Home » SAGE expert says wildly wrong Omicron death predictions failed to account for behaviour change

SAGE expert says wildly wrong Omicron death predictions failed to account for behaviour change

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SAGE expert says wildly wrong Omicron death predictions failed to account for behaviour change

Grim modelling that over-egged the Omicron wave failed to ‘accurately predict the numbers’ because it did not factor in behaviour changes, one of the Government’s chief pandemic advisers has admitted.

When the ultra-transmissible variant struck, SAGE scientists warned deaths could peak at 6,000 a day with 10,000 hospital admissions, sparking calls for another lockdown. 

But in reality, fatalities only reached 300 a day, or a quarter of the levels seen last winter, and hospitalisations peaked at around 2,000.

Ministers did impose ‘Plan B’ measures, including asking people to work from home, yet beforehand millions were already choosing to stay home to avoid catching the virus and having to self-isolate on Christmas Day. 

Professor Graham Medley, who chairs a modelling group feeding into SAGE, told MPs it was almost impossible to predict human behaviour and that it was his job to consider pessimistic outcomes.

‘The epidemic is dynamic,’ he said. ‘People’s responses to the situation in March 2020 were very different to those in November 2020 and very different again in January 2021.’

Professor Medley, based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, added: ‘The modelling is there to understand the process and what’s going on. We know we cannot accurately predict the numbers but we can give insight into the processes that determine the outcomes.’ 

SAGE’s models have been heavily criticised during the pandemic with many scientists claiming they fail to account for basic behavioural changes and underestimating the strength of natural immunity.

Even before Omicron emerged, the group warned there could be 6,000 Covid hospital admissions this winter from Delta alone — which would have been triple the number we seen with Omicron.

When England was coming out of its winter 2021 lockdown, SAGE said there could be 2,000 daily hospital admissions and over 500 deaths at the height of summer without delaying the roadmap. 

Professor Medley, who heads up the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Modelling (SPI-M), was speaking to MPs in the Science and Technology committee yesterday. 

Covid models predicting that deaths from Omicron could peak at 6,000 a day were wildly wrong because they failed to account for voluntary behavioural change, experts who advised the Government have admitted. Professor Graham Medley (pictured), chair of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Modelling (Spi-M), which has advised the Government on its pandemic response, answered tough questions from MPs yesterday

Some care home residents ‘gave up and died’ because they were unable to see loved ones during the pandemic, industry boss warns 

Some care home residents ‘gave up and died’ because Covid rules barred them from seeing family, the outgoing boss of one of the UK’s biggest providers has said.

Jeremy Richardson, who will leave Four Seasons Health Care next month, has urged ministers to ‘never repeat’ the bans.

And he added that one of the ‘biggest scandals’ over the past two years was denying residents their liberty due to Covid.

Speaking at a care conference in Birmingham, he said: ‘We defined essential carers as people who work in care homes, not people who are the loved ones of people who live in those care homes.

‘And I know for a fact that there were a number of people in our homes who gave up and died because they didn’t have social interaction. They gave up the will to live.’

Care home residents — including vulnerable people and dementia patients — faced visiting restrictions for almost two years throughout the pandemic.

Rules in place have banned them having any visitors, and put in limits allowing them just three named guests to limit the spread of the virus in homes.

But families repeatedly called for this to be relaxed, asking to be allowed to hug their mothers, fathers, brother and sisters.

England finally dropped this restriction at the end of January, allowing them to reunite with loved ones they had not seen for many months.

But there are still concerns that some homes will continue to limit visitor numbers for fear of bringing in the virus.

Describing his role on the committee, Professor Medley said one of the ‘worst things’ would be for the modellers to under-predict the approaching wave.

He told MPs: ‘The worst thing for me as chair of the committee is for the Government to say “why didn’t you tell us it would be that bad?”, so inevitably we are going to have a worst case that is worse than reality. 

Professor Medley said the committee would give ministers a range of scenarios for what could happen during a Covid wave.

But they would not say which was more likely for fear of influencing policy decisions.

Questioned on this position, Professor Medley said: ‘We could guess and our guesses might be 10 per cent more accurate than others but they are still guesses.

‘It would be wrong for policy decisions to be made on the guess work of a few people.’

He added: ‘[We don’t do this] partly because when you point to one scenario and say well actually this is the one we think, then the decision-makers will automatically focus on that one even though it might not be true.’ 

Another expert who gave evidence to the Commons committee said he feared the incorrect models could prompt Britons to ignore warnings in future. 

Cambridge University epidemiologist Dr Raghib Ali said: ‘My concern is next time there is a new variant doctors will go on TV and say “this is bad” but people will say, “you got a lot wrong last time, we’re not going to listen”, and that’s very dangerous.’

