx

[UUKb] https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Pages/economic-impact-universities-2014-15.aspx

[WFA] Covid-19 and the Higher Education Sector in Wales (Briefing Paper). Cian Siôn, Wales Fiscal Analysis, Cardiff University.  14th May 2020.  https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/2394361/Covid_FINAL.pdf

[WG]  Over £50 million to support Welsh universities, colleges and students.    Welsh Government press release.  22nd July 2020.  https://gov.wales/over-50-million-support-welsh-universities-colleges-and-students

[WO] Cardiff University warns of possible job cuts as it faces £168m fall in income. Abbie Wightwick, Wales Online. 10th June 2020.  https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/education/cardiff-university-job-losses-coronavirus-18393947

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Corbynism dead? The data says not.

The December 12th election saw the most disasterous Labour defeat in nearly a century and the collapse of the ‘red wall’ of Labour heartlands in the North-East. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are standing down in the New Year, and the vultures are gathering to pick the meagre bones of Corbyn’s political body.

Many Labour canvasers reported that on the doors the problem was four parts Corbyn for every one part Brexit. The message is clear, Corbyn was toxic on the doorstep and Labour needs a change.

But the numbers tell a different story.

Labour’s vote share fell dramatically from the surprise successes of 2017, when Corbyn’s campaign charisma unexpectedly set back Teresa May’s ambition to win the sort of majority that Boris Johnson has today.

But if you look before that to 2015,, the picture is less clear

.Comparing the recent election with 2015, the Labour share of the vote in 2019 is actually higher than its vote share in 2015. Yes, Labour is still performing better under the avowedly socialist Jeremy Corbyn than it did under ‘centrist’ Ed Miliband.

The difference between David Cameron’s small majority and Boris Johnson’s landslide is predominantly about the collapse of the UKIP/Brexit vote, with the hard Leavers exchanging Farage for Johnson. In 2017, Labour took a soft Brexit position, which, while annoying many Corbyn supporters at the time, seemed to hold onto many of the Leave voters who last week voted Conservative in Labour heartlands

Increasing vote share since 2015 is remarkable in the face of long-term excoriating press attacks against Jeremy Corbyn personally and a Conservative Facebook ad campaign that fact checkers rated as 88% false, not forgetting persistent undermining by sections of the Labour party itself.

More crucial is who voted for Labour and Conservative. It has always been the case that voters drift right as they age, often favouring economic security over youthful idealism. However this has dramatically shifted in the last few years. Conservative support in younger age groups has crashed utterly and it is now predominantly a party of the old. The Tory Party has effectively mortgaged its future for current electoral success.

This is evident in the demographics of voting on Dec 12th collected by Lord Ashcroft’s post-vote poll. Labour has a vast lead over Conservative in voters under 45, whereas Conservative vote share, which is over 60% in the over 65’s, shrinks to less than 20% in the under 25s.

These under 45s have lived entirely under the neoliberal individualism that started with Thatcher and adopted in large part by New Labour and Tory governments since. They have seen it, and rejected it. A generation is growing who are looking beyond themselves, recognising the disastrous impacts of past policies of all governments on the environment and humanity, and believing in the power of society to transform, not just their own lives, but those of the whole nation and world.

As Labour chooses its new leader, it should ponder whether it wants to revert to the old policies and combat the Tories for the votes of the old, or embrace the spirit of hope and change that has galvanised the youth of the country.

This post is also published in Medium.

Paying On Time – universities are failing

Universities are not living up to Government prompt payment targets.  As many suppliers will be local SMEs this threatens the cashflow of businesses that may be teetering on the edge, and the well being of local economies.

I’ve twice in the last couple of months been hit by university finance systems that have a monthly payment run so that if a claim or invoice is not submitted by a certain date, often the first day or two of the month, then it is not paid until the end of the following month, leading to a seven week delay in payment.  This is despite Government guidelines for a normal 30 day payment period and to aim for 80% payment within 5 working days.

