By Nick Gotts
(A contribution to the: JASSS-Covid19-Thread)
The place of modelling in informing policy has been highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the UK, a specific individual-based epidemiological model, that developed by Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, has been credited with the government’s U-turn from pursuing a policy of building up “herd immunity” by allowing the Sars-CoV-2 virus to spread through the population in order to avoid a possible “second wave” next winter (while trying to limit the speed of spread so as to avoid overwhelming medical facilities, and to shield the most vulnerable), to a “lockdown” imposed in order to minimise the number of people infected. Ferguson’s model reportedly indicated several hundred thousand deaths if the original policy was followed, and this was judged unacceptable.
I do not doubt that the reversal of policy was correct – indeed, that the original policy should never have been considered – one prominent epidemiologist said he thought the report of it was “satire” when he first heard it (Hanage 2020). As Hanage says: “Vulnerable people should not be exposed to Covid-19 right now in the service of a hypothetical future”. But it has also been reported (Reynolds 2020) that Ferguson’s model is a rapid modification of one he built to study possible policy responses to a hypothetical influenza pandemic (Ferguson et al. 2006); and that (Ferguson himself says) this model consists of “thousands of lines of undocumented C”. That major policy decisions should be made on such a basis is both wrong in itself, and threatens to bring scientific modelling into disrepute – indeed, I have already seen the justified questioning of the UK government’s reliance on modelling used by climate change denialists in their ceaseless quest to attack climate science.
What can social simulation contribute in the Covid-19 crisis? I suggest that attempts to model the pandemic as a whole, or even in individual countries, are fundamentally misplaced at this stage: too little is known about the behaviour of the virus, and governments need to take decisions on a timescale that simply does not allow for responsible modelling practice. Where social simulation might be of immediate use is in relation to the local application of policies already decided on. To give one example, supermarkets in the UK (and I assume, elsewhere) are now limiting the number of shoppers in their stores at any one time, in an effort to apply the guidelines on maintaining physical distance between individuals from different households. But how many people should be permitted in a given store? Experience from traffic models suggests there may well be a critical point at which it rather suddenly becomes impossible to maintain distance as the number of shoppers increases – but where does it lie for a particular store? Could the goods on sale be rearranged in ways that allow larger numbers – for example, by distributing items in high demand across two or more aisles? Supermarkets collect a lot of information about what is bought, and which items tend to be bought together – could they shorten individual shoppers’ time in the store by improving their signage? (Under normal circumstances, of course, they are likely to want to retain shoppers as long as possible, and send them down as many aisles as possible, to encourage impulse buys.)
Agents in such a model could be assigned a list of desired purchases, speed of movement and of collecting items from shelves, and constraints on how close they come to other shoppers – probably with some individual variation. I would be interested to learn if any modelling teams have approached supermarket chains (or vice versa) with a proposal for such a model, which should be readily adaptable to different stores. Other possibilities include models of how police should be distributed over an area to best ensure they will see (and be seen by) individuals or groups disregarding constraints on gathering in groups, and of the “contagiousness” of such behaviour – which, unlike actual Covid-19 infection events, is readily observable. Social simulators, in summary, should look for things they can reasonably hope to do quickly and in conjunction with organisations that have or can readily collect the required data, not try to do what is way beyond what is possible in the time available.
Ferguson, N. M., Cummings, D. A., Fraser, C., Cajka, J. C., Cooley, P. C., & Burke, D. S. (2006). Strategies for mitigating an influenza pandemic. Nature, 442(7101), 448-452. doi:10.1038/nature04795
Hanage, W. (2020) I’m an epidemiologist. When I heard about Britain’s ‘herd immunity’ coronavirus plan, I thought it was satire. The Guardian, 2020-03-15. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/15/epidemiologist-britain-herd-immunity-coronavirus-covid-19
Reynolds, C. (2020) Big Tech Fights Back: From Pandemic Simulation Code, to Immune Response. Computer Business Review 2020-03-15. https://www.cbronline.com/news/pandemic-simulation-code.
Gotts, N. (2020) What can and cannot be feasibly modelled of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 29th April 2020. https://rofasss.org/2020/04/29/feasibility/