Can we trust economic models?

Rishi Sunak shared a delightful moment of honesty on the Today programme on Thursday. Mishal Husain asked him how households will cope if, as the Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast, energy bills rise by a further £830 a year – on top of the rises already due to take effect in April. No, no, no, said the Chancellor, you can’t believe the OBR forecast on energy prices: ‘They just take what the market expectation is at a given time, and since they closed their forecast actually the forecast for energy bills in the autumn has come down by £400.’ It was a fair point. Except, if the Chancellor doesn’t think

Sage admits its models were ‘at variance to reality’. But why?

The Sage committee was set up as a pool of experts on tap to advise government. During the pandemic, it mutated into something different: a group whose advice ended up advocating long lockdowns. Its regular meetings have now been discontinued, with questions being asked in No. 10 about whether it’s time to disband Sage and set up a new structure – in the same way that Public Health England was reformed and became the UK Health Security Agency. There will be plenty of lessons to learn. But we might not have much time to learn them: a new variant or (given the growth of genomic sequencing) a new pathogen could come along at any

Sage ‘scenarios’ vs actual: an update

Given that lockdown was very nearly ordered on the advice of Sage last month, it’s worth keeping an eye on the ‘scenarios’ it published, and how they compare to the situation today. Another week of data offers more food for thought. This week was the period when deaths were supposed to be peaking – so given that no extra restrictions were ordered, it’s interesting to compare the peak the models predicted for this week with what actually happened. Deaths were said by Sage to peak at anything from 600 to 6,000 a day (the latter figure, predictably, hogged the headlines). But on Saturday 262 deaths were reported in England, and

Sage scenarios vs actual: an update

‘Deaths could hit 6,000 a day,’ reported the newspapers on 17 December. A day later documents for the 99th meeting of Sage were released which said that, without restrictions over and above ‘Plan B’, deaths would range from 600 to 6,000 a day. A summary of Sage advice, prepared for the Cabinet, gave three models of what could happen next: Do nothing (ie, stick with ‘Plan B’) and face “a minimum peak” of 3,000 hospitalisations a day and 600 to 6,000 deaths a day Implement ‘Stage 2’ restrictions (household bubbles, etc) and cut daily deaths to a lower range: 500 to 3,000. Implement ‘Stage 1’ restrictions (stay-at-home mandates) and cut deaths even further: to a range of 200 to 2,000 a day

A true bohemian: the story of Nico’s rise and fall

It is well established that artists are not always the nicest people. On the surface, the life of the model, actress and singer Christa Päffgen, aka Nico, would appear to bear this out. Being Nico didn’t mean being nice. The story of Nico’s rise and fall usually goes like this. She grew up in the rubble of post-war Berlin, emerging from adolescence as both stunningly beautiful and remorselessly ambitious. By the time she was 28 she had appeared on the cover of Vogue, starred in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and sung with the Velvet Underground; she counted Alain Delon, Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison among her numerous conquests. She went

Were fears of a third wave overblown?

So, the third wave is officially no more. New modelling by SPI-M, the government’s committee on modelling for pandemics, has, at a stroke, eradicated the predicted surge in new infections, hospital admissions and deaths which it had pencilled in for the autumn or winter as a result of lockdown being eased.  Previous modelling published in April suggested that we could end up with 20,000 in hospital — higher than during the first peak last April. Now the third wave is looking less like the swell off Newquay during an Atlantic storm and a little more like a ripple on the Serpentine. The central predictions for the next peak in hospitalisations,

A-levels and the dangers of predictive modelling

It turns out we’re not quite so in awe of predictive modelling after all. How different it was back in March when Professor Neil Ferguson and his team at Imperial College published their paper predicting 250,000 deaths from Covid unless the government changed course and put the country into lockdown. It was ‘the science’; it was fact, beyond question. Yet no sooner had the A-level results been published last week than a very different attitude began to prevail. How terrible, nearly everyone now says, that an 18-year-old’s future can be determined by an algorithm which tries to predict what grade they would have achieved had they sat the cancelled exams.

From bashful teenager to supermodel: Susanna Moore’s fairytale memoir

There’s a kind of writing about LA that I am a sucker for. Gossipy, lyrical, with a surface of affectless simplicity but an undertow of melancholy that can be personal (bad love affairs, damaged families) or institutional (the death of old Hollywood, the birth of the new) or, best of all, both entwined. It is reserved in its affiliations, not susceptible to moral fervour, lightly amused by what it observes but not given to wisecracking (it is not Nora Ephron, who I am a sucker for but in a different way). It has the measure of the city’s miraculous lucency and compulsive self-invention. Joan Didion did it; Eve Babitz specialised