© Maynooth University

Data: NPHET’s latest model already looks like nonsense

One of the more infuriating things to have entered the national conversation since the start of the coronavirus epidemic is something that might be called “the unfalsifiable claim”. It goes a little bit like this: An expert, or experts, claim that if nothing is done, hundreds of thousands of people might fall ill and die. The Government, reacting to public panic at the notion that hundreds of thousands of people might fall ill and die, introduces draconian public policy measures to limit people’s ability to live a normal life. Then, only a few people fall ill and die. And the experts praise the restrictions as the reason why.

And of course, it can never be proven definitively whether those experts were right, or wrong. Their claims are literally unfalsifiable, without a time machine. Perhaps they are correct that if no restrictions at all had been enacted, Irish society would have collapsed into a giant, open air morgue. Unless we could go back in time and persuade Government not to enact the recommendations designed to prevent all these deaths, we will never know whether the restrictions were ever necessary in the first place.

Because of this mechanism, it is a truism to say that throughout the pandemic, NPHET have not only never been wrong, but that it has become almost heretical to suggest that they are capable of being wrong.

The problem, though, is that increasingly, this game is becoming more and more implausible. Two weeks ago, NPHET recommended more restrictions based on an epidemiological model produced by the country’s chief Covid statistician, Dr. Philip Nolan of Maynooth University. That model projected two scenarios: An optimistic scenario, and a pessimistic scenario.

Under the pessimistic scenario, daily covid cases in Ireland were scheduled to peak at about 12,000 cases per day, and 400,000 cases total, by mid-December, with 450 people in ICU on Christmas Day. The optimistic scenario projected about half of that – 200,000 total cases.

The first thing to say here is this: Since the beginning of the pandemic, Ireland has had a total of 560,000 recorded cases of Covid 19. NPHET’s pessimistic scenario – implausibly – saw Ireland having almost as many cases in the single month of December as we had had in the 20 months from March 2020 until the end of November. Its optimistic scenario saw 40% of that 20 month total happening in just 31 days. That should have raised alarm bells in anybody with a functioning brain. Apparently it did not.

The problem is that since that model was produced, daily case and ICU numbers have tracked significantly below NPHET’s most optimistic projection:

Remember: This was not their “mid range” projection. This was the optimistic model: The best the country might hope for, if everything broke our way. And though it remains technically possible that there could be a sudden and dramatic uptick in cases and hospitalisations, the fact is that right now, today, that optimistic model is hopelessly wrong.

This is not the first time that a NPHET model has appeared hopelessly wrong. In the Summer, the UK and other countries abolished all restrictions. Ireland did not. One of the reasons that we did not was that NPHET, and Dr. Nolan, produced a model for case numbers over the summer. That model produced four scenarios, ranging from the “optimistic” to the “pessimistic”. The “pessimistic” scenario projected 612,000 cases of covid between July and September. The “optimistic” scenario projected 81,000 cases of covid.

The actual number of cases of covid between July and September ended up being… about 40,000. Fewer than half of what NPHET’s most optimistic model projected.

We can say, with a very high degree of confidence, that both of NPHET’s most recent models have been, to use an Americanism, complete and utter garbage. We can say this because although we might complain about the restrictions that Government maintained during the summer, and enacted two weeks ago, those restrictions were exceedingly mild by the standard of previous lockdowns. In 2020 and into 2021, keeping cases low apparently required school closures, pub closures, and 5km zones outside of which a person was not permitted to exercise. In 2021, keeping cases low apparently required only that pubs close at midnight. You can choose to believe that, but in so doing, you are effectively choosing to believe something that is objectively irrational and illogical.

The problem is that Government policy, and many media headlines, are based on these models. When they are announced, they get saturation coverage. When they transpire to be completely wrong, the media seems frightened to point it out. Meanwhile, Dr. Nolan is in line for a promotion in January.

A private business that was making decisions based on data this erroneous would probably be bankrupt by now, and would certainly have sacked the people providing them with that data. The Irish Government, by contrast, has been provided complete rubbish, and simply accepted it.

If and when this pandemic ever ends, there really should be a full national inquiry into everything that took place, and Dr. Nolan should be questioned about how on earth he managed to consistently produce data that was so wrong. Ministers, even more urgently, should be questioned as to why they kept accepting it.

It should be obvious to anybody with a basic grasp of numbers that Ireland has now been making policy, for some time, based on figures which are worse than imaginary.

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