I’d like to say these are rare cases, but are sadly typical of university payment and expense systems.  In some cases this is because one is being treated as a casual employee, so falling into payroll systems.  However, often the same systems are clearly being used for commercial payments.  This means that if a supplier misses a monthly deadline they may wait nearly two months for payment … and of course if they are VAT registered may have already had to pay the VAT portion to HMRC before they actual receive the payment.

The idea of monthly cheque runs is a relic of the 1970s when large reels of magnetic tapes had to be mounted on refrigerator-sized machines and special paper had to be loaded into line-printers for cheque runs.  In the 21st century when the vast proportion of payments are electronic, it is an embarrassing and unethical anachronism.

As well as these cliff-edge deadline issues, I’ve seen university finance systems who bounce payments to external suppliers if data is on an out of date form, even if the form was provided in error by a member of university staff.

Even worse are universities finance systems which are organised so that when there is a problem in payment, for example, a temporary glitch in electronic bank payments, instead of retrying the payment, or informing the payee or relevant university contact, the system simply ignores it leaving it in limbo.  I’ve encountered missing payments of this kind up to a year after the original payment date.  If one were cynical one might imagine that they simply hope the supplier will never notice.

The issue of late payments became a major issue a few years ago.  Following the recession, many SMEs were constantly teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, yet larger firms were lax in paying promptly knowing that they were in a position of power (e.g. see “Getting paid on time” issued by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, February 2012).

Five years on this is still a problem.  In April last year The Independent estimated that British SMEs were owed 44.6 billion in late or overdue payments(see “The scourge of late payment“).  There is now mandatory reporting of payment processes for larger companies, and recent returns showed that some companies missed prompt payment up to 96% of the time, with bad performers including major names such as Deloitte (see “Ten of the UK’s big businesses that fail to pay suppliers on time get named and shamed by the Government“).

There is also a voluntary “Prompt Payment Code“, but, amongst the signatories, there are only two universities (Huddersfield and Westminster) and three colleges.

Universities are often proud of the way they support local economies and communities: being major employers and often offering advice to local businesses.  However, in respect to prompt payment they are failing those same communities.

So, well done Huddersfield and Westminster, and for the rest of the university system – up your game.

Who not to feel sorry for facing an uncertain Brexit

map of areas with high indices of multiple deprivation in CornwallReading Julia Rampen’s “11 things I feel more sorry about than Cornwall losing money after Brexit” in the New Statesman, I agree with all the groups she cites who are going to suffer the effects of Brexit, but did not vote for it.

However, it is clear that, when considering Cornwall, which voted 56.5% to leave, where affluent second home owners and retirees are cheek-by-jowl with post-industrial poverty and decay, and which is now worried about the loss of regional funding; Rampen’s sympathy is, to say the least, muted.

This made me ponder other groups for whom I have little sympathy as we face the uncertainty, and quite likely utter disaster, of Brexit.

  • those, like myself, academics, professionals, who have reaped the benefits of open markets and labour, but ignored the plight of those who have suffered because of it
  • those who have accepted the narrative that those who suffered most were in some way to blame
  • the newspapers that lampooned and vilified Gordon Brown for his overheard private comment about a “bigoted woman“, but now happy to label leave voters who hold similar views as racist.
  • those that passively accepted the implicit racism of the leadership debates in the 2010 general election without comment
  • those who have accepted EU rules as an excuse for government inaction … such as happened with Port Talbot steel just before the referendum election
  • the governments and administrations of multiple hues over many years, who have applied EU regulations in ways that no other country would regard as reasonable

Some of these ‘unwilling vicitims’ will suffer from Brexit despite voting to remain. However, many of those who will suffer worst will have voted to leave, but only because remaining in offered them no hope either.

After a generation of closing our hearts to those suffering on our doorstep, we now demonise them yet again.

 

 

slaughter of the innocents – human shields or collateral damage?

