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Wed 12 August 2020
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With lockdown restrictions being eased, how can people make ‘common sense’ decisions around the Coronavirus risk in their area if accurate data is being kept from them?

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Who would be surprised at the suspicion that this Vote Leave Government is manipulating the data around the Coronavirus crisis?

The use of data as a power tool has prevented us from controlling the spread of COVID-19 through our communities and is even more of a threat now that lockdown restrictions are being eased.

Gloucestershire – where I live – is one of a number of areas where rises in COVID-19 cases are giving cause for concern. The county council later published a statement saying that it was simply chance that five cases had been reported on the same day and that this was no indication of cause for concern. But how many people will have confidence in this when we have no idea how those five cases were reported, who did the tests, when the data was collected, by whom, and when it reached the public health department in Gloucester?

In April, I authored a report about the need for community-based testing and tracing. It was then that I realised that the usual system of reporting a notifiable disease – COVID-19 was made a notifiable disease on 5 March – had been turned on its head.

Usually, if a person was found to have smallpox or Legionnaire’s disease, they would be diagnosed by their GP who has a ‘statutory duty’ to notify the ‘proper officer’ at their local council. However, for COVID-19, GPs have been sidelined and the reporting chain has run to the top – to Public Health England (PHE), which has arguably been under the thumb of Government from the beginning of the crisis. In this way, the Government has taken control of the data on the pandemic and deprived local public health and primary care teams the crucial tool required to protect communities from a dangerous and highly contagious disease.

It can only be speculated why the Prime Minister, his chief advisor Dominic Cummings and the Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock decided to deprive local communities of the data they needed to keep their populations safe. Was this driven by an ideological loathing for local government; a Big Data driven obsession with knowledge as power; or a desire to hand lucrative data management contracts to private companies?

Whatever the motivation, it has left the country – as it emerges from protective isolation – groping in the dark for any sense of how safe we are. It means that the choice about whether to go shopping or to the pub has become more about an individual’s personality type and their innate level of caution than any kind of rational decision-making.

The data failure trail appears to go like this. Private testing centres run by a range of private corporations and the Army, and a minimum of one person with a first-aid certificate on site, have a high level of failed tests. The companies with these contracts are under no legal obligation to report the results to PHE. If the results do reach PHE, they are not passed on to local authority public health departments in a timely fashion.

Originally, we were flying blind because of the Government’s inexplicable decision to stop mass testing. Now, public health teams are flying according to the wrong maps, operating with only partial data and often without sight of the true case numbers.

As if this wasn’t confusing enough, the idea of testing according to different ‘pillars’ has added to the murky picture.

In the early days, Coronavirus tests were only available in hospitals and for medical staff. These were the ‘pillar 1’ tests. ‘Pillar 2’ tests were the ones undertaken at drive-through centres or by post as testing was ‘ramped up’.

As the curve of the pandemic has descended from the peak of infections, the majority of tests are now undertaken in the community. But the official data only includes ‘pillar 1’ tests. This explains why public health officials in Leicester were only aware of a small proportion of active cases in their community until days before the area was forced to go back into lockdown. A local director of public health cannot see a spike coming when they are only given data about a fraction of the cases in the community they are responsible for.

Ironically, the Prime Minister’s spokesman hid behind data security concerns as an explanation for not sharing data, before swiftly moving on to claim that local authorities already have it. At a local level, concerns remain about whether the data that is shared is accurate.

I take the Government’s suggestion that it wants to protect my data with a pinch of salt and share the general public’s lack of trust in its Test and Trace system.

Questions should also be raised about whether the real motivation for keeping this vital information secret is because it might allow journalists to work backwards to fill in the blanks in the data table about how many people have actually been tested.

As a hypochondriac who has taught statistics, I have been following the data as closely as a I could from the start, but I could not tell you how many people in my county of Gloucestershire, much less my home town, are currently suffering from COVID-19. And, without this data, none of us can make ‘common sense’ decisions about where we should go, what we should do, and with whom. We have no accurate data on which to base our decisions and calculate our risks.

In the through-the-looking-glass world of Cummings, one begins with what they want to do and makes up the data later. Just as he could not conceive of a person sacrificing himself to protect others and so broke the quarantine rules to put others at risk, he cannot imagine responsible citizens wanting accurate data to assess how their behaviour might put others at risk.

For this Government, data is a political weapon not a tool to guide policy.

Molly Scott Cato is a former Green Party MEP for the South West


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