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with Professor McLean’s statement by the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Johnson expressed some regret but referred to unpublished statistics which, he claimed, showed – contrary to those which had been published the evening before – that the numbers of death in homes had started to fall.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.