Dr Luke Evans is a member of the Health Select Committee, and is MP for Bosworth.
A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by a local Labour Party activist looking to make some political hay. He wrote a letter to me, and then posted about it on social media with a copy. I’m sure he was wanting to keep profile high with his local CLP: the local elections are never too far away and you can’t blame a fellow for wanting a story to put on the front of his next Labour Rose.
The activist had read an article on MailOnline, although the same story was reported in both The Sun and Daily Mirror, which outlined that 18 areas in England and Wales had not yet reached their peak for Coronavirus deaths with my constituency, or to be specific my nearly contiguous borough council, being one of them.
What was I going to do about it, the activist asked?
The wider question is something I have been investigating myself. I only recently wrote on ConservativeHome about the difference between “uneasy normal” and what is normal.
In Bosworth we appear to have been lucky, the pending tidal wave of coronavirus infections so far failed to fully materialise. I have been talking in depth with my Local Resilience Forum lead, health bosses and community leaders about how we get on with normality while holding onto capacity to accommodate surges, and the practical applications of regional or even hyper local lockdowns can be achieved. I am always relieved to hear that locally all organisations are working on each eventuality, on plans they hope they never have to use.
On the face of it the data was worrying and wasn’t particularly straight forward.
There were other places on the list which shared the rural nature of my constituency; Broadland or Richmondshire being obvious ones: but then there were also more urban areas too, such as Preston or Doncaster.
Whilst I would be the first to acknowledge that Bosworth has felt relatively distanced from the worst effects of Coronavirus, could it be true that we were about to see a localised peak long after other areas were on the road to recovery?
As a new MP, I’ve learnt very quickly that one of the treasures of our democratic process are the subject specialists in the House of Commons library. Given that the Mail Online article had outlined that the story had been derived from ‘a separate analysis of ONS data’, I went straight to the library to ask for a balanced overview.
Just a day or two later I was pleased to read the library’s response to my query:
“The main thing to point out here is that the idea that Hinckley and Bosworth, or indeed other local areas, have yet to reach their peak of coronavirus cases is not an ONS conclusion.
The level of fluctuation in case numbers at small areas can be quite substantial and identifying accurate trends and definitive peaks is likely to require many weeks more of data, not to mention confirmed data rather than provisional snapshots. While the local level figures are indicative and obviously of interest to residents in a given area, it would be misleading to try to determine whether the latest weekly figures imply numbers have peaked, are likely to increase further etc.
To illustrate this, it is worth noting that of the 18 authorities highlighted by the Mail, all but one of these now show a decline in weekly figures. The Mail report was based on the week ending 15 May but if we now examine data for the week ending 22 May, the picture has changed … the latest figures indicate that weekly deaths in Hinckley and Bosworth fell from 15 to 4 between the weeks ending 15 May and 22 May.”
In short, it appears that the separate analysis which much of the print media picked up and ran with as rather worrying news – at least if you lived in one of the 18 areas – wasn’t sufficiently robust enough to consider data from relatively small geographic areas.
Of course we should all continue to stay vigilant, it may be that my constituency does suffer a spike in the virus somewhere down the line, but the point is that data is very easy to misinterpret and misconstrue even when the intentions are good.
We’ve lived with Coronavirus being the only topic of conversation for more than three months now. Virtually every one of us feels like we understand the data, and that we have our own individual roadmap for a way out of lockdown – if only the Government would listen.
The truth is that if even the scientists can get things wrong because a variable is off or the amount of data insufficient, then any of us can do the same.
In medicine we judge risk, we deal with uncertainty and making the best assessment you can with the valid data you have at your disposal.
It’s generally bad advice for patients to self-diagnose using the internet, invariably they will ignore an important symptom, or equally emphasise too strongly on another; inevitably they will conclude the diagnosis as the worst possible outcome rather than the most likely.
The same is true for statistics, most of us don’t have the expertise to analyse them precisely, but we can take time to look into them, check the methodology and what is more spot the vulnerabilities that most scientists worth their salt will have acknowledged in their own findings anyway.
But then again that wouldn’t make for a good story on the front of a Labour Rose, would it?