Will Shifting The Goalposts On Covid Help The Government’s Cause?

Graeme Demianyk
Health secretary Matt Hancock during a media briefing in Downing Street.

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Peri peri difficult statistics

Whenever a government is in trouble, it’s not always the big shifts to look out for. The subtle changes of often just as much of interest. Yesterday, Matt Hancock introduced the No.10 press conference with the words: “We’re going to do things slightly differently today. I’m going to go through the charts.” The charts had also changed (no transport graphs).

And today, the health secretary again read out the statistics on tests, cases and deaths, “in keeping with the new format”. That new format basically means the minister now reads out the figures - figures that were previously the preserve of the medics and scientists. Could it be that those independent advisers have decided they would rather not do that bit any more?‌

Well, few would blame them after today’s scathing assessment by the UK Statistics Authority of the way the government has presented its stats on testing. The letter from chairman Sir David Norgrove was very strongly worded, referring to “misleading”, “inadequate”, “incomplete” data that is now “often mistrusted”.

His letter blew away the fiction that somehow it was OK to classify test swabs posted out as tests carried out. This fiction was first exposed by the Health Service Journal just before Hancock miraculously hit his 100,000 daily tests target for the end of April, but thanks to its endorsement by people like Prof John Newton many people moved on. Today, Newton himself had to admit “we are happy to report the numbers in any way we are asked to”.

Given that the public are more likely to go to a drive-thru McDonald’s (it reopened 168 more today) than to go to a drive-thru testing centre miles from their home, the home testing kits are seen as a key route to controlling this virus. The problem is that we have little clue how many are being returned or even properly...

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