It is time to call out the Scottish Government’s Voodoo Data

It is time to call out the Scottish Government’s Voodoo Data

by Linda Holt
article from Tuesday 17, November, 2020

WHAT IS WRONG with Scotland? For many ThinkScotland readers, the short answer will be nationalism and/or the SNP. But even if the SNP weren’t running Scotland, would we really be alright? Would the rest of our politicians, journalists, academics, think tanks and the rest of civil society step up to the mark? During the last year, commentators like John Maclaren and Robin McAlpine have pointed to the relative weakness of a critical public sphere in Scotland for addressing both the dominance of the SNP and the comparative decline in measures of well-being.

The immediate reason for my question, though, is my enormous dismay at the lack of informed public criticism of the Scottish Government’s handling of Covid-19. Back in August, when a piece I wrote for ThinkScotland prompted this blog’s highest-ever hits and a flurry of appreciative mail, I thought the lack of resistance to Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid policies was down to the government successfully engineering a sense of mortal fear in the populace. 

Since then, two things have changed. First, criticism and opposition to the government’s pandemic approach in England (and Ireland) has grown. Initially the stuff of conspiracy theorists, such questioning has become mainstream: professors like Carl Heneghan, David Paton and Sunetra Gupta regularly appear on the BBC. Jon Dobinson launched his Recovery group, which has mounted a respectable guerrilla anti-lockdown campaign. Although the fortnight-old Recovery was too new to prevent Boris Johnson from instituting a second lockdown in England, it played a prominent role in fomenting significant backbench scepticism. 34 MPs voted against the English lockdown measures, with a further 19 abstaining, including former PM Theresa May. Even the BBC was moved to comment that “at times, it felt as if ministers were losing the argument… critics on both sides of the House dominated the debate… so today's rebellion will represent only the tip of an iceberg of unease.” Nothing similar has happened in Holyrood.

Second, fear of being seriously ill and dying from Covid-19 has vastly subsided since the first lockdown. As I’ve written before, I see it every day when I go out or talk to friends. Despite the ban on travelling into or out of a level 3 area, main routes between local authority areas do not seem to be much quieter than usual. If you get closer than 2 metres, few people are shrinking away in horror as they did in March and April. Almost nobody is keeping to the now well-worn 2 metre markings in supermarkets. My own council has launched a social media campaign to raise consciousness about the 2-metre rule which suggests Fife at least, if not the Scottish government, is aware people are not nearly as bothered as they think they should be.

While people may say privately that current restrictions are nonsense, and happily flout them when it suits them, they are loath to make a public point of it, by, for example, refusing to wear a face covering. The fear of breaking social norms is now much more powerful than the fear of the virus. Again, the Scottish Government is well aware of this motivation, and it goes a long way towards explaining the tone, content and sheer mind-numbing repetition of the First Minister’s exhortations in her daily briefings.  

In many ways, adults are being treated like, and reacting like, school pupils. Though it is not law that students wear face coverings at secondary school, guidance states students wear face coverings in corridors and in the upper classes in level 3 areas, and principals in a growing number of schools are trying to play it extra safe by mandating them for all high school year groups. Any child can ask for an exemption – by law, neither the child nor parent have to state the grounds for the exemption – but very few have. Above all, teenagers don’t want to stand out from the crowd, and even ones with medical conditions which are exacerbated by wearing a mask do not ask for an exemption. They would rather suffer breathing difficulties and harm their health than risk social opprobrium. By contrast, I notice those wearing face coverings on school buses down my way are a very small minority. 

What is surprising and dispiriting is that this reluctance to put one’s head above the parapet extends not just to adults, but to those in Scottish civil society who arguably have heads for this very purpose. Not a single MSP came out against Nicola Sturgeon’s lockdown levels at Holyrood. My heart leapt at a few contributions. Conservative MSP Graham Simpson and Labour MSPs Pauline McNeill, Elaine Smith and Jackie Baillie voiced substantial criticism of –  confused messaging, falling compliance, iniquitous economic and health impacts as well as a lack of parliamentary involvement – but it petered out into opposition motions, which, despite a few caveats, signaled a general acceptance of the government’s tiered lockdown strategy. 

More fundamentally, and unlike MPs at Westminster, not a single Scottish representative at Holyrood has dared to question the figures presented at Sturgeon’s daily briefings, which form the bedrock of the decisions on restrictions. The MSPs’ silence is matched by that of Scotland’s academics, journalists and think tank commentators. The exceptions – Hugh Pennington (long retired), Dundee economics professor Morris Altman (one article in the Times), Chris Musson of the Sun – only serve to amplify the resounding silence emanating from their peers. I refuse to believe such informed spectators are ignorant of the debates taking place in England, or think that somehow the questions they raise do not apply in Scotland. 

