Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.
Matt Hancock is doing a good job in unprecedented circumstances. Britain is now testing far more people than similar countries, testing more than France, Germany or Spain. Technology upgrades that could have taken years have happened much faster: 99 per cent of GPs now offer video consultation, up from just three per cent pre-pandemic.
As we head into the autumn we face a tricky balancing act: to keep the economy open on the one hand, and fight the virus on the other. The one thing that we can be sure of is that there will be more areas where local outbreaks require targeted measures.
My constituency saw the first local ‘lockdown’ early this summer, in which shops, pubs and cafes were shut. No-one here wanted to have such restrictions, but they worked: Leicester was on the edge of a massive breakout, and the restrictions brought the virus back under control.
Part of the constituency, Oadby and Wigston, currently has some measures in place again, banning households from socialising. Again, not something anyone wanted, but again, the restrictions are working, and rates of infection are falling.
As an MP who’s been trying to help constituents understand why we have been through such local measures, it’s been helpful that the NHS has improved the publication of local data. I know first-hand how seeing our alarming local data changed people’s behaviour.
Over recent months the Government has published data on the number cases of the virus at the local authority level, and now even by neighbourhood. It has started publishing the number of tests being done, which is helpful.
But having been through two rounds of local restrictions, it strikes me that there are certain small things we could do to make the published data more useful to people.
First, we should change the Government’s “Coronavirus data” website so that it gives seven-day average rates for local authorities, not just absolute numbers. People have sometimes said to me that such and such a place has more cases than another: but without realising that the first place may have many times more people in it. Rates are more useful.
The website should chop off (or at least put a massive disclaimer on) the data for recent days. At present, if you look at the data you will always see that recent days for your local authority show few or no cases. Hurray!
Actually, no – all this means is that this new data is incomplete so far, and will get revised up later. But because there’s no warning about this, some people see the zeroes for recent days and think everything has miraculously got better and so there’s no need to worry.
Where rates are high, we should start adding some contextual information about how a local area’s rates compare to the rest of the country: e.g. this is the Xth highest rate out of Y local authorities, or Z times the national average, or above the 20 per 100,000 rate at which we impose quarantines on people returning from other countries. Even rates, on their own, don’t mean much to people.
We should enable people to make side by side comparisons of different areas, like the DFE does for schools, and the Financial Times does for international coronavirus comparisons.
For the neighbourhood level data, we should change it to show rates over a period as well as absolute numbers. It should let people easily see how the numbers have changed over time.
Last but not least, the Government should publish test numbers and test positivity rates on a local authority basis. One thing that happens (rightly) when an area goes into special measures is that the rate of testing goes right up. This means more cases are flushed out, but some people then ask: is the higher number of cases is just because of the extra testing?
Local authority public health officials have data on the proportion of tests that are positive, but it should be regularly put in the public domain. Where there’s a local problem, that would help people understand what’s really going on (not just more testing but more real cases).
The creation of NHSX last year, to improve data and people’s experience of the NHS, has already increased transparency and dragged NHS technology into the 21st century. Until recently the NHS was one of the few remaining buyers of new fax machines, and owned a tenth of all the remaining pagers in the world. That’s ending, to the relief of staff.
Opening up Covid-19 data has been similarly positive, leading others to create useful tools, which the Government website should now adopt.
Russ Garrett has created a useful map of case rates across the country, and Carl Baker has an animation showing how they have changed over time. The brilliant staff of the Commons Library have made a map of areas with local restrictions, and open data guru Matthew Somerville has made a postcode lookup tool so people can find what rules apply where.
Government should add these features to its own website.
The overall approach the Government is taking is the right one: keeping the virus under control until we can get to a vaccine (or rapid mass testing) that would let us get back to normal. The PM is right to flag up how “a stitch in time saves nine,” and how early measures can prevent more disruption later.
The approach of targeting problem areas is right too: the virus is very unevenly spread around the country. I’m writing this from just outside Leicester, which has had nearly twenty times as many cases per head as places up in the Highlands.
The targeted approach we are taking is the only realistic way to preserve freedom and lives at the same time.
Some people have called for a “Swedish style” approach. I’m not convinced: Sweden has had ten times more deaths per head than its Nordic neighbours. Intrusive social distancing measures are now in place just as they are here, so it is not like everything is normal there.
Sweden had massive advantages: a sparse population and more people living alone than anywhere else. If we’d applied the same approach here, with large, dense cities and much larger households (particularly in the virus hotspots) it would have been a catastrophe.
The Government’s approach is already as targeted and light as possible consistent with avoiding exponential growth of the virus. With hospitalisations due to coronavirus ticking up, (see chart) there’s little room for manoeuvre. There’s no middle way between what we’re doing and a “let it rip” approach.
Going for herd immunity is always one option. But as Sir Bernard Jenkin pointed out on this website, its proponents should be honest about the hundreds of thousands of deaths it would likely entail to get there.
In reality, the locally targeted approach we’re following is the best way to preserve lives, liberty and livelihoods. Better data is one of the things we need to make it work as we head into a tough winter. The officials who have worked to improve the data so far deserve our thanks. Now, as we go into the next round of the fight against the virus, we should take the next steps forward.