By Huynh Cong Ut (also known as Nick Ut), image from Wikipedia

From the ‘Napalm Girl‘ in Vietnam, to Alan Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach in 2015 and endless images of White Hat’s pulling children from the rubble in Aleppo, it is easy to become inured to the death of innocent children around the world.

In the church calendar, December 28th1 is the Feast of the Innocents or Childermas, a day to remember the children killed by King Herod as he sought the baby Jesus.

In Matthew’s Gospel we read:

 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under (Matt. 2:16, NIV).

However, for many it is the words in the Christmas carol, “Unto us a boy is born“, which is most familiar:

All the little boys he killed at Bethlehem in his fury.

Mary and Joseph had already fled, refugees to Egypt, so the babies were not simply slaughtered, but slaughtered in vain, an action missing its true target, like the bombs that killed Gaddaffi’s children and grandchildren in 1986 and 2011.

I’ve been reading Simon Garfield’s “Timekeepers‘ (a Christmas gift).  Garfield describes a meeting with Nick Ut, the photographer of ‘Napalm Girl’2.  The common story is that the US attack on the village from which Phan Thi Kim Phuc was running was a mistake, but Ut describes how in the village there were many dead Viet Cong, so that the mistake was more likely inadequate intelligence that the villagers had fled (Timekeepers, p.168).

A few weeks ago a BBC reporter in Yemen was visiting a school, which Saudi air strikes had repeatedly hit.  This was one example of many such incidents targeting schools during this conflict3. The reporter talked of how the school kept on working and pupils kept attending, despite the damage and the danger.  However, the report also showed the Houthi rebel arms dump next to the school.  “Can’t you move the school away from this?”, asked the reporter. “They would simply move the dump to follow us”, replied the headmaster.

Again this is a story we have heard so many times before: missiles fired from hospital grounds in Gaza, Ukraine keeping its air corridors open whilst in the midst of its air campaign against separatists4, ISIS preventing civilian evacuation from Mosul, or the South Korean artillery firing into disputed areas from a populated island.

In some cases civilians are deliberately put in the way of danger (as with ISIS); in others fighting in built up areas makes civilian presence inevitable (Aleppo, Gaza).  In some cases terror is the main aim of an attack or the civilians are seen as legitimate targets (as with ISIS attacks in Europe); in others terror is a deliberate secondary war aim (as with Dresden or Nagasaki). In some cases attackers seem to show flagrant disregard for civilian life (as in Gaza), and in others all care is take, but (often substantial) civilian deaths are accepted as collateral damage (probably the case with US drone extrajudicial killings).

Whether you blame those on the ground for using human shields or those attacking for disregarding human like, often depends on which side you are on5.

In most conflicts the truth is complex, especially where there are mismatches of firepower: Hamas in Gaza, anti-Assad rebel groups in Syria, or ISIS in Iraq would all have been slaughtered if they fought in the open.  And for the attacking side, where does the responsibility lie between callous disregard for human life and justifiable retaliation?  How do we place the death of children by bombs against those of starvation and illness caused by displaced populations, siege or international sanctions?

If the events in Bethlehem were to happen today, how would we view Herod?

Was he despotic dictator killing his own people?

Was the baby Jesus a ‘clear and present danger’, to the stability the state and thus the children of Bethlehem merely collateral damage?

Or were Mary, Joseph and God to blame for using human shields, placing this infant of mass disruption in the midst of a small town?

It is worryingly easy to justify the slaughter of a child.


