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Thursday, July 02, 2020

The missing data

The decision to impose a local lockdown in Leicester has proved to be particularly controversial due to claims that if detailed local data had been available earlier then the rate of infection could have been checked much sooner.

As we move into the next stage of the pandemic the data issue is becoming more and more crucial, and yet, as the Guardian reports, local politicians are claiming that it is being withheld from them.

The paper says that council leaders believe that either they are not getting test results needed to prevent new outbreaks, or the results are incomplete and without sufficient detail to allow them to quell local surges in infection:

The complaints came as Labour accused Boris Johnson of presiding over “a lost week” which has let the virus spread, threatening fresh lockdowns as physical distancing restrictions are loosened this weekend. The government hit back, claiming councils had the information they needed to keep the virus at bay.

Rochdale borough council, which has one of the highest levels of new infections in England after Leicester, told the Guardian the borough had not received any community testing results – known as pillar-two tests. The council leader, Steve Rumbelow, warned the data showing who had tested positive outside of healthcare settings was essential “to ensure that Rochdale does not get to where Leicester is now.”

That appeared to contradict the prime minister’s claim in parliament that all test results – community testing in pillar two and NHS testing in pillar one – “have been shared not just with Leicester but with all authorities across the country”.

The pillar-two results, which were published in full for the first time by Public Health England (PHE) on Wednesday, have shown many more positive tests than those taken in hospitals and so provide a very different picture of where infection rates are moving towards dangerous levels.

Labour said it was not until last Thursday that Leicester city council was told that while pillar-one tests showed 80 positive tests in the last fortnight, the real figure was 944 and within days the city was locked down.

Barnsley, which after Leicester had the highest levels of infections recently alongside Bradford and Rochdale, only started getting community postcode-level testing data on Wednesday this week.

The information is essential to help local officials intervene in local outbreaks. On Monday they started arriving at Bradford city council and at Cheshire West and Chester, whose council leader, Louise Gittins, complained they were “incomplete, poor quality and difficult to access”. The test results were not always linked to a postcode, age, occupation or ethnic minority data, she said.

Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester city council, also complained the community data included no information about ethnicity, age, occupation, gender or, crucially, postcode of the infected person.

“If you have 10 cases and they are spread out across Wigan, that is one thing,” he said. “If they are all in the same street that’s another thing entirely. We are promised this data. It is the most important piece of data we still need.”

Quite why this data is not finding its way down to key local decision makers is difficult to fathom. We know that the Prime Minister wants to convey an impression of everything being well, so that we can all get back to normal as soon as possible, but there is a clear sense of self-denial in that approach. The government's duty is to the health and wellbeing of the country and its citizens. They should be doing everything possible to fulfil that duty.
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