A case in point is the statement put out last week by the UK’s Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR). It rebuked UK governments for failing to provide “transparent information… in a timely manner”. It was prompted by the Halloween press conference by the Prime Minister and his scientific advisors where they claimed that without a lockdown there could be 4000 Covid deaths a day. In fact, the model from the University of Cambridge, which they were relying on, was already out of date on the day it was used when it suggested there could be 860 deaths; the actual death toll turned out to be 326, and other models proposed lower death tolls.  

This reality check was extensively covered by the London media, examined by a House of Commons committee, and denounced by Theresa May. The OSR criticised the Scottish Government for not routinely publishing data on hospital capacity, a key criterion in determining lockdown levels for specific areas. No journalist asked Nicola Sturgeon about this at her daily briefing. Nor did any Scottish newspaper report it, or consider what it might mean for public confidence in decision-making about levels in Scotland, which was the OSR’s overriding concern. 

Much worse is that no MSP, academic or journalist has called out the First Minister and her scientific advisors for using data even dodgier than England’s. On October 7, when the First Minister announced a raft of stricter restriction on hospitality, she referred to an “Evidence Paper” produced by the Chief Medical Officer, Chief Nursing Officer and National Clinical Director which was simultaneously published. The key metric in the paper was a graph below showing that “at the current rate of growth (7 per cent increase per day), the number of infections would be at the level of the March peak by the end of October”. (My emphasis.) 

Friday (13 November) was the last day of the Leitch model. Here is a graph comparing the prediction with reality: 

Hindsight aside, the modelling proposed by Leitch on October 7 was prima facie absurd, as this comparison of the forecast for Scotland with other countries’ peak daily cases shows: 

The Scottish Government is wont to claim that cases did not increase as predicted because of the measures it took, but this is magical thinking, not science. The daily obsession with case numbers continues, even though Jason Leitch has himself called the PCR test, which they depend on, “a bit rubbish”. Indeed, a PCR test result on its own does not constitute a clinical case – that requires a medical diagnosis which takes account of symptoms.  

Data like the above is being culled from the National Records of Scotland and Public Health Scotland, put into comparative graphs and published on social media by a few scientists and data experts in Scotland, and even some of these feel they have to remain anonymous. Where are all the professional statisticians and academics? 

Key metrics are excess deaths, hospital and ICU admissions set against previous years. Again, the graphs are telling. They de-sensationalise Nicola Sturgeon’s daily incantation of cases, hospital and ICU admissions and deaths. Excess deaths are the key indicator of a pandemic or epidemic; absolute numbers are misleading because in recent years Scotland, and most other places, have seen exceptionally low mortality. It looks like mortality began rising again in 2015, which is in line with UN predictions of Western mortality increasing until 2050.  

This graph [4] below shows that 2003 was the last time deaths per 1000 population were this high by the end of October. Before 2003, this was a standard level of mortality by that stage in the year. 

The next graph [5] below depicts more clearly that that the April 2020 peak was extremely out of the ordinary in terms of place, but not unusual in size in the last 30 years. Moreover, since April this year there has been very low mortality at times, so that overall we are back up to middle-of-the-road mortality for the last 30 years. 

The following graph [6] below uses the same information as the graph above to depict monthly averages over 5 years: it shows that October 2020 was not a particularly unusual month. 

Finally, here are two graphs depicting hospital and ICU admissions and discharges since early September, which indicate a clear downward trend against the First Minister’s doom-mongering. 

 

When I lived in Germany many years ago, I used to like to say the German instinct when faced with a rule was to follow it unquestioningly as part of the apparatus necessary to order life. By contrast, the British instinct was to find a way round the rule and trust that life would sort itself out. Now I think this British individualism or anarchism is quite dangerous. It masks a cowardly failure to grasp the political implications of our governments’ authoritarian responses to the pandemic. Hence public protest in Scotland has been meagre, the province of cranks, and there have been no calls for a campaign of civil disobedience. Not so in Germany, where, unsurprisingly, perhaps, citizens have a keener sense of the danger of such self-deception. 

With thanks to Christine Padgham for creating graphs 4, 5 & 6

Linda Holt is a Councillor for East Neuk & Landward lindaholt.org.uk 

Photo of voodoo treatment  by Rainer Fuhrmann

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