Government transparency and accountability during Covid 19: The data underpinning decisions Contents
This report asks the fundamental question of whether Parliament and the public can hold the Government to account for its decisions. It concerns data, as that has driven the response to the pandemic, but the core messages could be applied to many aspects of the functions of government.
Over the last year, the Government has asked the people to accept unprecedented restrictions on their freedoms, and to accept the many consequences of those restrictions. Individuals have been separated from their families, many have been unable to work, and weddings, religious ceremonies and other life events have been cancelled. Many of the freedoms we take for granted have been curtailed. This has come at enormous cost to both the country and individuals, and many people have suffered hardship both financially and in terms of their well-being and mental health. Not least, it goes without saying that many people have made these sacrifices while mourning loved ones lost to this pandemic. For these reasons, there is a moral imperative on Government to clearly justify each of their decisions. Part of that is making the data that is driving the response, and its interpretation, available so people can understand why they are being asked to make such sacrifices.
The Government needs the public to keep working with them, changing their behaviours and their lifestyles in ways which are often extremely difficult. The Government must build trust and co-operation by being open and transparent about the data. Data transparency is not just a moral issue, it is integral to the success of the response to this pandemic. Transparency builds trust, and trust aids compliance with rules.
The Committee is keen to acknowledge that the Government has had to make complex and difficult decisions, often quickly, on the basis of emerging information. More often than not, there is no obviously correct response but rather a range of possible actions that could have different outcomes for, amongst other things, public health, the economy, and the education of children. These outcomes are not in conflict with each other, as they are often presented, but are closely linked.
This report is not a critique of whether the Government made the right or wrong decisions at various points in this pandemic. Instead it considers whether those decisions were transparent and whether the data underpinning them was available for Parliament and the public to hold the Government to account.
In summary, we conclude that:
- The Government has made enormous strides in its understanding of Covid 19, and the work of officials in Departments, Local Government and other bodies is commendable. However, communication has not always been transparent enough, and accountabilities have been unclear.
- Government communications must focus on informing the public openly and honestly. This includes being frank about uncertainties in the data. At various points throughout the pandemic, data has been communicated with the apparent intention of creating a more favourable view of the Government —or even to provoke anxiety rather than help people understand risk. This is not acceptable.
- Where Ministers quote statistics, the underlying data must be published and hyperlinks must be provided from Ministerial statements to the data, so that is easy for journalists and members of the public to find. Ministers have not always published the data underpinning the statistics quoted, which means these cannot be readily verified. This is not adequately transparent and is not consistent with the UK Statistics Authority Code of Practice. The Ministerial Code must be strengthened to require Ministers to abide by the UKSA Code of Practice.
- Ministerial accountability for ensuring decisions are underpinned by data has not been clear. Ministers have passed responsibility between the Cabinet Office and Department of Health and Social Care, and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s refusal to appear before this Committee as part of this inquiry is contemptuous of Parliament. The Government must make a clear statement of accountabilities before the renewal of the Coronavirus Act, and the Minister for the Cabinet Office must respond to this report, clearly outlining his understanding of his own responsibilities.
- The local response to Covid 19 was delayed because Whitehall officials were unwilling to share data in sufficient detail and data did not move quickly enough through new systems. As we move through the next steps of the roadmap, the Government must share all available data in as much detail as possible with local officials, ideally to patient level. In addition, the Department of Health and Social Care should undertake an urgent review of health data systems.
- Local lockdown and tiering decisions were not transparent enough and this led to confusion and mistrust. The data underpinning the decision to put some areas under greater restrictions than others has not been clear enough, and there were no data thresholds aligned to the indicators for tiering decisions. The Government must publish thresholds for the roadmap to avoid such confusion when decisions to move between steps are made.
- The leisure and hospitality sectors had not seen the data underpinning the decisions to put restrictions on their businesses. The Government should publish the data that underpins the restrictions that will remain in place on businesses at each step of roadmap as a matter of urgency.