The President’s Award – Covid-19 Actuaries Response Group

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The President’s Award was presented to the Covid-19 Actuaries Response Group on 24 June 2021 in recognition of the group’s leadership in spearheading the actuarial profession’s speedy response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-2021, in a manner that raised the profile and reputation of the IFoA and the profession in an outstanding manner.

How did the idea of the group start, and how did you go about it?  

Back in February 2020, many of us were becoming increasingly concerned that COVID-19 was about to become a global pandemic, and also concerned about the apparent lack of engagement with the problem from our industry and profession. We could see how quickly the situation was developing and realised that the formal IFoA structure of working parties and committee would slow us down, so we decided to come together in a less formal way.

What did the group aim to achieve?   

The aims were set at the time of the group’s formation, primarily:

  • To help actuaries in thinking and responding to the COVID-19 crisis.
  • To create a community and forum for actuaries and others to learn, educate, inform and influence the unfolding events in a positive and constructive way.

Having this clear purpose has allowed us to critique information, explore difficult topics from multiple points of view, and to support and enhance the actuarial profession’s commitment to societal and public interest.

What was the biggest challenge in early months, given you were outside the ‘official IFoA’?

The big challenge was ensuring high-quality work given that we couldn’t risk a long review process or lengthy ‘writing by committee’ – we were trying to respond quickly but as accurately as possible. We think we’ve been successful in that regard, being insightful quickly with no mishaps.

What lessons did you learn?

  • We quickly realised that our ‘stakeholders’ were a much wider group than just actuaries;
  • The importance of speed – as issues emerged, we had to get involved quickly – and this tied in with the ‘response’ not ‘research’ in our title;
  • How to optimise the use of social media, something actuaries have to date not had great experience in – for instance, ensuring we had clear authorship or a logo marked on our outputs, because they would often be reshared without attribution.

In a more technical area, greater appreciation of how concealed and/or poorly understood heterogeneity can significantly affect model results (so in the case of the pandemic and modelling disease spread, the heterogeneity of individual behaviour and infectiousness).

What were your most important achievements?

Quite a few things! –

  • Feeling we helped millions understand issues better – examples being mentions of our outputs by the UK Prime Minister and Chief Medical Officer;
  • The involvement of actuaries in SAGE work and discussions;
  • Finding a new and nimble model (including heavy social media use) for actuaries to contribute value in a very difficult period, with new issues continually emerging;
  • Building stronger ties with other disciplines though interaction and collaboration. For example, we have helped to significantly increase the impact of the valuable ICNARC (Intensive Care National Audit & Research Centre) reports, by simplifying and explaining their complex of outputs.
  • Being a resource used by key media outlets such as the BBC

 

What concerns you most now?  

The two most pressing concerns are probably achieving equitable distribution of vaccines around the world, and the further emergence of variants.

Many developing countries have excess vaccines for their populations and are considering or have implemented booster shots. However low-income countries are struggling, with limited access to vaccines. This inequality results in avoidable deaths and will probably slow the world’s economic recovery.

The second concern is the risk of more lethal or more transmissible variants emerging, in particular variants that are better able to escape current vaccines. This puts the whole world at risk again.

There are other concerns of course – how will health systems be able to get back to normal? Will annual winter deaths become worse with COVID alongside flu and other viruses?

Positives emerging from the pandemic   

On the positive front, the new developments in vaccine technology may lead to solutions for viruses such as HIV and malaria that are still significant causes of mortality in low-income countries. The increased adoption of telemedicine may also help in the future.

We are seeing increased data collection (increasing both in breadth and depth), and this can only be a good thing for future understanding of health.

Greater public awareness of now to reduce the spread of infectious diseases through hygiene, social distancing, mask wearing and vaccination.

It’s been positive for the actuarial profession as well, with many groups (such as the Office for National Statistics and Department for Health and Social Care) realising how we can help in such areas.

What should be on the lookout for ?    

As time progresses, more data will accrue on the morbidity and mortality effects of Long COVID. From our experience of SARS and MERS, some debilitated people may be incapable of returning to work.

What do you think you will ‘leave behind’ as your legacy or main finding for the rest of the profession?

The main thing has been how it’s possible to form a responsive but responsible group to contribute to emerging crises, with social media both improving access to new information from other experts and expanding the reach of our outputs – in particular, beyond the actuaries.

What next for the group?

We are increasingly thinking about the scenario in which SARS-CoV-2 becomes endemic, and what sort of outputs from us would help.