The claim that the Government practised ‘number theatre’ during the pandemic was backed at the Committee hearing by the head of the statistics watchdog.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid was last year slapped down by the Office for Statistics Regulation after saying in mid-December that there were 200,000 new Omicron infections a day.

Ed Humpherson, head of the Office for Statistics Regulation, called for better ‘transparency’ while giving evidence.

Mr Humpherson said: ‘A couple of times during the pandemic, we’ve seen examples of where we think the models have been put out in a way which doesn’t give enough information to enable people to make sense of them.’

Referencing critical comments by statistician Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter on numbers given by the Government, the head of the statistics regulator added: ‘Most recently on an estimate that Omicron would produce 200,000 infections a day, David Spiegelhalter memorably described it as number theatre – it’s just putting a number out.

‘As a result of speaking to the UK Health Security Agency, they then released the underlying logic of their model.’

It took officials three days to justify the 200,000 infections figure in December, after the Office for Statistics Regulation said it ’caused confusion’.

The Science and Technology Committee is scrutinising statistics on Covid following controversy over how they are communicated.  

Behaviour changes were included in models created in Denmark, the committee heard.

Dr Ali, an epidemiologist and consultant in acute medicine at Oxford University Hospitals, who correctly predicted that the omicron wave would be mild, told MPs: ‘People’s behaviour does change.’

On people’s willingness to be more careful in response to rising numbers of cases, he said: ‘What has an impact is knowing that your friend, relative, colleague has got Covid — of course, during Omicron, that was very common — every one of us knows someone that got Covid.’

The above shows the proportion of PCR tests that are positive — pick up the virus — in England. It reveals the rate has started to tick back up, in a sign the outbreak is now growing in the country 

Axing free Covid tests will put England two weeks behind future outbreaks of new variants, SAGE modeller warns 

Professor Medley also told the Commons committee that he believed Covid variants will take weeks longer to detect when mass testing is scrapped.

He said he expects a ‘one to two week delay’ in picking up new mutants when the final part of England’s ‘living with Covid’ plan comes into force on April 1.

From that point the country will rely solely on the Office for National Statistics’ weekly Covid survey to monitor community spread of the virus, with only severely vulnerable people eligible for free tests.

Professor Medley said that while the UK was alerted to Omicron by South Africa, and Delta by India, it was Britain’s mass testing programme that helped to pick up the Alpha variant in South East England and warned the world.

And he pointed out the super-transmissible Omicron became dominant in just weeks, a crucial period which may have been missed if it were not for the scheme.

Doctors had seen early signs the Omicron variant was not as severe, Dr Ali said, suggesting there should have been more doctors on the Sage panel of scientists advising the Government.

Mr Humpherson also accepted criticism of statistics showing how many people have died within 28 days of a positive Covid test.

He said the snapshot figure had ‘limitations’ in failing to separate out people dying from Covid from those who happened to die while they had Covid. 

It comes after Britain’s daily Covid cases rose for the first time in a month yesterday in a sign the outbreak may be growing again, while hospitalisations also ticked upwards. 

Government dashboard data shows another 44,017 infections were detected over the last 24 hours, up 11 per cent on the tally last Wednesday.

It brings an end to more than four weeks of tumbling daily cases, with about 33,700 cases now being recorded every day on average.  

Latest hospital data showed 1,040 people were admitted to hospital with the virus on February 26, up seven per cent on the 970 from the previous week.  

But the seven-day average number of daily admissions is still falling, meaning today’s rise could be a blip. Daily Covid deaths, however, have continued to fall, with the 74 victims announced today down 54 per cent in a week. 

The rise in infections coincides with a more infectious version of Omicron, scientifically named BA.2, becoming dominant in England last week. 

Experts warned it may cause some fluctuations in case rates, but called for calm saying there is no evidence that it is more severe than the original strain.

Plummeting testing numbers, which have dropped by a tenth in a week, also make it more difficult to track trends in infections.

Last week, Boris Johnson ditched all of England’s remaining restrictions, with requirements to wear face masks on public transport and isolate when infected coming to an end.

Mass testing is also set to be dumped from April 1, with the country instead set to rely on the Office for National Statistics’ Covid infection survey. 

But experts warned this could take two weeks longer to pick up new potentially dangerous variants.

The above graph from the Sanger Institute shows the proportion of cases down to different Covid variants. It reveals that a more infectious version of Omicron BA.2 (light blue) is now dominant over Omicron (yellow and pink). Other variants including Delta (light green), Alpha (purple) and the old virus (green and red) have now disappeared. The data is up to the week ending February 19 and based on surveillance of genomes

The above graph shows that BA.2 – a sub-variant of Omicron – is now behind 52.3 per cent of all Covid cases in England, the UK Health Security Agency said. The data is based on S-gene testing, and shows the new version is now more prevalent than old Omicron

original source: SAGE expert says wildly wrong Omicron death predictions failed to account for behaviour change

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