At the onset of Europe becoming the epicentre of the coronavirus crisis, there were individuals in one profession that were keen to act as quickly as possible in response to what they saw “could well be humanity’s burning platform for change”. 

The COVID-19 Actuaries Response Group (ARG) was formed in early March by a group of senior actuaries joining forces with epidemiologists, longevity specialists and others with the aim of helping the industry understand and respond to the crisis. It came together via social media network LinkedIn over the weekend of 7-9 March, as the Lombardy region in Italy was being locked down.

“Instinctively, we knew that we face a global crisis of epic proportions, and we have to do what we can quickly, meaningfully and thoughtfully,” the initial members state in the group’s charter.

A key principle for the ARG is that it “will seek science and data, appreciating that we will not get to the full truth and objectivity if we want to respond quickly”.

The value the participants have placed on speed and responsiveness explains their decision to operate in a personal capacity, outside of their professional bodies.

“The key thing here is speed and agility,” Matthew Edwards, a Willis Towers Watson actuary, longevity specialist, and chair of the ARG, told IPE. “We are trying to help people as quickly as possible to understand what is going on and we have to work outside the normal procedures to move quickly.”

The Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) has since set up its own group – the IFoA COVID-19 Action Taskforce, and the ARG said it welcomed and supported the intiative “with alacrity”.

“There is a lot of good work IFoA can do in mobilising the membership in giving guidance to actuaries and influencing events,” it said. 

The members of the Actuaries Response Group are well-respected in their field. Tan Suee Chieh, who will become president of the IFoA in June, is a member of the ARG, and Edwards is chair, while several others are members of the Continuous Mortality Investigation (CMI), which is linked to the IFoA and whose model is used by UK pension schemes and insurance companies needing to make assumptions about future mortality rates. 

Matthew Edwards

“The key thing here is speed and agility. We are trying to help people as quickly as possible to understand what is going on and we have to work outside the normal procedures to move quickly” - Matthew Edwards

The CMI is now publishing a weekly update to its mortality monitor based on the weekly release of COVID-19 mortality data from the UK Office of National Statistics. 

From analysis to volunteer calls
From the get-go the ARG was busy producing analysis and other outputs, published on LinkedIn and Twitter.

The subject of the group’s first bulletin was the pandemic modelling from Imperial College London that the UK government based its COVID-19 response on. 

The modelling had been drawing some criticism when ARG’s Edwards turned his attention to it, taking the view that the government’s response was based on an “appropriate methodology, where the modellers have taken reasonable care in calibrating the model parameters”.

The ARG has also analysed a paper published by the University of Oxford that was picked up by the media, with reporting focusing on a suggestion that over half of the UK may at that point have already been exposed to COVID-19.

According to Stuart McDonald, another member of the CMI executive committee on the ARG, the Oxford paper does not, and does not claim to, provide evidence of this, and includes some implausible scenarios.

“We need to plan for the potential impact on insurance companies, pension funds, banks, investment managers and other financial services organisations. We have to step up and respond to these challenges”

The Institute and Faculty of Actuaries

“This group supports the suggestion that such testing should be carried out, but we are concerned that the suggestion that much of the population may be immune to the virus could undermine key public health messages about social distancing,” wrote McDonald.

“Whilst it is important to communicate and discuss the uncertainty in how the virus has spread (and possible ways of understanding it better), given the seriousness of this situation, both academics and journalists need to take great care to communicate their messages in a clear and balanced way.”

In another ARG bulletin, main author Adrian Pinington, an actuary and pricing and risk modeller, considered the rationale underlying each of the two main strategic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic: suppression or mitigation. The group also issued a “call to arms” bulletin, appealing for actuaries “who are willing to roll up their sleeves” and get involved in modelling and data analysis in conjunction with government agencies.

The IFoA’s Taskforce, meanwhile, is recruiting volunteers for a series of working groups and for suggestions of topics to be addressed. It says it seeks to co-ordinate with the ARG.

The topics the Taskforce is looking to address will cover the specialist areas covered by the IFoA and professional actuarial work, but also the demographic developments of the virus and the economic consequence of policy actions.

“Appropriate and speedy modelling is essential for governments to make the correct policy decisions that affect all of our lives,” says the IFoA. 

“More narrowly, we need to plan for the potential impact on insurance companies, pension funds, banks, investment managers and other financial services organisations.

“We have to step up and respond to these challenges.”

The Taskforce comprises Colin Dutkiewicz, chair of the Life Board, Louise Pryor, the IFoA’s incoming president elect, and Jo Davis, head of communities.

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