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 The prime minister cited unpublished data which suggested that these visits were the main setting for transmission.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
• The home affairs committee’s report on the government’s failure to close the UK’s borders, and the increase in Covid-19 infections this generated (Lack of special border measures before UK coronavirus lockdown was a ‘serious mistake’, 5 August) contains a chilling description of the government’s refusal to provide the scientific advice on which the decision was based.
The committee asked to see the advice on nine occasions. Four ministers and three senior officials were approached but were non-responsive. Members were told “time and again” over more than three months that they would receive the advice. Again nothing.
Given this, the committee notes that it “could quite reasonably conclude that the advice we have requested simply does not exist”. What do those who supposedly provided the advice have to say about this? If the advice does exist, why don’t they publish it themselves for the sake of transparency and democratic accountability? If it doesn’t exist, why don’t they resign, as it difficult to see how, morally, they could remain part of a system where duplicity, distraction and delusion have become normalised?
Prof Joe Sim
School of justice studies, Liverpool John Moores University
Prof Steve Tombs
Faculty of arts and social sciences, The Open University
• Rafael Behr’s article (Boris Johnson’s rise to power taught him all the wrong skills for a Covid crisis, 4 August) exemplifies the “What if…?” idea. If only Boris Johnson had followed the path for which nature designed him and he consistently practised, UK audiences might have had a passable stand-up comic, and the UK government might now be led by a responsible adult.
We also might have been spared inappropriate slogans such as “whack a mole”, more suited to happy summer fairs than a crisis causing many thousands of deaths and much suffering.
Thirsk, North Yorkshire
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