Tuesday 5 May 2020

Uses and abuses of statistics

Those of us interested in these sorts of things lost confidence in government statistics during  the years Mrs Thatcher was prime minister (1979 to1990). 

In the early years of her premiership the measure of people unemployed rose to 3 million.  This figure was alarming so the government set about manipulating the figures.  I can t remember all the details now and long ago threw away my notes, but there were something like 17 changes in the way the counting was done, and the effect of something like 14 of them was to reduce the figure.

Some of the devices were that school leavers were removed from the count, as were those not entitled to benefits (though of course they still had no job but wanted one.)*  Another ruse was to take people our of the potential workforce and place them on "Invalidity Benefit."  Twenty years later our government put a lot of energy into gruelling "fitness to work tests" to force them back in again, as tellingly depicted in the film the film "I Daniel Blake."

A hangover of this deception persists today when even the "impartial" BBC solemnly intones without question claims by  complacent ministers that unemployment is now the lowest for decades without mentioning that the count  no longer incudes anyone under 18, those in part-time work who want full-time work, those on zero-hours contract who would like something more reliable, and the hordes in involuntary self-employment (ie they have lost their jobs  and are hawking themselves round as "consultants" or similar and earning only a fraction of the minimum wage)

Be that as it may the reason for bringing this up now is the farcical claim that the target for 100 000 coronavirus tests per day by the end of April had been reached. 

The vital day was Thursday 30 April.  Earlier in the week the figure still stood at around 80 000.but Matt Hancock the Health Secretary boldly proclaimed that his target would be reached.

And lo and behold it was - not just reached but had leapt forward to 120 000.

A great national achievement , said Hancock., only for it to be revealed that this super figure had been reached by including 40 000 tests sent out in the post and not necessarily yet returned.  Over the weekend the figure fell back to the 80 000s

it is difficult to believe that this is happening, and now accepted as routine, not in a banana republic or emerging third world democracy with a largely illiterate population, but here in one of the most politically sophisticated and highly educated countries in the world.

Why are we not outraged?

Because, particularly since the referendum of 2016 and subsequent elections, political  lying has become commonplace.  We can no longer trust anything our government tells us.

I normal circumstances this is disgraceful.  At a time when the health of everyone in the country is seriously at risk, such "playful" distortions of the truth to achieve a PR hit are criminal.

*  My friend John Cole of Bradford has directed me to this detailed list of the changes:



  1. I suspect we're not outraged because we all realise that '10,000' was a meaningless arbitrary number, and what's important is that the setting of the target drove a large increase in testing, which was always the point — not whether a particular arbitrary number was met or not. Even if we assume the lowest bound number of 80,000, that's still more than twice what it was a week before and eight times what it was a month before.

    (Though if you really want to talk about '"playful" distortions of the truth to achieve a PR hit', and PR spin in general, I don't think any government before or since has ever matched the New Labour government of 1997-2010 (with the dark lord double-act of Campbell and Mandelson) for that, has it?)

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  2. The mistake was setting a target which could be seized upon by the media out for their latest 'gotcha' (The Guardian is the worst offender in this respect).

    "At a time when the health of everyone in the country is seriously at risk"...


    2002 New v-CJD will kill 50,000 in the UK... 178 died.
    2005 H5N1 (Avian flu) will kill 200m people worldwide... 243 died.
    2009 H1N1 (Swine flu) will kill 65,000 people in the UK... 457 died.

    We should be more concerned about the work of Neil Ferguson, who is advising the Government on Covid-19 modelling. It has so far killed 0.04% of the population but is putting us on course for the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression while the country is in lockdown. The socio-economic damage will have a far greater effect on the number of deaths in the next decade than Coronavirus will.

    Now that is a scandal.

  3. If Hancock had had Bernie Madoff on his team he could have kept the scam going for a few more years. (rather than immediately giving up on the 100,000, which he seems to have been reported as doing today.)

  4. 'When the health of the country is seriously at risk'
    Numbers in the thousands will die ,only hundreds did is pretty poor when Covid-19 total today is over 30,000 dead.
    The Tories have a lot to answer for from 2015 to today and beyond. Remember Brexit is just round the corner. The decisions of the Tory Govnt have made us 2nd in the Covid -19 pandemic death list.Only the good old US of A has a higher total This Brexit/Tory govnt wants to worship the Trumpster!?. What socio-economic disaster will Brexit and turning to the US help to bring?

    1. Any criticism for the governments of Spain, Italy and France dealing with a similar number of deaths? The EU have had to apologise to Italy for leaving them high and dry.

      We have a high number of deaths because of population density, particularly in London and a higher than average number of people with underlying health problems - particularly diabetes, heart disease and obesity; an issue mainly of personal responsibility.

      The biggest 'failure' of the government's response to the pandemic was not locking down early enough. But the virus is here to stay so we'd just be in a longer period of lockdown right now with the same threat at the end of it - and billions more in debt.

      Brexit is neither here nor there at the side of the economic damage this is unleashing.

    2. I'm not so sure about Spain and France, but Italy was about 15 days ahead of us in catching the virus. We could have learned from their experience but chose not to.

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