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We need a real-time coronavirus inquiry

The former chair of the health and liaison committees says this is the only way to restore public trust

By Sarah Wollaston  

Former Tory MP Sarah Wollaston arrives at Code Node in London ahead of the first major speech by Leader of the Liberal Democrats Jo Swinson since she was elected last month.

As if the disastrous undermining of public health by Dominic Cummings was not bad enough, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, David Norgrove, has this week published an excoriating rebuke to the Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock. His calm wording is in sharp contrast to its scathing criticism of the way government spin has not only needlessly confused the facts but is actively getting in the way of efforts to control the spread of the virus.

Norgrove’s letter sets out the dual purpose of testing statistics, which should not only be to help us understand the epidemic but to help manage the testing programme to make sure that there are enough tests, that they are carried out where needed and used as effectively as possible.

Instead “the aim seems to be to show the largest possible number of tests even at the expense of understanding.” Ouch. The statistics are being rendered incomprehensible and meaningless.

It doesn’t need to be this way and the secretary of state knows it. He has signed up to the code of practice for statistics but doesn’t seem prepared to apply it to his handling of the greatest public health emergency of our time. People have had enough of being duped and it is undermining trust and support for vital life-saving measures when these could not be more important.

It is time for the public health officials and advisers who flank ministers at the daily briefings to insist on clarity and the independence that their offices should command. It matters because trust lies at the heart of the public being prepared to listen, let alone adhere to rules which have a major impact on their daily lives. Just as we emerge from lockdown, getting a call from a stranger instructing you to stay at home and self-isolate for a further fortnight will be a tough ask, especially where that involves even longer separation from loved ones and financial pain.

What on earth are contact tracers to say to those who, like Cummings, want to pop back to their workplace first or to travel hundreds of miles with someone who is unwell to have relatives on hand in case they also become sick?

Even the mortality data presented at the daily briefings under-represents the true scale of the devastating direct and indirect toll from coronavirus. We should be regularly updated on the excess deaths over and above the rolling average for this time of year as well as where, and who, is most affected. That honestly is a necessary first step to a frank discussion about the staggering health inequality that has been exposed and widened by this pandemic.

A growing number of people have lost faith that there will ever be this kind of transparency or open dialogue unless there is a rapid inquiry with evidence heard in public. There are many models for how this could take place, including a parliamentary commission along the lines of the Commission on Banking Standards set up to provide a rapid response in the wake of the last financial scandal and collapse. Such a review could react in real time and provide much needed cross-party oversight and transparency, helping to restore public trust.

Until that time, there are some in government who could do with an eye test to help them read their own guidance and codes of practice, and they don’t need to travel to Barnard Castle to find one.

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