Government transparency and accountability during Covid 19: The data underpinning decisions Contents

3Decision making

The chain of command

83.Throughout the inquiry, this Committee has struggled to establish who the Government sees as accountable for the data underpinning decisions on Covid 19. Clear accountability for decision making is absolutely integral to our democracy and the system should be quite simple: Departments and their Permanent Secretaries are responsible for advising the Government, and Ministers are accountable to Parliament for decisions based on that advice.

84.This Committee has already raised concerns about the governance of Covid 19 decisions. In September 2020, our report on the Government’s scrutiny of Covid 19 decisions explained that that the Government had established four decision-making groups in April (healthcare; general public sector; economic and business; and international) only then to replace them with two Cabinet Committees (the Covid 19 Strategy; and Covid 19 Operations (Covid-O) Committee) by September, and in addition to this, the role of a reported “Quad” of Ministers was unclear.76 The report concluded that governance arrangements have not been clear and this remains so.

85.Establishing accountability for decision making on Covid19 was not an aim of this inquiry but the Committee had expected that a Minister would be able to account for the data underpinning decisions. Based on publicly available information, the Committee had expected to hold the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to account, as the responsible Minister.

86.First, it is important to understand the roles of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Cabinet Office:

a)The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is a Minister without a fixed portfolio. He is currently the most senior Minister in the Cabinet Office after the Prime Minister.

b)The Cabinet Office sits at the centre of Government. It supports the Prime Minister in the running of the Government and describes itself as the “corporate headquarters of Government”.77

87.The Cabinet Office is home to the Covid 19 Taskforce, headed by the Second Permanent Secretary (James Bowler), with Director Generals of analysis, strategy and delivery sitting beneath him. The data underpinning key decisions drawn from across Government and balancing a myriad of considerations, including (but not limited to) public health and the economy, comes through this Taskforce. The Cabinet Office is, therefore, the Department through which the Committee would assume Covid 19 decisions are made as only they are well placed to balance all these considerations. As Second Permanent Secretary James Bowler explained to us:

I head what is called the Covid 19 taskforce and the role of that secretariat is to bring together all analysis, information and policy for collective decision-making in Government. As such, the Cabinet Committees take decisions on that, and ultimately the Prime Minister.78

88.The Cabinet Committees referred to by James Bowler are Covid 19 Strategy (Covid-S) and Covid Operations (Covid-O). Covid-O is a key decision-making body, as the Paymaster General, Penny Mordaunt, explained when asked about the decision to lift the first lockdown:

Ultimately, these decisions are taken and owned by the whole of Government. That is the decision-making body. Normally they are taken at Covid Operations meetings, which are large meetings incorporating the whole of Government … .Covid-O was a mechanism where you could take decisions swiftly, enhancing the normal write-around processes that you would have normally to clear business. It was also critical in keeping people informed about what was happening on a real-time basis. They would be happening extremely regularly, and they still happen extremely regularly. Sometimes we have had them happen twice a day.79

89.Covid-O is chaired by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove. The Ministerial accountabilities published by Cabinet Office state that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is responsible for “supporting the coordination of the cross-government and the devolution aspects of the response to Covid 19”.80 This Committee would go further than this, and say that Michael Gove is accountable to Parliament for cross-government co-ordination of the response to Covid 19 and for ensuring these decisions are informed by data.

90.Therefore, while only the Prime Minister can stand in front of the country and Parliament and be accountable for key decisions (such as lockdown), it is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster who we believe is accountable for ensuring that these decisions are informed by data, through Covid-O and as part of the co-ordinated response.

Exercising his accountability

91.When this Committee has asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to demonstrate this accountability, he has failed to do so on numerous occasions. The Chair has put questions to Mr Gove in writing that we understood to be within his remit only for those questions to be passed to the Department of Health. On 18th November, a letter from Mr Gove stated “I will address each of your questions that fall under the remit of the Cabinet Office. The Department of Health and Social Care will respond on your remaining points separately”.81 None of the questions we put to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, on the tiering system, indicators, escalation and de-escalation plans and whether local leaders could move more quickly on the basis of their own data, were answered fully. On 10th December, Mr Gove wrote to us stating that “Ministers are ultimately responsible for data transparency and accountable for the policies of Government”,82 and while we would agree with this general statement, it does not answer the question of which Minister is responsible for the transparency of data underpinning Covid 19 decisions. We believe this is Mr Gove.

92.Twice, we called the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to give evidence to the Committee and twice he declined, sending junior Ministers in his place. It is unfortunate that these Ministers were unable to answer basic questions, including on data related to lifting the first lockdown, tiering, and vaccines. When asked about the first lockdown, the Paymaster General said “I think that is probably better directed to the taskforce in Health. I was not involved in those decisions at that time”,83 only for the Minister for Social Care, Helen Whately, to respond by saying “with regards to coming out of the first lockdown, I was not involved in those decisions”.84

93.It was particularly disappointing that when asked about later decisions to close hospitality sectors in tier 4, the Paymaster General told us “I have not been involved in the decision-making or preparation of data”.85 Given that this inquiry is about data transparency, we would expect that the Ministers who appear in Parliament to account for the Government’s performance on data would be prepared to talk about the data underpinning decisions. Even when questioned on vaccines, a very current issue where the Government has been having great success, the Paymaster General was unable to give clear answers.86

94.Given Ministers were alerted to the themes prior to the session and the Committee’s expectation was that the appropriate Minister would be put forward, this raises serious concerns about whether, for practical purposes, there is clear Ministerial accountability for these decisions at all.

