A parliamentary committee has found that the UK’s response to the coronavirus crisis has been hampered by data not being shared quickly or widely enough. MPs also accused Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove of behaving in a manner “contemptuous of parliament” and engaging in “wilful evasion of scrutiny”.
A newly published report from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee recognises that the government has made “a remarkable effort pulling together data on Covid 19 from a standing start 12 months ago [and] has also made much of this data and analysis available to the public, primarily through the Covid-19 data dashboard”.
However, it also finds that ministers and officials have been apt to quote statistics that have not been publicly available, and have presented information visually that does not “meet basic standards”.
MPs also imply that government has tended to relay information in a “politicised” way that is not always “frank about uncertainties in the data”.
“At various points throughout the pandemic, data has been communicated with the apparent intention of creating a more favourable view of the government —or even to provoke anxiety, rather than help people understand risk. This is not acceptable,” the report said.
The public pronouncements of advisers to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies also have the “potential to create confusion and undermine trust”.
The report stresses that it is “certainly not calling for SAGE advisors to be silenced”, but recommends that they should be asked to abide by a code of conduct, similar to that which applies to civil servants.
A tune-up of the Ministerial Code of Conduct is another of the report’s recommendations; when presenting or discussing data, ministers should be required to adhere to the code of practice of the UK Statistics Authority, according to PACAC.
“It is simply not enough to ask ministers to be ‘mindful’ of the UKSA code,” MPs said.
It is also recommended that statistics should be published before they are quoted by ministers, and that ministerial statements or presentations published on GOV.UK must include hyperlinks or footnotes directing readers to where they can find referenced statistical information.
PACAC calls on the Office for Statistics Regulation to look out for and flag up any ministers that quote information that is not supported by published data.
'Officials refusing to share data'
The report is also critical of what it identifies as failures in government’s sharing of crucial information with councils and other entities leading pandemic response at a local level.
“The government knew the response would need to be localised and there were local systems in place to manage infectious diseases already,” it said. “But, instead of allowing local systems to kick into gear, we got spreadsheets from Whitehall and officials refusing to share data. Vital information which might have helped local leaders to respond quickly to outbreaks simply did not move quickly enough through the system. Central government was initially unwilling to share granular data on the spread of the virus, systems were fragmented, and new testing systems were set up outside of the existing systems, causing further delays.”
MPs conclude that it is “impossible to know” whether local authorities receiving more detailed data more quickly might have mitigated, or even prevented any of the virus outbreaks and resultant local and national lockdowns that have taken place since the end of the first wave in early summer last year.
The report recommends that “government must share all the available data with local areas in as much detail as possible, ideally to patient level”. The most pressing data for decision-making should be shared “immediately”, and government should also “publish a comprehensive list of all data that is available and at what level”.
Alongside which, the Department of Health and Social Care and UKSA “should undertake an urgent review of health data systems in England”. The results of this process should then be further reviewed by the Cabinet Office.
'Poorly briefed and unable to answer questions'
PACAC claims that, throughout its investigation, DHSC and the Cabinet Office have “pass responsibility for decisions” between one another and often failed to establish which department was accountable for which decisions.
The Cabinet Office, particularly chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove, is sharply criticised for failure to engage with the committee’s work.
“The committee was very disappointed that, when [Gove] declined to appear before the committee on 4 February, ministers sent in his place were poorly briefed and unable to answer the committee’s questions,” the report said. “This is not the first time that [he] has tried to avoid his accountability to this committee. He has sought to ration his appearances by refusing invitations and setting short time limits when he does appear.”
Gove has been asked to personally respond outlining that he understands his responsibilities – as well as committing to answer questions before the committee.
The report identifies a “deeply worrying” inability to properly scrutinise the process by which the first national lockdown was lifted last year – because “ministers were unable to answer basic questions about the decision”.
“While this report does not comment on whether the government made the right decision, the committee expects ministers to be able to justify the Government’s decisions and to explain the data underpinning them,” the report said. “Fielding ministers who cannot answer questions is wilful evasion of scrutiny. Given how absolutely crucial that decision was for the health, wellbeing and fundamental freedoms of everyone in the country, the inability of ministers to answer this committee’s questions was lamentable and unacceptable.”
It added: “It is clear to even a casual observer that the decision to lift the first lockdown – and all subsequent lockdowns – must have also taken into consideration a range of factors, including health, economic and educational outcomes. It is, therefore, our judgement that such decisions can only be made by the centre of government, in the Cabinet Office or Number 10. When the committee has asked about these decisions – both in writing and in person – the Cabinet Office has passed the buck to the Department of Health and Social Care. This is both confusing and unacceptable because the Department of Health and Social Care is clearly not well placed to make decisions that include wider considerations beyond health.”
Responding to the report, the government pointed out that Gove has appeared before PACAC three times over the course of the pandemic – and 14 times before other select committees – and strongly refuted any suggestion of treating parliament contemptuously.
“At every stage throughout the pandemic, the government has been guided by the latest scientific advice,” a spokesperson said. “As this report makes clear, the government has overseen a ‘remarkable effort pulling together data on Covid 19’ and ‘made much of this data and analysis available to the public’. We have published 77 sets of SAGE papers, and presented transparent data frequently at over 125 ministerial press conferences alongside scientific experts, offering direct scrutiny by the public and the media.”
The spokesperson added: “The chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster has appeared before PACAC three times during the pandemic, and has offered to appear again after recess. Cabinet Office ministers and officials have contributed to nine evidence sessions with the committee in 2020-2021, totalling over 14.5 hours of scrutiny.
“We look forward to engaging with the committee’s recommendations, and will respond fully in due course.”
Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this story first appeared.