Government comms ‘need overhaul’ after Covid-19 blunders and spin

Fact-checking charity calls for inquiry and says civil service analysts should brief the press on complex issues
Matt Hancock: accused of manipulating testing targets. Photo: PA

By Jim Dunton

01 Feb 2021

Ministers need to take urgent action to improve government communications – as well as the accuracy and transparency of official data – after the first months of the coronavirus pandemic dented public confidence,  according to a new report.

The past 12 months have seen scores of examples of ministers failing to back up claims with evidence and not correcting errors when they were made aware of them, Full Fact said.

The fact-checking charity said the “significant” amount of confusion about changing coronavirus rules for the public and statistics on important issues such as mortality has been problematic.

“Good information” will be key to ending the Covid-19 pandemic and that a failure to make rapid improvements would risk lives, it said.

Full Fact is calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the oversight of government communications, which it says should be conducted by MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee.

It also used its 2021 report to stress the importance of ensuring government data, infrastructure and systems are adequately funded to meet the nation’s needs, and to call for greater use of properly-qualified analysts to brief the media.

Chief executive Will Moy said the coronavirus pandemic had demonstrated that getting the right information to people at the right time was a matter of life and death.

“If ever there was a time when the public should expect honesty and clarity from our elected officials and public servants, it must surely be now,” he said.

“This bar, however, has not always been met. Amid widespread confusion and a torrent of false claims about the virus, the government missed several chances to save lives.

“As vaccines continue to be rolled out to the public, the next few months will be crucial. We have recommended a series of urgent measures to build stronger foundations for good information."

The report said the pandemic had exposed “dangerous gaps in public data and communication systems”. It cited accurate information about the supply and testing of PPE and “basic” information about numbers of people receiving adult social care on a daily basis as examples.

It said the upcoming March Budget should make a “clear commitment” to long-term funding for updating legacy IT; ensuring the security and resilience of the infrastructure on which data relies; ensuring data is fit for purpose; and to the continued maintenance of new and existing systems.

GCS should train analysts

Full Fact said the Government Communication Service has an important role to play in delivering its recommendation that departmental analysts be permitted to speak directly to the media to ensure that complex statistical or data-related questions are answered accurately and quickly.

Training should include how to deliver press interviews, it said.

The report also called for a new level of transparency for evidencing claims.

“When ministers, government departments, or officials refer to data or information when speaking to the public, the media or parliament, the full data must be made publicly available in real time,” it said.

End spin surrounding 'targets'

Full Fact also called for similar standards for targets set by ministers or departments.

“When the government publicly sets itself a specific target as part of a policy pledge, it should publish a set of metrics against which it will measure its progress, so the public and others can hold it to account,” it said.

The report said there was some evidence that the government had “designed targets in retrospect” to ensure that they were hit. It said that in late March last year, health secretary Matt Hancock said a daily target for conducting 10,000 coronavirus tests had been hit, even though the target had not previously been referred to.

Hancock’s assertion that the government had met its target of carrying out 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end April was meanwhile a “stark example” of systematic positive test exaggeration, given that the figure included tests that had been posted out to recipients rather than processed.

Horizon-scanning role for UK Statistics Authority

The report added that as part of wider investment in the nation’s future data needs, the UK Statistics Authority should establish a “horizon-scanning function” to anticipate the major societal questions the UK will face in the next five years and the data and insight needed to provide answers.

Full Fact said the rolling programme should receive new funding on top of UKSA's existing budget. 

It said ministers should consider creating a fund dedicated to researching and filling data gaps, and that UKSA should also have a coordinating role in the project.

Read the most recent articles written by Jim Dunton - Civil service must embrace change or risk losing public trust, Simon Case warns

Share this page
Read next