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PACAC: Improving data transparency critical in long-term Covid-19 fight

15 March 2021

The Government must learn from past failures in data handling and sharing if it is to build the long-term public consent necessary to overcome the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. In a report published today, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee warns that the failure to provide sufficient explanation of the data underpinning key decisions during Covid-19 placed needless strain on public confidence. It urges the Government to reinvigorate how data is communicated with the public and shared with partner agencies in the fight against Covid-19 to enable fast, flexible response to the future challenges of the pandemic, and ensure they are supported by society.

The report is highly critical of the Government’s engagement with the Committee over the course of the inquiry. Michael Gove declined to appear before the Committee when called and Ministers sent in his place were poorly briefed and unable to answer the questions put to them. Responses to the Committee’s written questions often failed to provide the information requested. This is wilful evasion of Parliamentary scrutiny. The Committee reminds the Government of its obligation to hold itself open to scrutiny and expects each recommendation to be responded to in full. Greater clarity is also needed on where exactly in Government responsibility for data quality and sharing lies.

Over the first 12 months in the UK’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, it is likely that failures in data sharing have undermined the response. These must serve as lessons for the long-term strategy to ensure that life can return to as normal as possible.  Processes for sharing information with partners at a local and strategic level must be improved to support, develop and implement localised policies. The Government must ensure that when it quotes statistics to justify policy decisions, they are backed up by published data. The frameworks governing decisions over lockdown and wider Covid-19 strategy must be clear, open to scrutiny, and the Government must avoid needless confusion by frequent tinkering.

As we move to the next stage of the Pandemic, the roadmap to lifting restrictions entirely, the report asks the Government for absolute clarity on the data underpinning decisions to live up to the Prime Minister’s commitment to "data not dates".

Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, William Wragg MP said:

"This report is not intended to look at the rights and wrongs of the Government’s decisions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is about ensuring that we, as Parliamentarians, can hold the Government to account for those decisions by examining the data. 

The British public must be commended for how it has risen to challenges that would be unimaginable in any other circumstance. Securing their trust is a crucial factor in the success of our response to the pandemic. For the Government to build public confidence, it is absolutely vital that it is open on how it reaches its decisions and the data underpinning them.

Lessons must also be learnt on how the Government shares information with local partners. Delays in sharing vital data, and a reluctance to share detailed data almost certainly hampered the local response. This over-centralization must not be repeated.

I, like the rest of the country, look forward to the easing of lockdown restrictions and a return to normality. If the Government learns the right lessons and improves how it shares data with partners and the public, we can be in the best possible position to react to any future stages of the pandemic."

Key conclusions and recommendations

Taking ownership of decisions

There has been a distinct lack of clarity over which Minister and Department should be held accountable for ensuring decisions are underpinned by data. The collection of accurate, up-to-date, data is critical for ensuring the Covid-19 strategy is effective and will require co-ordination between multiple Departments and agencies. The Committee expects a clear point of accountability for decisions made based on data from these various sources. Lines of accountability must be clear and decision making must be transparent.

  • The Cabinet Office must clearly outline responsibilities for decision making before the Coronavirus Act is considered for renewal after 25 March 2021. This must include clear lines of accountability at Departmental and Ministerial level, stating which Minister is accountable to Parliament for ensuring key decisions are underpinned by data, and for the data that underpins decisions.

Ministers avoiding scrutiny

The ability of Select Committees to hold Minister to account is a vital part of the democratic process. This is especially the case when the country is facing the toughest possible restrictions on our freedoms.

The Committee is very disappointed that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove MP, declined to appear before them to give evidence and failed to adequately facilitate the scrutiny of his decisions. The Ministers sent in his place were poorly briefed and unable to answer the Committee’s questions. Written correspondence has also repeatedly failed to fully answer the questions put to him.

  • The Committee expects Mr Gove to respond to this report, clearly outlining his understanding of his own responsibilities, and the ways in which he should be held to account by Parliament.
  • The Government’s response should state clearly whether each recommendation is accepted or rejected. It should state the next steps the Government will take or provide an explanation for those recommendations it has rejected. It is not sufficient for the Government to “note” a recommendation as they have done in the past.

Ensuring data builds public trust

The Government, in partnership with the Office for National Statistics, NHS, local government and others, has done well to collect and publish pertinent data concerning the impact of Covid-19 on the UK. Innovations such as the data dashboard are welcome and have been invaluable for improving access and supporting scrutiny. Equally, the Committee is pleased that the Government has responded positively to requests for further information, most notably the publication of SAGE papers.

There is, however, room for improvement. There continue to be instances where statistics are quoted without the underlying data being made available to back them up.

  • When Ministers of senior officials quote statistics, the underlying data must be published and made easily accessible. Relevant graphics should meet Government Statistical Service good practice guidelines on data visualisation and meet accessibility regulations. Statements published on Government websites must include hyperlinks or footnotes directing to the detailed data underpinning any numbers or statistics quoted.
  • The Ministerial Code should be strengthened so it is clear that Ministers are required to abide by the UK Statistics Authority Code of Practice in their presentation of data. This is already a statutory requirement for Government Departments and Ministers should be held to the same standard.
  • SAGE advisors should be expected to follow a standard code of conduct, similar to that placed on civil servants advising the Government. The SAGE secretariat should produce guidance for members on how to engage with the media, in line with the 2012 Cabinet Office Guidance. This should not prevent individual advisors from undertaking their normal work or from outlining the capacity in which they advised the Government.

Supporting localised responses

The Government knew the response to Covid-19 would need to be localised and there were local systems in place to manage infectious diseases already. However, instead of allowing local systems to kick into gear, there was unacceptable delay. Vital information which might have helped local leaders to respond quickly to outbreaks did not move quickly enough through the system. The data shared by Central Government was not sufficiently granular to allow the spread of the virus to be understood and new testing systems were set up outside of existing systems, causing further delays.

  • The Government must share all the available data with local areas in as much detail as possible, ideally to patient level. Data which will be key to decision making on the road map out of lockdown should be shared immediately, and ahead of any potential renewal of the Coronavirus Act. The Government should publish a list of all data that is available and at what level.

Lifting lockdown and the road to normality

Ministers were unable to provide the Committee with sufficient information about the decision-making process governing the decision to lift the first lockdown and the data underpinning it. A range of factors must have been considered, including health, economic and educational outcomes, meaning that the Cabinet Office should have played a central role.

The framework for lockdown and tiering decisions has changed repeatedly throughout the pandemic. While the Committee does not object to the inclusion of new factors in decision making, changes in the framework so far have not appeared to reflect new information. This has amounted to a moving of the goalposts, created uncertainty, and must stop.

Lockdown decisions have been met with confusion because the data has been unclear. Data was not initially available for local leaders to understand the tiering decisions and there were no adequate frameworks for escalation and de-escalation in place. The hospitality and entertainment sectors have not had sufficient data on the decisions relating to their businesses. Building trust with these industries is vital and the level of transparency has not been sufficient.

  • The Committee has serious concerns about the lack of transparency and clarity in decision making. The Cabinet Office must outline in its response to this report the range of data and information it will use to lift current and future lockdowns.
  • The priority must now be a clear and consistent framework for making lockdown and tiering decisions as a path back to normality is charted. The Committee welcomes the Government’s roadmap. No further changes should be made to it, such as setting new tests or boundaries.

Further information

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