100% of newspaper readers will die

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That’s right, I have startling exclusive evidence based on lengthy research that if you read a tabloid newspaper there’s a strong likelihood that you are going to die someday.  This calls for action. We must stop reading the tabloids immediately.

That’s the problem with creating a scare headline and throwing in a quick statistic. Of course 100% of newspaper readers die because 100% of us die. The headline is meaningless. Yet, we consistently see that kind of behaviour.  Throughout the pandemic we’ve consistently been treated to irresponsible headlines.  Sometimes we are told that this or that variant has multiple mutations and so is super deadly only for it to turn out that the variant has been around for months without showing any signs of being more deadly that Alpha and Delta. Sometimes a daily change in case numbers is used to either herald a false dawn or doomsday.

The most recent example of this was the Daily Mail’s warning that a new variant of COVID-19 could result in 1/3 of people dying. This was based on a SAGE paper that looks at a range of possible scenarios concerning the future evolution of COVID.  The paper notes that in this particular scenario the impact would be high and that there is a realistic possibility of such a scenario emerging.

There have in this case been two errors. First of all, the media have taken the scientific paper and sensationalised it with little understanding of what it was actually saying. There are some obvious clues that this isn’t something to start panicking about not least the use of the word “scenario.” What we are looking at here is a discussion about hypothetical situations. I expect somewhere in the Department of Defence there is a paper knocking about that says it’s a realistic possibility that we will one day have a Prime Minister who manages to accidentally blow us all up by setting off the nuclear arsenal. Now we may feel that this has been more likely with some Prime Ministers than  others we can still safely assume the risk is relatively low.

However, I think there’s also some responsibility with SAGE too. If they are going to publish papers looking at scenarios, then they need to use more precision in evaluating likelihood before they share things. What exactly does it mean when something is described as a realistic possibility. I suspect a lot of people will read that as “very likely” but it seems that the scientists involved are using a different scale along the lines of:

  • Unlikely
  • Realistically possible
  • Likely
  • High

This would put the scenario at just above “unlikely” or in other words, something that is plausible but not that we have to worry about too much yet.  Or to look at things another way, when producing a risk assessment you should list all the realistic possibilities.  It is realistically possible that the earth could get hit by a meteor that wipes us all out. It is not realistically possible that an ancient dragon will emerge from its lair on South Wales and burn Birmingham to the ground with its fiery breath.

Once you list all the possibilities, the realistic ones, not the obviously fantastical ones then you don’t attempt to mitigate all of them. You do an assessment to determine probability.  Probability is something a bit more measurable. You can either talk in terms of low, medium and high probability or better still you can assign a percentage to it.  Something may be realistically possible but not probably. If that’s the case, it will appear on your assessment, you’ll assess it and then you;ll conclude that no further action is necessary.

In this specific case it is worth noting that it is realistically possible that the scenario could come true and a vaccine defeating, highly infectious variant that leads to more serious health conditions turning up leading to massive loss of life. However, it is also a realistic possibility that no such variant turns up and that instead we increasingly become used to COVID whilst future variants make it less deadly. 

So in determining how to plan going forward we need to assess both possibilities to determine which is more probably. Is it more likely that COVID will mutate into something with an exponentially higher mortality rate or that mortality will reduce to the point where it is negligible?  It is only if the probability of the former is higher that we need to start to worry.