From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Keeping the Secret (2)

Sylvia Richardson

Not my words.  Just a letter in Friday’s Guardian from senior statisticians, on exactly the same theme as my piece on August 4: ‘Keeping the Secret’:

“The Covid-19 public health crisis has placed a sharp emphasis on the role of data in government decision-making. During the current phase – where the emphasis is on test and trace, and local lockdowns – data is playing an increasingly central role in informing policy.

We recognise that the stakes are high and that decisions need to be made quickly. However, this makes it even more important that data is used in a responsible and effective manner. Transparency around the data that is being used to inform decisions is central to this.

Over the past week, there have been two major data-led government announcements where the supporting data was not made available at the time.

First, the announcement that home and garden visits would be made illegal in parts of northern England. The prime minister cited unpublished data which suggested that these visits were the main setting for transmission. Second, the purchase of two new tests for the virus that claim to deliver results within 90 minutes, without data regarding the tests’ effectiveness being published.

We are concerned about the lack of transparency in these two cases – these are important decisions and the data upon which they are based should be publicly available for scrutiny, as Paul Nurse pointed out in the Guardian (Secrecy has harmed UK government’s response to Covid-19 crisis, says top scientist, 2 August).

Government rhetoric often treats data as a managerial tool for informing decisions. But beyond this, transparency and well-signposted data builds public trust and encourages compliance: the daily provision of statistical information was an integral part of full lockdown and was both expected and valued by the public.

As champions for the use of data in policymaking, set out in the Royal Statistical Society’s data manifesto, we ask the government to recognise the importance of transparency and to promptly and prominently publish all data that underpins its decisions.

Prof Sylvia Richardson, Prof David Spiegelhalter, Prof Christl Donnelly, Prof Peter Diggle, Prof Sheila Bird, Simon Briscoe, Prof Jon Deeks On behalf of the Royal Statistical Society Covid-19 taskforce.”

On the one hand secrecy, is bred in the bones of the British system of government despite legislative reform.  It is made worse by the arrogance of an 80-seat majority and the conviction that control over communication is essential in what amounts to a wartime endeavour.  As was noted in an earlier diary entry (April 27), almost none of the Ministers have a scientific background, including those at the frontline of managing the pandemic.

On the other hand politicians, as they have stressed from the outset, are dependent upon the input of scientists.  This means not just their knowledge, but how that knowledge is generated.  Scientists proceed by evidence-based research, open to review and improvement by other practitioners.  As Sir Paul Nurse and now the Royal Statistical Society complain, their culture is fundamentally at odds with those they are now working with.

With Johnson and Cummings in charge, there seems no likely resolution of this impasse.

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