Government holding back covid data that could help save lives

As many prepare to race off to their local pub tomorrow as the coronavirus lockdown is eased, Croydon’s council leader admits he does not have the information needed to make a proper judgement over local infection rates.
KEN LEE reports

Might Croydon be forced into a new lockdown, just as Leicester is enduring this week?

Tony Newman, the council leader, this week issued an assurance that Croydon “is in a very good place” over coronavirus.

And then he went on to admit that he does not actually have the essential “Pillar 2” data on infections in the borough on which to base the kind of balanced judgement which has led to Leicester being ordered into a second lockdown.

With just over 300,000 residents, Leicester is a similar size to Croydon, and has a similarly diverse population.

The decision to order a renewed lockdown of the area was taken after the shocking revelation that there were 944 new positive tests for the virus in Leicester between June 13 and 26.

That is 12 times the number shown in the government’s more widely published data. Having nearly 1,000 positive tests in such a short period is a similar level at which positive cases were being discovered in the early stages of the pandemic, back in March and April.

The disconnect between the figures the government is publishing for local authority areas, based only on tests conducted in hospitals, and the broader, real picture has led to public health directors to issue dire warnings of “a second wave” of covid-19 infections – and deaths – especially with this weekend’s reopening of pubs and bars likely to bring more people in contact with the deadly virus.

That reopening is not happening now in Leicester, where all non-essential shops have been closed and schools ordered to shut from yesterday. Until the Pillar 2 figures for Leicester were admitted this week by health secretary Matt Hancock, it was understood that Leicester had had just 80 positive tests recorded in the last two weeks of June.

Health secretary Matt Hancock: hasn’t been passing on all the data

In Croydon, the last fatality from coronavirus recorded in Mayday Hospital was on June 4. In total, 300 people have died from the virus in the borough’s largest hospital, while the latest Pillar 1 figures from the government show that there have been 1,524 confirmed cases of covid-19 in the borough.

But those figures largely omit statistics from care homes and elsewhere, the Pillar 2 data based on tests carried out at home or in drive-through testing centres.

The most recent figures including both Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 data are for the week ending June 21; this shows Croydon had 1.6 new cases of coronavirus per 100,000 population, which is rated as being “very low” by health officials.

The government publishes a UK-wide figure for covid-19 cases every day that includes tests from hospitals and those processed by commercial laboratories, including samples taken at home. But at a sub-national level, the total of new daily cases contains only hospital tests.

The result is that hundreds of local authorities across the country, including Croydon, are unable to see a timely picture of what is happening in their communities.

“For weeks we have been trying to get information about the level of testing in the city and the results of that testing in the city,” Sir Peter Soulsby, the Mayor of Leicester, told the BBC on Tuesday.

“I wish that they had shared that with us right from the start. And I wish they had taken a more speedy decision rather than leaving it 11 days. That’s a long gap and a long time for the virus to spread.”

It was not until last Thursday that Leicester City Council’s public health department received the true infection numbers cited by Hancock. They could not compare with places elsewhere because the Pillar 2 figures are only made available to officials in their own local authority area if they have signed the Data Protection Act.

And this week a Public Health England official was quoted by the Financial Times as saying that the non-publication of the Pillar 2 data has been a ministerial decision.

The FT also quoted Professor Kate Ardern, the head of health protection and emergency planning for Greater Manchester, who said that the information being sent to local authorities from tests processed by commercial laboratories lacked the detail and timeliness needed to avoid the kind of outbreak seen in Leicester.

Croydon’s director of public health Rachel Flowers: not getting all virus figures immediately

“If I don’t know who is being tested and getting positive tests in the community because one of the major elements of the testing system isn’t currently sending me complete and reliable intelligence . It actually hampers our ability to get ahead of the curve on outbreak management,” Prof Ardern said.

It has only been since June 11 – nearly three months into the crisis – that NHS Digital has started to make available an operational data dashboard with counts of total tests, total positives and total voids per local authority to Directors of Public Health.

In Croydon, ignorance appears to be bliss for Councillor Newman. As usual.

“At the moment Croydon is in a very good place,” the council leader told a little-read non-local paper.

“Having been one of the original hotspots there hasn’t been a death in the hospital for a number of weeks now,” Newman said, sounding just a tad too complacent.

Newman then went on to indicate effectively that Croydon, as with Leicester and other local authorities, is being denied access to all the vital data as soon as it is available.

“One of the lessons that needs to be learnt from Leicester is that we need the correct information. We need assurances that we are getting the information immediately.

“We do get the numbers of positive tests but the other question is around the time-lapse around some of the data, depending on where the test is done and who has done it.

“Much greater clarity is needed around this to keep the public assured and people protected.”

Which is unlikely to reassure no one.


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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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3 Responses to Government holding back covid data that could help save lives

  1. jackgriffin1933 says:

    If I’m not mistaken, the Pillar 2 data was made available yesterday.

    The new combined Pillar 1 and 2 number for Croydon is 1842 cases.

    As I said on this site some time ago, a major theme of the Covid-19 story will be about the failure of data.

    It’ll take yonks to sort out what happened and/ or whether the British Government was singular with its issues, or whether we are part of a broader European experience where everyone was guessing, some guessing right, some not.

    Either way, not sure Imperial will be hearing from Downing St for a while, unless it’s for a meeting without tea or biscuits.

    For those that can be bothered, there was an interesting podcast on data, and the Government’s uneasy relationship with it, earlier this week. Called ‘Would you download a bin app from Dominic Cummings and Other Data Stories’, it was posted by That’s Not What I Meant on the Podbean site.

    For instance, when it came to the gaps in small business grant support, it transpires this is because no one person/ organisation knows how many businesses there are, nor where they are trading from.

    Hence the default to the LA rate payer basis for eligibility, as imperfect as that was.

    • Thanks, Jack. The time-lag between those figures being made available and when they were collated is a perfect example of the delay which slows down the response at local level – potentially with deadly consequences for some.

      • jackgriffin1933 says:

        Another interesting theme on the podcast is that when it comes to publishing/ releasing data early or late, the Government (any government) is in a Heads, You Lose; Tails, You Lose situation.

        You get beasted for being premature if you go early, with incomplete, imperfect data that’s evolving all the time; or you get beasted for being late for hanging on for better, more complete data sets.

        Either way, you’re a bit stuffed.

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