Lies, damn lies and variants

Written by: Jon Richards | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The DfE is withholding data about the extent of the spread of the ‘Indian’ Covid variant in schools. Jon Richards wonders if we are dealing with evidence-based policy-making or policy-based evidence-making...

This year has thrown up interesting new verbal gymnastics – not least the term “following the science”. This is a wonderful bit of government-speak that sounds sensible and contemplative until you stand back and think about it.

I have dabbled a bit in “the science” over the years – I have a related degree, have worked on both HIV and occupational health and safety, and sat on a government advisory group on BSE – remember when mad cow disease was the big threat?

So I worry that I am in the “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing” field when it comes to Covid-19.

I have a clear bias towards worker safety and that affects my judgement. Confirmation bias? Tick. Desirability bias? Tick. But l like to think that knowing that I have these weaknesses means that I can try to question my initial instincts.

Politics thrives on bias. Picking a few general facts and figures and overlaying them with anecdotes and fables is a tried and tested way to win people over.

But as educators, we all know that the story usually wins the day over the “facts” – particularly when the data presented are complex, unclear or debatable. And we have seen a lot of spin over the transmission data by all those with strong views. All of which brings me to our latest contretemps with the government.

We sit on a couple of Department for Education national committees looking at Covid, and during the pandemic we have had very helpful briefings from leading scientists (including some off the telly!).

More recently we have been getting useful and detailed briefings and updates about school-specific data. This has included specific information on rates in different age groups, including school-age children and some general statistics on new variants.

At the start of May, UNISON asked to see specific data for outbreaks in schools of the Covid variant B.1.617.2 (known as the “Indian variant”), which is currently dominating transmission. After a few exchanges we were told this would be included in the weekly report from Public Health England (PHE).

We accepted that it might not be in the first week’s stats, but when it did not appear the following week either we were a bit surprised and started to make some more public noise, raising it with our contacts in the science community.

This led to us being contacted by The Observer, who told us they had evidence that the data was being blocked by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Since this revelation, our sister unions have joined with us and we have now written directly to the secretary of state asking for the data and posing three specific questions:

  • When did PHE first share data with ministers on variant B.1.617.2 spread in schools and colleges?
  • Did the government instruct PHE not to release this data? If so, why?
  • Will the government now commit to sharing the data immediately? If not, why not?

It is no secret that the unions have wanted to take a more cautious approach to relaxing some of the mitigation measures in schools. We have concerns about the spread within schools, which could affect pupils and staff and the local community. And we have seen a steady increase of cases in secondary school children since Easter.

In response to our latest request we are told that the DfE is looking at ways to publish the data, and that PHE will do so shortly. This means that the information is clearly available – and has been for a while now.

Continued withholding of this data this raises suspicions about why and fuels our already over-stimulated confirmation and desirability biases. Once more it raises concerns that the government only wants to release data in a way that suits their political objectives.

And a creeping feeling that once more rather than dealing with evidence-based policy-making, we are back to policy-based evidence-making.

That isn’t a good look for a department that is supposed to lead in educating the nation.


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