Leading statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter went on The Andrew Marr show to explain the facts behind the figures as politicians including the PM misquote his research in briefings.
Sir David, who is professor of Understanding Risk in the Statistical Laboratory at Cambridge University and who helped advise the government’s Sage committee in trying to tackle the covid outbreak, said that it is the indirect damage of the covid crisis which is vital to look at in reviewing how the country dealt with the pandemic. Sir David also said:
–The risk to young people of covid is so small it’s trivial to worry about.
–The government daily briefings are “embarrassing” and not a trustworthy source of statistics.
–Presenting death rates across Europe in a league style table is “fatuous.”
Huge spike in the death rate partly down to mystery numbers
“We’re told 31,587 people have died. No they haven’t, it is far more than that.”
According to the Office for National Statistics, which Sir David regards as one of the few reliable sources of information, 42,000 deaths are usually expected in the four week period between end of March/ April, but this year there have been 79,000 deaths. An increase of 37,000. But only 27,000 of those deaths have covid-19 on the death certificate says Sir David who explains; “During this period there were 10,000 extra deaths coming in at about 3000 a week which are unexplained and this is the mystery. What has caused these extra deaths?”
Sir David also told Mr Marr the extraordinary statistic that more than half the deaths in care homes are not being labelled as covid.
“Another point to take into account is more than half the deaths in care homes which are running at three times the normal rate are not being labelled as covid which is unbelievably important.”
“I do think worrying about protecting our children is a bit of a delusion.”
Sir David quoted former Aberdeen University rector Sir Ian Diamond who is now head of the ONS in highlighting collateral deaths which are happening as a result of people not contacting the health service.
“Sir Ian last week was quite clear that he was attributing much of these to what he is calling indirect deaths or collateral damage. There are a lot of additional deaths happening outside of hospitals that we wouldn’t expect to happen at this time of year. These are short-term immediate deaths due to people not going to hospital, not calling the ambulance and so on.”
The chances of dying of covid according to the stats
Sir David explained that, according to statistics, worrying about dying of covid if you are young is almost “delusional”.
“People are anxious about children. There are 10million under-15s in England and Wales. How many of this group have died and had covid on their death certificate? Two. Taking that into account, this is the tiniest risk you could ever think of, so I do think worrying about protecting our children is a bit of a delusion.”
Sir David continued: “If we look at under-25s, there are 17million in the country. We’ve had 26 deaths (from covid) in this category recorded. That’s about 1 or 2 per million which is the equivalent of the risk we face over a couple of days of general accidents or sudden death, so worrying about this group again is completely trivial. The personal risk for young people is staggeringly low.”
Sir David did not say this was the same for over-75s which he described covid-19 as an “over-75 disease”.
“Let’s look at the over-90s. More than 1 per cent of the over-90s in this country have died from covid in just four weeks. That is a substantial proportion and ten thousand times the risk of the younger people. It’s very difficult to communicate that staggering gradient in risk.”
Misquoted by the PM over useless debates about which country has the highest death rate
“More than half the deaths in care homes which are running at three times the normal rate are not being labelled as covid which is unbelievably important.”
In Prime Minister’s Questions last week one of Sir David’s papers was misquoted in being used to support the notion that comparing mortality rates of countries across Europe is pointless. This in the wake of the UK becoming the country with the supposed “highest amount” of covid deaths in the European block.
Sir David said: “I get fed up of this media based competition about who is top of the death numbers. It is a completely fatuous exercise of doing a sort of Eurovision about who is the worst in Europe.”
Sir David explained that comparisons should be made not between individual countries but between groups of countries with the UK being in the “worst hit category” along with Belgium, France, Spain and Italy.
“I get fed up of this media based competition about who is top of the death numbers. It is a completely fatuous exercise of doing a sort of Eurovision about who is the worst in Europe.”
“I am not saying we cannot make any comparisons at all. Clearly it is important to note that we, as part of that group, are way above the mortality rates of Germany, Austria, Portugal, Denmark and Norway if only to say that what has happened in this country is not inevitable, which means it didn’t have to happen.”
“Embarrassing” press briefings
The daily government press briefings have been slated by many corners of the media with Tony Blair’s former communications director Alistair Campbell one of the voices of criticism. Sir David says the numbers need to be presented by people who understand them out of respect for the public who are hungry for “genuine information”.
“I watched yesterday’s briefing and frankly I found it embarrassing. This is not a trustworthy form of communication on statistics. We’re told 31,587 people have died. No they haven’t, it is far more than that. What gets told is lots of big numbers in what I call a ‘number theatre’ which seems to be co-ordinated by a Number 10 communications team.”