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11 Nov 2020

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Questionable facts, dodgy statistics

By guest blogger JEF SMITH

In the continuing saga of the Covid-19 epidemic, it has long been evident that government ministers have made and continue to make serious mistakes over a range of issues, including physical distancing, testing and tracing, and personal protective equipment. From Boris Johnson’s ostentatious handshakes long after he must have known the dangers of setting so dangerous an example to Matt Hancock’s repeated failure to explain why health and care staff have been denied basic safety gear, we have been fed a diet of lies and half-truths at just the time when trust in political leadership is crucial to public confidence.

Last Tuesday, there was at last a start to acknowledging how poorly served care home residents and staff have been throughout this crisis. At Tuesday’s press conference, Professor Angela McLean, the UK’s deputy chief scientific adviser, reported that deaths in homes rose throughout April to a point at which they were soon expected to outnumber fatalities in hospitals. “What it shows us,” she added, “is there is a real issue we need to get to grips with about what is happening in care homes.” Like heck there is!

At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, confronted with Professor McLean’s statement by the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Johnson expressed some regret but referred to unpublished statistics which, he claimed, showed – contrary to those which had been published the evening before – that the numbers of death in homes had started to fall. Keir Starmer understandably looked quizzical. In his broadcast statement on Sunday evening, the Prime Minister again reported that the numbers of deaths were falling, but again he conflated those occurring in homes with those in hospitals. The truth about the former remains illusive.

Back to Tuesday, when the Secretary of State, fresh from a welter of self-congratulation at his reaching his target for testing – thanks to his energetically massaging the stats – was answering, or rather failing to answer, MPs’ questions. In response to being asked, for example, why test results are taking five to seven days to get back to homes rather than the estimated 72 hours, he could only promise to look into the issue. The same questioner pointed out that care home managers are given the names of residents but not those of staff who test positive. Again Mr Hancock could not explain the dangerous anomaly.

Residential homes of course do not form the totality of social care; we are hearing very little about the even less visible home care sector. Here, workers move between the homes of severely vulnerable elderly and sick people, often use public transport to get around, perform the most close up and personal of tasks for their clients, and have been no better provided with PPE than other health and care staff. There could hardly be a more effective recipe for spreading the virus, but the media rarely cover this obviously difficult to film area of work, no separate statistics on deaths are published, and ministers remain largely silent.

At some stage, it must be hoped, the political debate about the future of social care will resume. When that happens it is vital that we do not ask only the relatively peripheral questions such as how middle class people can be saved from having to sell their homes to pay for care. Magic money trees, we now know, do exist; the question is who gets to pick the fruit? What our society needs is a radical discussion of how social care – its providers, staff and consumers – can be accorded the status and resources almost everyone now says they deserve. Meanwhile the best advice when listening to so-called facts and statistics from politicians is – Stay Alert.

  • The CT Blog is written in a personal capacity – comments and opinions expressed are not necessarily endorsed or supported by Caring Times.

6 Replies to “Questionable facts, dodgy statistics”

  1. I must say that I rarely agree with the stance you take Jef and so it’s no surprise I find myself frustrated at today’s offering.
    Why it got me so irritated though is a puzzle. Everyone has a right to challenge those in power and never more so than when lives are at stake. I’m still bemused by Tony Blair’s choices regarding Afghanistan and would dearly love to understand why he chose war and what the information he had really told him.
    I think what it is that’s frustrating me the most about this article, and many like it, is that it treats the government like a parent and the writer’s stance is that of the child. A common theme these days is to place all responsibility on ‘government’ and simply expect them to be perfect on our behalf. I put my hand in the fire – that’s the fault of government for not telling me it was dangerous, we as a country don’t have enough PPE, that’s because the government didn’t pre-empt the problem and buy a load in. We were all being fed a 24 hour news feed about an International health emergency but it was Boris fault for shaking hands that meant I didn’t take precautions.
    The language I appreciate is designed to be inflammatory. Care staff being ‘denied’ PPE. Really?! What we actually mean is that PPE isn’t available for some care staff. I feel I can say this with some confidence as certainly all our staff have had all the PPE we’ve required to meet proper use according to the guidance. The truth about care home numbers is ‘illusive’. Really? Certainly operators have had pretty clear instruction on how and what they report regarding deaths for around two months now. If the numbers aren’t reliable, isn’t that because operators aren’t recording and reporting properly? A few short weeks ago I recall the media roundly criticising the government for not including care home deaths in the statistics. Now Jef, you’re moaning that the government is conflating care home and hospital deaths!
    I get the need to carry out a post-match analysis. We need to see if we did get things wrong and make sure that, if this dreadful state of affairs arises again, and I suspect that given life is heading back to business as usual in Wuhan, it probably will, we need to be better prepared but that’s not for today.
    The government are a collection of people. People in possession of whatever information is available at the time. They don’t have crystal balls, they aren’t perfect. If this is your measure then I have news – nobody, whether socialist, communist, capitalist, Tory, Labour, Green, BAME, LBGT, male, female will ever succeed in your eyes and you’ll spend the rest of your life complaining.

    1. I think that’s a little unfair Tony; if there is a parent-child parallel with government and population, it is because government continually casts itself in the role of parent; “what should we tell the children?” and we, ever curious as children tend to be, cannot be blamed for trying to work out what we’re not being told.

      1. But Geoff the problem is that everyone wants to know everything. We appoint people to positions of responsibility to make decisions on our behalf – that’s what government is all about. I just don’t agree in your statement that government casts itself in the role of parent. Just because it has decisions to make on behalf of the electorate that put it into power doesn’t make it our parent. Today, everyone then wants to know everything the government knows at all times because they then want to see if they made the right decision and almost everyone says they would have done it differently. It’s paralysing to expect government to function under these conditions. If you don’t trust the people you vote in …don’t vote them in. If you were outvoted well, I hate to say it but that’s democracy.
        If you want to know absolutely everything, stand for election, get a job in the civil service just don’t demand to know everything that everyone in government knows at all times – they actually need to be spending time and directing resources to the day job not spending 24/7 briefing the children. Curiosity is acceptable in a child but it really isn’t helpful in a grown up world where matters are moving at insane speeds.

        1. Tony, you seem to be suggesting that government shouldn’t be held to account. Let’s do away with Parliament. You can’t believe that, surely?

    2. We certainly live in interesting times. Like most people, I don’t expect the government to be “perfect”. I do, however, expect competence – honesty might be a stretch too far. Based on their management of the response to the pandemic thus far, not even their best friends would describe their performance as competent. But that would probably be an unfair expectation of ministers who were selected with a single criterion in mind: absolute, unflinching loyalty to the PM’s Brexit policy. In consequence, it is our misfortune to be confronting our latter-day Dunkirk while served by a government of none of the talents led by a second-rate Churchill tribute act.

  2. I found that everything became clearer once I decided to enjoy all the freedoms of hypocrisy. Joking, of course?

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