Finding correct statistical lessons is vital to improving any future ‘crisis’ decision-making

THE UK GOVERNMENT has announced an independent inquiry to “examine the UK’s pandemic response and to ensure that the UK is better prepared to respond to future pandemics.” 

A consultation is in progress regarding the scope and form of the inquiry (open until 7 April – closes a week today!) This article discusses how we should respond to this consultation with a particular emphasis on statistics (the area in which I work).

Science and statistics were front and centre stage for much of the last two years.  Media coverage and official briefings referring to ‘the’ science showed daily death totals and case numbers; projections based on models showed us what might happen.  As a result, we were instructed to make unprecedented changes to our lives.  Diktats included the mysteriously precise advice of staying two metres apart and no more than six people in a gathering.  The social and economic consequences were devastating.

Does the inquiry matter?

I welcome the fact the inquiry is happening.  Those of us who belong to professional bodies can engage in a positive manner through them.  In my case this is the Royal Statistical Society who are holding a series of events in preparation for the inquiry.  A campaign group with whom I am working (Better Statistics CIC) is also involved (more details below).

It’s important to highlight some positives: the early publication of daily death statistics by NHS Trusts, ‘free to view’ articles from journals such as the BMJ and a plethora of independent media articles providing alternative views.

Science is not singular; it progresses via trial and error.  The suppression of alternative views runs contrary to open scientific debate.

What happened in the past two years?

I can see two interpretations:

  • Covid-19 was a very deadly disease… the heroic measures prevented it causing high levels of excess deaths
  • Whilst Covid-19 was a fairly deadly disease… the measures did more harm than good.

The first interpretation is the ‘official’ narrative.  The second was regarded as ‘misinformation’ for much of the past two years.  In my view the absence of significant levels of excess deaths since April 2020 support the second interpretation.  I have always been of the view that the measures imposed were disproportionate and did more harm than good.  

Our pandemic response has been a crisis of decision making.  There was plenty of evidence and a range of alternative views.  Decisions were rushed through (justified by urgency), without thorough cross-examination, based on advice provided by a narrow field of experts.  Too often people providing alternative views were attacked and their views banned as misinformation.

The consultation

In terms of the scope of the inquiry, my view is participants should be able to discuss anything they regard as harms caused by the measures taken.  Whilst the inquiry is looking for lessons to inform how future pandemics are handled, it is clear the way in which decisions were taken (and maintained) means lessons need to be learnt within broader contexts.  We do not know what the next ‘crisis’ will be; it may not be an infectious disease.

In terms of the format of the inquiry, I have written asking that organisations such as Time for Recovery are able to act as Core Participants, if they so wish, alongside eight other organisations established in response to the measures taken by the UK government.  

Better statistics 

It will be important to engage and work with more broadly representative groups.  One example is Better Statistics CIC, formed just over a year ago with the objective of promoting public awareness of, and interest in, the production of accurate and relevant statistics.  The group has a wide range of interests from inflation to oversight.  I attended its first public meeting last November alongside senior representatives of the government and the Office of National Statistics (ONS), together with practitioners and users of statistics.

Members of the Better Statistics group have been looking at the Coronavirus Infection Survey (CIS) run by the ONS.  Following a Freedom of Information request the group obtained details of the amount of money spent on the CIS (around £1 billion).  Better Statistics is asking that Value for Money be included in the UK Statistical Authority’s Code of Practice.  To many of us working in the commercial world this would seem to be an obvious inclusion. Furthermore, given the 13% response rate to the survey, the group is suggesting that good practice guidance is needed as to how response rates might be improved and that potential biases resulting from uneven response rates should be investigated.

My own appraisal of the CIS is that details of the methodology (which includes a survey and modelling of data) are insufficient to judge the quality of its output.  An exercise of this type may well be prone to ‘participation bias’ (those who choose not to take part may be different to those who do) and the impact of this will have changed over time (impacting trends).  The ONS has published data showing significant under-representation of BAME individuals, a far from homogeneous group, who were subject to particular attention in the government’s Covid information campaign.  

Better Statistics has also requested further information on how differing participation rates by household size have been corrected for in the analysis to ensure the prevalence of the disease in the population and amongst subgroups has been correctly calculated.   Let’s make sure the right lessons are learnt.  These may be slightly complex issues, but if we’re spending £1 billion of public money, you’d like to think serious attention would be paid to them.

If you appreciated this article please subscribe to our daily newsletter here, share and follow us on Twitter here – and like and comment on facebook here. Time for Recovery is a ‘not for profit’ campaign (we make a loss!) and need your financial support to survive – if you can spare some of your hard-earned pounds you can donate here.

Nigel Jacklin is a statistician and market researcher.  He first wrote about covid mortality in April 2020 and gave a talk on this subject at a Keep Britain Free gathering in Hyde Park in July 2020.  He recently worked with the Together Declaration and NHS100k in their campaigns against vaccine mandates.

Photo of 2m distancing sign in Oxford shopping mall by Timothy from Adobe Stock