Why was the COVID-19 Actuaries Response Group successful?

COVID-19 Sep 13, 2023

I have been wondering why the COVID-19 Actuaries Response Group has been so successful.  The group ensured that actuaries were part of the discourse and contributed to the debate on COVID-19, particularly in the UK.  I reckon for example that John Roberts saved lives in pointing out problems with the UK vaccine roll-out resulting in government focus on the problem.  What better way to serve the public interest is there?

I think the recipe to success involved several key ingredients which I discuss below.  The goal being to think of whether we can use similar approaches to address other issues.


I think the group was filled with people who felt that actuaries could say a lot about COVID-19 and felt that this was a situation where they could contribute to the topic and make a difference. Stuart McDonald's passion for communicating clearly and John's passion for monitoring the vaccine roll-out in the UK are two examples of that and clearly Suee Chieh Tan had great passion for actuaries to make a difference. Stuart was even awared an MBE for his efforts.


The group had great people with a good combination of skills.  Certainly, the actuarial skills (and in particular mortality experience) helped tremendously but the group also consisted of team members that had broader skills in health care and public health. This helped the group understand some of the issues and communication challenges also.  The team also sought skills in the profession and in other fields where those skills were not available within the group.


The groups core principle is to act with professionalism in line with the the IFoA Actuaries' Code.  All articles and text was peer reviewed and contentious viewpoints were discussed rigorously.  The group did not publish contentious viewpoints unless broad consensus was reached.


The group tried to focus on topics where it was felt that actuaries could contribute that was being discussed.  When the vaccine roll-out plans were being discussed a short post on vaccine prioritisation clearly put across the potential effectiveness for an age-based roll-out as an example.

Responsiveness vs. Rigour

Closely related to relevance is being responsive to the developing pandemic and the discourse surrounding it.  This meant that actuaries had to speed things up significantly from the normal pace.  The group could not build complicated models (though some did anyway) but had to focus on getting simple analyses that could clearly highlight the main parameters or uncertainties involved in a particular issue.  This required balancing with rigour of professionalism.  A slow perfect answer would be irrelevant.  A decent quick answer was more valuable both in terms of the problems faced as well as supporting the need to stay relevant.

This concept is summarised on the about page as follows:

Our bulletins and blogs are necessarily often “beta versions” (or work in progress). Better and more complete studies will and can be conducted in the fullness of time. We are mindful of the trade-off between “rigour and comprehensiveness” versus “responsiveness and usefulness” and we seek to tilt our approach to the latter.


The views expressed by the group were not associated with their employers nor even strictly with the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries.  This meant the actuaries of the group had a clear independent voice.  This was useful and may even be key in other contexts.

Communication strategy

All the above would have gone to waste if the group did not focus on getting the message out.  This firstly relied on a rigour to keep the messaging and explanations clear and understandable, free from technical jargon.  The Simpson's paradox bulletin is a good example of this.

The group runs a website, and social media accounts on Twitter and LinkedIn.  The group thought actively how to ensure that messages on social media was positioned and phrased to ensure that engagement with the more detailed content on the website was maximised to ensure those seeking information were able to see it and access it quickly.  The group tracked engagement to establish what worked to ensure those successes could be repeated.  Further relationships naturally developed and were alter sought out with journalists the result of which being that the members of the group appeared in news articles, podcasts, radio and even on television (including yours truly).  This enabled the work of the group to be rapidly disseminated to a broader audience.

I strongly believe this group showed how actuarial skills can be made relevant in dealing with a tremendously challenging problem.  Actuaries stepped up, made a difference, and used their skills to further profession but, even better, serve the public interest in multiple ways.  This proved to be challenging but also incredibly rewarding work.

The question is can we apply the same recipe to other problems?  I think we can, and we need to!


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