COVID experts 'substantially underestimated' how hard UK would be hit by pandemic

·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·2 min read
A woman wearing a face mask walks amid shoppers on Regent Street in London, England, on December 4, 2020. London has returned to so-called Tier 2 or 'high alert' coronavirus restrictions since the end of the four-week, England-wide lockdown on Wednesday, meaning a reopening of non-essential shops and hospitality businesses as the festive season gets underway. Rules under all three of England's tiers have been strengthened from before the November lockdown, however, with pubs and restaurants most severely impacted. In London's West End, Oxford Street and Regent Street were both busy with Christmas shoppers this afternoon, meanwhile, with the retail sector hoping for a strong end to one of its most difficult years. (Photo by David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A new study has shown experts 'substantially under-estimated' how badly the coronavirus pandemic would hit the UK. (Getty Images)

A new study has shown experts “substantially underestimated” how devastating the coronavirus pandemic would be in the UK.

The survey of 140 experts, who were asked how they thought the pandemic would play out up to the end of 2020, showed they underestimated the COVID-19 death toll by more than half.

Researchers from the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication said of their findings, which were published in the Plos One journal: “We must all learn to acknowledge and admit that the uncertainties may be greater than we think they are, whether we are experts or not.”

The 140 experts, which included people such as epidemiologists, statisticians and clinicians, were surveyed in April last year – which was after the first lockdown had been imposed – and one question asked how many people they thought would die of COVID by 31 December.

The median answer was 30,000 deaths, when the actual death toll on this day was more than double: 75,346.

They were also asked how many infections they expected by the same date. The median prediction was 4,000,000, with data based on Imperial College London research suggesting the actual number of cases could have been 6,385,254.

However, the survey also interviewed 2,086 “laypersons” – and they under-estimated the pandemic even more than the experts.

Watch: Boris Johnson reflects on regrets over coronavirus pandemic (from 23 March)

The “non-experts” had forecast a median of 25,000 deaths by the end of the year, a third of the actual number, and just 800,000 infections, about one-eighth of the Imperial College estimate.

Cambridge University's Dr Gabriel Recchia, the paper’s lead author, said these differences show experts are still “worth listening to”.

“There’s a temptation to look at any results that says experts are less accurate than we might hope and say we shouldn’t listen to them.

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“But the fact that non-experts did so much worse shows that it remains important to listen to experts, as long as we keep in mind that what happens in the real world can surprise you.”

It’s not just the experts in the survey who underestimated the potential death toll.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 30, 2020: Sir Patrick Vallance, the governments chief scientific adviser leaves Downing Street in central London to attend Cabinet meeting temporarily held at the Foreign Office to comply with social distancing guidelines due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, on 30 September, 2020 in London, England.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Studios / Future Publishing (Photo credit should read Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Sir Patrick Vallance said 20,000 coronavirus deaths would be a 'good outcome' over the pandemic. (Getty Images)

While it was not a prediction, Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser and one of the faces of the UK's COVID response, told a committee of MPs on 17 March last year that 20,000 deaths would be a “good outcome” in the pandemic as a whole.

As of Thursday, nearly 14 months later, the UK’s death toll was 127,583.

Watch: How England is leaving lockdown