Some organisations that are making a difference:

  1. The date varies in different churches, it is 28th December in most Western churches, but 27th, 29th Dec, or 10th January elsewhere[back]
  2. The ‘Napalm Girl’ recent obtained fresh notoriety when Facebook temporarily censored it because it showed nudity.[back]
  3. Another BBC report,amongst many, “Yemen crisis: Saudi-led coalition ‘targeting’ schools” documents this.[back]
  4. Before MH17 was shot down a Ukrainian military transport and other military planes had been shot down, and the first messages following the destruction of MH17 suggest the rebels thought they had downed another military aircraft.  Instead of re-routing flights the flying ceiling was raised, but still within distance of ground-to-air missiles, and carriers made their own choices as to whether to overfly.  Some newspapers suggest that the motives were mainly financial both for Malaysian Airways, and for the Ukrainian government decisions, rather than Ukraine using civilian flights as a deliberate human shield.[back]
  5. Patrick Cockburn’s comparison of Aleppo and Mosul in The Independent argues this is the case for the current conflicts in Syrian and Iraq.[back]

the educational divide – do numbers matter?

If a news article is all about numbers, why is the media shy about providing the actual data?

On the BBC News website this morning James McIvor‘s article “Clash over ‘rich v poor’ university student numbers” describes differences between Scottish Government (SNP) and Scottish Labour in the wake of Professor Peter Scott appointment as commissioner for fair access to higher education in Scotland.

Scottish Labour claim that while access to university by the most deprived has increased, the educational divide is growing, with the most deprived increasing by 0.8% since 2014, but those in the least deprived (most well off) growing at nearly three times that figure.  In contrast, the Sottish Government claims that in 2006 those from the least deprived areas were 5.8 times more likely to enter university than those in the most deprived areas, whereas now the difference is only 3.9 times, a substantial decrease in educational inequality..

The article is all about numbers, but the two parties seem to be saying contradictory things, one saying inequality is increasing, one saying it is decreasing!

Surely enough to make the average reader give up on experts, just like Michael Gove!

Of course, if you can read through the confusing array of leasts and mosts, the difference seems to be that the two parties are taking different base years: 2014 vs 2006, and that both can be true: a long term improvement with decreasing inequality, but a short term increase in inequality since 2014.  The former is good news, but the latter may be bad news, a change in direction that needs addressing, or simply ‘noise’ as we are taking about small changes on big numbers.

I looked in vain for a link to the data, web sites or reports n which this was based, after all this is an article where the numbers are the story, but there are none.

After a bit of digging, I found that the data that both are using is from the UCAS Undergraduate 2016 End of Cycle Report (the numerical data for this figure and links to CSV files are below).

Figure from UCAS 2016 End of Cycle Report

Looking at these it is clear that the university participation rate for the least deprived quintile (Q5, blue line at top) has stayed around 40% with odd ups and downs over the last ten years, whereas the participation of the most deprived quintile has been gradually increasing, again with year-by-year wiggles.  That is the ratio between least and most deprived used to be about 40:7 and now about 40:10, less inequality as the SNP say.

For some reason 2014 was a dip year for the Q5.  There is no real sign of a change in the long-term trend, but if you take 2014 to 2016, the increase in Q5 is larger than the increase in Q1, just as Scottish Labour say.  However, any other year would not give this picture.

In this case it looks like Scottish Labour either cherry picked a year that made the story they wanted, or simply accidentally chose it.

The issue for me though, is not so much who was right or wrong, but why the BBC didn’t present this data to make it possible to make this judgement?

I can understand the argument that people do not like, or understand numbers at all, but where, as in this case, the story is all about the numbers, why not at least present the raw data and ideally discuss why there is an apparent contradiction!

 

Numerical from figure 57 of UCAS  2016 End of Cycle Report

2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Q1 7.21 7.58 7.09 7.95 8.47 8.14 8.91 9.52 10.10 9.72 10.90
Q2 13.20 12.80 13.20 14.30 15.70 14.40 14.80 15.90 16.10 17.40 18.00
Q3 21.10 20.60 20.70 21.30 23.60 21.10 22.10 22.50 22.30 24.00 24.10
Q4 29.40 29.10 30.20 30.70 31.50 29.10 29.70 29.20 28.70 30.30 31.10
Q5 42.00 39.80 41.40 42.80 41.70 40.80 41.20 40.90 39.70 41.10 42.30

UCAS provide the data in CSV form.  I converted this to the above tabular form and this is available in CSV or XLSX.

the rise of the new liberal facism

Across Europe the ultra-right wing raise again the ugly head of racism in scenes shockingly reminiscent of the late-1930s; while in America white supremacists throw stiff-armed salutes and shout “Heil Trump!”  It has become so common that reporters no longer even remark on the swastikas daubed as part of neo-Nazi graffiti.

