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ST HELENS, UNITED KINGDOM – JANUARY 18: NHS staff administer the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine at Totally Wicked Stadium home of St Helen’s rugby club, one of the new mass vaccination centres opened today on January 18, 2021 in St Helens, United Kingdom. Ten new mass vaccination centres will start administering covid-19 vaccines in England this week, joining seven existing “hubs,” as well as the hospitals and GP practices enlisted in the nationwide effort to give 15 million people a first dose by February 15. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Will Moy: Politicians ought to be more informative

Will Moy: Politicians ought to be more informative

ST HELENS, UNITED KINGDOM – JANUARY 18: NHS staff administer the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine at Totally Wicked Stadium home of St Helen’s rugby club, one of the new mass vaccination centres opened today on January 18, 2021 in St Helens, United Kingdom. Ten new mass vaccination centres will start administering covid-19 vaccines in England this week, joining seven existing “hubs,” as well as the hospitals and GP practices enlisted in the nationwide effort to give 15 million people a first dose by February 15. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The pandemic has placed a premium on clear, accurate information. But the government isn’t delivering – yet

It may not be the first thing you think of in a global pandemic – but, along with ICUs and ventilators, having access to comprehensive, real-time data and robust systems of communication is essential in the effort to save lives. 

This is something that Full Fact has been arguing for many years, but, sadly, 2020 provided conclusive proof that it’s true. Our Full Fact Report 2021, published last week, urges the government to make long overdue changes so that the country is better prepared for the future.

As the coronavirus swept the country and the death toll shot up, it became increasingly clear that the UK had gaping holes in its data landscape.

Efforts were made by various academics to establish a “dashboard” tool to map available data on the pandemic in England. But, in October, they reported “substantial shortcomings in the quality, consistency and availability of reliable figures”.

This included a lack of routine data on how people responded to requests for 14-day isolation, which was widely referred to as an essential part of the response but one that could not be effectively assessed.

Information on existing stocks of PPE was impossibly vague. Updates were issued regarding new deals struck with suppliers and the overall number of available items, in the billions, but the government had no way of telling whether these stocks were useful or sufficient – or even whether gloves were counted individually or in pairs.

Authorities working to contain outbreaks in care homes lacked the basic information they needed to do their jobs. This even included figures for the people receiving care in each area, and local authorities only knew about those people whose care they paid for themselves.

The lack of data is potentially caused, and certainly exacerbated, by the number of different providers of social care, a lack of standardisation and cross-sector collaboration. There was no process to collect various daily data from care homes. And there was no national, systematic approach in the UK to develop care home datasets or to exploit their full potential to enhance residents’ care.

We will never know if things could have turned out differently. But we can reasonably assume that, with better information, the early response to the deadly virus would have been quicker and ultimately more successful.

It’s important to note that these are long-standing failures, and are as such not necessarily the fault of the current government – nor, indeed, of public health authorities. They are the result of a systemic and collective oversight.

But the availability of data is just one part of the story. We also noted failures in the government’s efforts to communicate information to the public – both directly and through intermediaries like the media and fact checkers.

As a bare minimum, we ask that public figures who make claims in the public arena ensure they back this up with evidence. This means publishing the full data they are relying on in good time. As fact checkers, we can’t verify information we don’t have.

But despite repeated warnings by the Office for Statistics Regulation, various ministers and government departments failed to live up to this principle.

Too often, ministers set targets without making clear the metrics they would use to assess their performance. We were concerned that there seemed to be a systematic upward exaggeration of testing performance – and that some targets seemed to have been set in retrospect to ensure that they were hit. This practice must end.

On several occasions, claims that Full Fact flagged as misleading were left without official correction.

And a persistent criticism of the Downing Street coronavirus briefings was that they frequently amounted to little more than a parade of meaningless figures and graphs which lacked anything like sufficient context. Tortoise’s Chris Newell highlighted this problem when he improved some of the official government slides last year.

All of the problems cited above are very much live issues, which need urgent attention if the country is to end and recover from the pandemic. 

We need to be confident that the government identifies where the gaps are, before it becomes too late to fill them, and that it will use the information it collects responsibly.

In the Full Fact Report 2021, we outline ten recommendations – some of which are immediate fixes. The others aim to create a solid foundation for better government data and infrastructure, complemented by functional systems for predicting the big societal questions of the future, and even the next crisis.

There have been years of missed opportunities to invest in the foundations for good information; years of chronically low levels of public trust in those who seek to govern. The pandemic offers a turning point. The government must choose the right path.

Will Moy is the chief executive of Full Fact