Stuart McDonald: My experience of the Covid-19 pandemic

blue surgical face mask on a laptop keyboard, the laptop screen has spreadsheet on it

The Covid-19 pandemic quickly went from a potential risk to our health, to one of the most disruptive and dangerous events humankind has experienced for decades. Stuart McDonald, Head of Demographic Assumptions and Methodology at Lloyds Banking Group, retells that story, explaining how the thirst for analysis saw his work being picked up by some of Britain’s most well-known journalists.

My team at Lloyds Banking Group had identified Covid-19 as a significant risk in January 2020. By February, we had held our first business briefing on the potential impact of the virus but, outside of work, there wasn’t much of a conversation.

Public health officials were of course talking about it, but I think the public assumed “that’s just what they do” and it concerned me that there was real complacency. Given the nature of the looming crises, I was waiting for the actuarial profession to use their influence and say something publicly. To be fair, while I had shared some information on my personal Twitter account, I wasn’t particularly vocal myself. Nobody in industry was.

Things changed in early March when my team built our first model of the epidemic, based on a standard epidemiologist’s Susceptible Infected Removed model. I sent out a tweet showing how the odds of getting Covid would worsen each month and how, without measures to limit the spread of the virus, we would see infections build slowly but inexorably until it became a big problem.

That tweet reached 35,000 people, one of whom was the (then) President-elect of the IFoA, Tan Suee Chieh.

He contacted me on LinkedIn and to be honest, my first thought was that I was in trouble! When we spoke two days later, it became clear that we were on the same page. We knew the profession had to act and so we set about mobilising the right people.

Practically everyone we contacted - senior, busy people - said they were prepared to drop everything and help which was hugely heartening. Within days, we were holding our first Actuaries Response Group (ARG) meeting.

Soon our updated modelling was suggesting an earlier peak and more deaths. I sent out a tweet reflecting the changes in our model which was picked up by Ben Goldacre, an influential doctor, academic and science communicator.

As influential voices starting to share our work and I really started to see a step change in engagement with over two million people seeing my tweets in March and my followers more than doubling. It was in that month that we wrote our first few ARG bulletins.

Misinformation spreading

Around this time, we started to see more and more misinformation spreading. The ARG mobilised to combat it by taking erroneous stories and peer-reviewing them among the team. For example, reporting of a paper from Oxford University suggested that more than half of the UK population had already had the virus, so we didn’t need to worry about it. We showed that this was implausible if you looked at the data from Lombardy in Italy.

I also started to use ONS data to report on excess deaths. There still weren’t any at the time, but I wanted people to start getting familiar with the concept to help them see that the best way to measure the impact of the pandemic was going to be excess deaths rather than official Covid deaths.

Then came April when things started getting a little crazy for me, mainly because of some tweets I sent out about the pervading narrative that COVID only killed those already “at death’s door”.

It was based on a report from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre (ICNARC). The report was marvellous: a deep dive into the statistics of what was going on in intensive care, who was being admitted, what their background characteristics were and the survival rates.

Normally on Twitter, all the action happens in the first few hours but this one just kept rumbling on. Days later, on Good Friday, I was taking a break from work to enjoy the sunshine with my family. Glancing at my phone after about 20 minutes I saw that I suddenly had hundreds of notifications. The journalist Andrew Neil had shared my tweets with his one million followers.

Over the next couple of hours The Spectator asked if they could publish them as an article and Owen Jones, from the opposite side of the political spectrum, also retweeted them to his own one million followers. By this point, various MPs, journalists and others were discussing and retweeting the tweets, which got a lot of visibility with over 700,000 people seeing them that month.

My profile was raised to the extent that I was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal a few days later – it was an unusual time.

This was also the time when the Continuous Mortality Investigation (CMI) started issuing weekly mortality monitors – taking actuarial analysis of mortality rates to a much broader audience than had previously been the case.  

May to August was thankfully quieter for me personally, but the ARG was producing a lot more output, using data from the CMI, Public Health England, ICNARC and the ONS. There was a real thirst out there for technical material to be explained in plain English and that’s exactly what the ARG did.

Second wave

It was during this time that I did my first Radio 4 interview on the More or Less programme and attended and contributed to a meeting of SAGE. I also managed to take a few days off in August. I was burnt out and needed a break, but it turned out to be the calm before the storm.

In September, I did another interview on Radio 4 calling out that we were at the start of a second wave. One of my tweets was also shared with many millions of people by Piers Morgan. A huge number of replies and messages resulted from that – some of which were quite unpleasant, which was not exactly a personal highlight. It did however make what the ARG was doing more visible to a very different audience, for which I am grateful.

Over the summer the profession had been proactive in approaching the Government to make it clear that we had a huge amount of expertise available and were available to help with understanding the impact of the pandemic.

One standout was work we did on the vaccine priority list. We were able to show that in the first wave, 88% of deaths took place within the first four priority groups and that 99% were in the nine overall priority groups. We turned that into a bulletin which found its way into a SAGE meeting and soon senior politicians such as Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson were quoting those stats – later replicated by the JCVI.

By the end of 2020, we were light years away from where we had been at the start. We weren’t fighting to get the actuarial voice heard anymore. Instead, it was being actively sought out and was influencing public health policy and informing the public debate.

And it all started with the ARG. While I may be one of the more vocal members, sharing the group’s output, it is the members of that team and everyone supporting them, who do much of the work.

The media are insatiable for analysis and information, but they need it in a digestible form. We don’t need to share our workings in forensic detail. They need to know it’s there but no more than that.

Responsiveness is really important. The media can’t wait days or even hours for us. They need information quickly and if we are going to maintain the profession’s profile, we need to adapt to the way they work, not the other way around.

And this isn’t about profile for profile’s sake. This is about informing the public at a time when trust is a rarity. Misinformation won’t go away but our engagement with traditional and social media over the last year has helped limit its impact.

People love objective data analysis and we get a lot of great feedback about the fact that our output is straight down the line, whether the news is good or bad. It is clear that actuaries are respected, and it would be great to have more of your voices join ours on social media. 

This content is taken from a presentation delivered by Stuart McDonald. Members can watch the presentation via our Virtual Learning Environment.