My intention with these posts about Coronavirus has always been to show how Statistics can be used as part of a battery of scientific tools to learn about, understand and even fight the epidemic. I’m conscious though that a number of recent posts – for example, here, here, here, here, and here – have focused on the interplay between politics and Statistics in the UK response to the Coronavirus epidemic. This was unintentional, rather than planned.
As I’ve mentioned before, and many of you will have known already, I live in Italy, which was affected sooner than the UK by the current epidemic. I’ve therefore followed both the science and the government response to the crisis quite closely both here (Italy) and in the UK. There are many similarities, but also quite a few differences, both in the trajectory of the epidemic and in the way the governments have handled things. Without question, Italy has made many mistakes, though it also had less evidence and less time to make decisions. But as a statistician, what strikes me about the UK response is the extent to which Statistics has been used – and misused – as a cover for government action and inaction. If you read the posts linked above, you should get a sense of what I mean, though I also abandoned many other potential posts at the draft stage because I wanted to avoid this blog simply becoming a rant.
I can’t leave this issue without mentioning the latest abuse of Statistics by the UK government however. As you’ll know – discussed here – as part of a daily press briefing, the government included a slide comparing the trajectory of the virus in different countries. In my previous post, I already discussed the fact that some cosmetic changes had been introduced to that particular slide which had the effect of making the UK’s numbers seem less extreme compared to those of other European countries. But since then, the UK numbers have pretty much remained stable, while those of other countries have started to improve, meaning that the UK looks increasingly worse than other European countries. Consequently, as of this week, the UK government has dropped this particular slide from the daily briefings.
Now, you can make a perfectly valid argument – as indeed Professor David Spiegelhalter did – about the utility of detailed cross-country comparisons. And on the basis of that argument, you might reasonably decide that showing a graph that compares country numbers is misleading and choose not to do it. But what you can’t do, unless you are deliberately manipulating Statistics to best suit your purposes, is include the graph when it shows your country in a favourable light, but then stop showing it as soon as it doesn’t. That is a terrible use of Statistics, and arguably pretty poor government as well.
End. Of. Rant.
It’s not just me though:
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) May 13, 2020
Robert Jenrick and Dr Jenny Harries defend the decision to delete the country comparison of deaths graph now that it shows the UK has the highest death rates in Europe. This graph has been shown for 7 weeks. Doctors should not support political manipulation of health data.
— Anthony Costello (@globalhlthtwit) May 13, 2020