In a recent article, The Australian’s health reporter asked: “Has any modeling put forward by scientific institutions during pandemics ever proved correct?”
It’s a good question but the answer lies in understanding the truth about modeling – it cannot predict the future.
Rather, it is a process that identifies the variables most likely to shape the course of an epidemic and determines their effects over time.
Politicians commission modellers to assess the current state of things, then consider what might happen if different policy settings are accommodated.
By providing an assessment of the costs, benefits and impacts of proposed policies, good modeling provides a strong basis for governments to decide which policies will have what effect.
Politicians know that implementing “health modeling” garners public support for their policies.
This week, Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg claimed his decision to end COVID support payments at 80% double-dose vaccination coverage, according to a national plan informed by Doherty Institute modeling.
But neither the planning nor the modeling shows any link between ending support payments at any level of vaccination coverage.
Nor was any modeling explicitly commissioned on the potential impact of removing financial support for the most vulnerable when infection rates are high – as in Sydney – and alarmingly rising in Melbourne.
Read more: Scientific modeling is advancing our response to the coronavirus. But what is scientific modeling?
The Power of ‘Health Advice’
Since the start of the COVID pandemic, politicians have justified many difficult decisions based on “health advice”.
As it should be, the “health advice” provided by chief health officials to politicians is informed by modeling derived from a number of reputable and credible scientific research institutions.
The public draws a strong causal link between health modeling inputs and policy outcomes.
They are more likely to accept policies influenced by modeling and health advice.
Therefore modeling is a powerful political tool.
In a pandemic, political decisions have human and economic ramifications that are irreversible, significant, and for many matters of life and death.
So all the more reason, for the scientific integrity of the modeling that explains those judgments beyond condemnation.
The brief description given to the modeler is important in setting the parameters and assumptions and in selecting the variables that will be evaluated and measured.
The key to building public confidence in modeling is complete transparency.
But in Australia, these abbreviations and processes are often cloudy and opaque. The lack of privacy and transparency has greatly affected the quality of Australia’s response to COVID.
At the start of the pandemic, the federal government’s emergency response plan for the novel coronavirus promoted the cessation of international travel and the closure of borders, domestic lockdowns, and the use of masks as not possible or desirable responses to the pandemic.
Yet within weeks of this advice being published, modeling had overtaken events.
Travel from some but not all countries was halted, international and domestic borders were closed from the end of March 2020 and a lockdown was imposed across Australia.
In the initial plan and options, lockdown, cessation of travel and masks were not among the assumptions. The entire response was based on the influenza paradigm rather than the facts of the coronavirus and required rapid, preventive responses.
The assumptions that informed the initial modeling should have been published, questioned and debated before, and not after, the initial and ineffective policy settings were adopted.
Read more: Australia’s COVID plan was drawn up before we knew how Delta would affect us. we need more flexibility
separating science from politics
During the pandemic, modeling assumptions commissioned by governments should have been published, investigated and debated first, not later, when modeling was introduced.
The modeling should have been commissioned from several of Australia’s outstanding scientific institutions.
Open debate could mean aerosol transmission of Alpha first and then Delta being made more efficient than ever in presumption and policy-making about the efficacy of hotel quarantine and border security.
This unnecessary addiction to privacy has eroded the trust and trust that exists between governments and the people.
Politics and science each have their own distinct and distinct role to play in managing the pandemic and minimizing the loss to lives and livelihoods.
In response to HIV/AIDS, politicians of the time ensured that scientific advice was provided independently of governments and published as soon as it became available.
Advice became the foundation of the political decision-making process.
Now, as then, Australians expect the same standard of open and independent scientific advice, information and assessment about the current and potential impact of the pandemic.
Whether commissioned by governments or acting independently, Australia’s pandemic modellers continue to live up to their responsibilities to science and the Australian people.
He has applied his expertise to measure COVID and the costs and benefits of policy choices.
But important decisions on beliefs, debate, competition and transparency are made by politicians, not modellers.
As much as some politicians want to deny it, they alone are responsible and accountable to the Australian people who have created Australia’s COVID response and will shape its future.
Modeling is integral to building the most robust, sustainable and well-supported response to the increasingly complex challenges of the pandemic.
The Australian people will be best served by separating science from politics.
Read more: Explainer: Will states have to follow the COVID National Plan?