I’m not going to bore readers with my views on the imminent semi-lockdown but I do want address one issue that is I think proving to be a major problem: the lack of granular data informing meaningful debate about what the next steps should be.
To set the scene let me draw analogy with investing and investment data. Over many generations of careful perusal, we have realised that the data can be tortured enough to justify any conclusion. Long lasting risk premia can be statistically potent but then drain away over time upon observation. But the end state is that we know data suggests that there are variables and periods of time where we might reasonably expect certain styles of investing to out perform. Recently that means tech influenced growth stocks have had huge momentum behind them. But that changes over time and next week value might be back in. Crucially most investors have some basic grasp of this flux in data and styles and make decisions accordingly. We can put two and two together and come to a conclusion based on statistically robust patterns. They don’t prove anything, but they are strongly suggestive and thus we make a decision.
I regularly check the government’s excellent data website for the virus at https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk. My main interest is in part watching what trends might be emerging but more pertinently to check on the ward by ward geographical maps to see what’s happening in my area (the New Forest) – to which the answer is not much.
But we are now being subjected as a citizenry to a barrage of warnings and doom-laden predictions, without any basis in granular evidence, especially at an activity based level. Students are being blamed and we are all collectively told not to go to work if we can avoid it. Both may be reasonable injunctions but on what basis – where’s the range of numbers that p[rove these assertions? To be precise, we have as citizens never been told what the relative risks of certain viral spreading mechanisms are: Pubs vs restaurants vs cinemas vs trains vs student halls ? which is more susceptible? On what basis are pubs closing at 10pm ? Where’s the data to back up that policy? I am quite willing to agree with the change if I can see the data. What I don’t want is a pack of ministers and epidemiologists blandly shouting at us when even they can’t always agree on the data! Beware the growing sense of distrust of experts when they treat us like children.
And I accept that for each of these transmission processes we’ll be faced by a range of data points. As with my stock styles point, we know the data varies over time and space. The point though is that a range and a probability estimate help inform a decision. How many cases can be traced back to pubs in Leicester for instance or family events or weddings? I know for a fact that the data exists, but I have never seen any public release of data. Just bland charts which show an upwards or downwards trajectory.
We have been told for instance that there are super spreader events but collectively we have never been told as citizens what are the range of probabilities? Is it a risk at 10, 30, 50, 100 or 1000 people? Inside or outside? Some of us have also begun to cotton on that the virus possesses many fractal properties in terms of spreading and can become very concentrated in certain areas/niches. Again, where’s the data to inform the decisions?
One could simply reply at this point that the data will be too confusing and variable, to which I reply nonsense. We all know that the virus is endemic and that we’ll all have to make our own calculations about what is safer and what is not. This is a journey which we all have to embark on and telling us the relative risks and letting us make adjustments is crucial for the next 12 months.
More crucially this open discussion about what’s riskier and what’s not, backed up by real hard data points, needs to inform economic decisions. Closing pubs at 10pm might cause real pain to real businesses – they have a right to know what the data says and then disseminate that to customers. As investors we also have a right to know what activities, where and at what time and with what people are risky. Using that information we have all made decisions about whether to invest in say aviation stocks. If travelling on an airplane is a vanishingly low risk we might make one decision – if by contrast we learn that upwards of 45% of all infections in September involved a plane (as I have heard), then we might make another decision.
But at the moment we are all operating in a void. Pub closures are used as a battering ram to shout at the public. If you don’t obey, worse is to come. This is no way to treat a citizenry. Give us the information, debate it parliament and then we can all sign up to a decision.
Again, as with my investing simile, we can build in uncertainty, and time varying qualities. We can make allowances and incorporate uncertainty but there is no excuse not to share the data with us when we know it exists. And to repeat, this is not an argument for not doing anything. I happen to think that a semi lockdown probably makes some sense in a time limited way. My point is about treating us all as adults in a conversation.