Yet against this we are beginning to see a counter movement, spoken in the soft language of liberalism, often well  intentioned, but creating its own brand of facism.  The extremes of the right become the means to label whole classes of people as ‘deplorable’, too ignorant, stupid or evil to be taken seriously, in just the same way as the Paris terrorist attacks or Cologne sexual assaults were used by the ultra-right to label all Muslims and migrants.

Hilary Clinton quickly recanted her “basket of depolarables”.  However, it is shocking that this was said at all, especially by a politician who made a point of preparedness, in contrast to Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks.  In a speech, which will have been past Democrat PR experts as well as Clinton herself, to label half of Trump supporters, at that stage possibly 20% of the US electorate, as ‘deplorable’ says something about the common assumptions that are taken for granted, and worrying because of that.

My concern has been growing for a long time, but I’m prompted to write now having read  ‘s “Welcome to the age of anger” in the Guardian.  Mishra’s article builds on previous work including Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics and the growing discourse on post-truth politics.  He gives us a long and scholarly view from the Enlightenment, utopian visions of the 19th century, and models of economic self interest through to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of Islamic extremism and ultimately Brexit and Trump.

The toxicity of debate in both the British EU Referendum and US Presidential Election is beyond doubt.  In both debates both sides frequently showed a disregard for truth and taste, but there is little equivalence between the tenor of the Trump and Clinton campaign, and, in the UK, the Leave campaign’s flagrant disregard for fact made even Remain’s claims of imminent third world war seem tame.

Indeed, to call either debate a ‘debate’ is perhaps misleading as rancour, distrust and vitriol dominated both, so much so that Jo Cox viscous murder, even though the work of a single new-Nazi individual, was almost unsurprising in the growing paranoia.

Mishra tries to interpret the frightening tide of anger sweeping the world, which seems to stand in such sharp contrast to rational enlightened self-interest and the inevitable rise of western democracy, which was the dominant narrative of the second half of the 20th century.  It is well argued, well sourced, the epitome of the very rationalism that it sees fading in the world.

It is not the argument itself that worries me, which is both illuminating and informing, but the tacit assumptions that lie behind it: the “age of anger” in the title itself and the belief throughout that those who disagree must be driven by crude emotions: angry, subject to malign ‘ressentiment‘, irrational … or to quote Lord Kerr (who to be fair was referring to ‘native Britains’ in general) just too “bloody stupid“.

Even the carefully chosen images portray the Leave campaigner and Trump supporter as almost bestial, rather than, say, the images of exultant joy at the announcement of the first Leave success in Sunderland, or even in the article’s own Trump campaign image, if you look from the central emotion filled face to those around.

guardian-leaver  telegraph-sunderland-win
guardian-trump-1  guardian-trump-2

The article does not condemn those that follow the “venomous campaign for Brexit” or the “rancorous Twitter troll”, instead they are treated, if not compassionately, impassionately: studied as you would a colony of ants or herd of wildebeest.

If those we disagree with are lesser beings, we can ignore them, not address their real concerns.

We would not treat them with the accidental cruelty that Dickens describes in pre-revolutionary Paris, but rather the paternalistic regard for the lower orders of pre-War Britain, or even the kindness of the more benign slave owner; folk not fully human, but worthy of care as you would a favourite dog.

Once we see our enemy as animal, or the populous as cattle, then, however well intentioned, there are few limits.

The 1930s should have taught us that.