95.This Committee is clear that the data is complex and drawn from across Government and would not expect that one Department or one Minister to be responsible for producing all of the data that informs decisions. And naturally, decisions should take account of the views of a number of Ministers and their various portfolios. But, we do expect that the lines of accountability are clear and that this Committee should be able to hold a Minister to account for ensuring that decisions are underpinned by data, championing data-use across Government in all circumstances.

96.Throughout this inquiry, it has been unclear which Minister and Department should be held to account for ensuring decisions are underpinned by data. Data is collected by multiple Departments and other bodies, and this Committee expects a clear point of accountability for decisions made based on data from these various sources. It is not acceptable to pass responsibility for decisions between the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care when so much is at stake. Lines of accountability must be clear and decision-making must be transparent.

97.The Cabinet Office must clearly outline responsibilities for decision making, before the Coronavirus Act is considered for renewal after 25th 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 the decisions.

98.The Committee was very disappointed that when the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster declined to appear before the Committee on 4th February, Ministers sent in his place were poorly briefed and unable to answer the Committee’s questions. The ability of Select Committees to hold Ministers to account for decisions is a vital part of the democratic process. This is particularly true at a time when the country is facing the toughest possible restrictions on our freedoms, and when (as we have previously reported on) detailed scrutiny of the Government’s decisions has not always been possible in the timeframes required. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s refusal to attend this Committee and account for decisions made by the taskforce he chairs is contemptuous of Parliament.

99.This is not the first time that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has tried to avoid his accountability to this Committee. He has sought to ration his appearances by refusing invitations and setting short time-limits when he does appear. It is remarkable to note that the Prime Minister has spent more than an hour longer in front of the Liaison Committee in this session than Mr Gove has spent with his departmental select committee.

100.The Committee expects that the Rt Hon Michael Gove will 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 Committee will put further questions to him at his next appearance in front of us.

101.Written correspondence from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster throughout the course of this inquiry has not answered questions posed by this Committee.

102.The Government’s response to this report should state whether each recommendation is accepted or rejected and should state the next steps the Government will take or provide an explanation for those recommendations rejected. It is not sufficient for the Government to “note” a recommendation, as they have done in the past.

Using data to inform the response

103.The following section focuses on the way data is shared for the purpose of supporting and informing the response on the ground. While key decisions are made by the centre of Government, the imperative to act sits primarily with local leaders and frontline staff.

Sharing data with local leaders

104.The Committee has received a wealth of evidence from local leaders stating that data was vital to responding, but they felt an inflexible “national by default”87 response had impeded their ability to work in their communities.

105.In May 2020, the National Statistician had told us that, as the pandemic developed, a more localised data response would be needed. He stated:

outbreaks are not going to be national… They will be local and will require work from Public Health England. They will require the use of apps and a whole set of different data that could be used to identify a small outbreak and then to take action … [For example] you might just take a school.88

106.In the months after that evidence session, the Government did move from largely national measures to local measures. The UK-wide lockdown was eased from early May and local lockdowns were introduced in June and July (starting with Leicester on 29th June), followed by tiering systems in England from October.

107.When we heard from local leaders on 5th November, there was an obvious frustration with the way in which data had shared between the UK Government and councils. Local areas told us that they need a range of data to manage the response. That includes testing data (which indicates level and locality of infection), shielding lists, and social and economic data (to help support local people with shielding).

108.Dr Jeanelle de Gruchy, President of the Association of Directors of Public Health (ADsPH) summed up many of the comments the Committee received when she said:

The response to Covid 19 has too often been ‘national by default’ with systems and process designed from Whitehall and limited engagement, and understanding, of the value and role of local councils and Directors of Public Health.89

109.The Greater London Authority expanded on this in its written evidence:

Throughout the crisis, there has been a strong sense that local authorities and other local public services have consistently been omitted from central Government’s initial thinking on designs for data sharing. This has manifested itself in challenges related to shielding lists, volunteering, testing data and tracing of complex cases, plus difficulties in accessing relevant data about people who are furloughed or economically vulnerable.90

110.The Committee heard that there were public health systems in place prior to the outbreak but that new systems for collecting and disseminating Covid 19 data had been set up from Whitehall outside of these existing systems. These concerns were raised by numerous contributors to this inquiry, including the Health Statistics User Group, Faculty of Public Health and Greater London Authority.91 As Dr de Gruchy said:

This country has a really good public health system. I think it was a bit undervalued and not very well understood. … We had a statutory duty to assure ourselves that plans were in place for infectious diseases. All that expertise and knowledge was there, and the data flows, the systems and the relationships.92

There is always data and data flows between the national, regional and local public health systems, but in the early days what happened is that a number of systems were set up outwith either the emergency planning system or the public health systems.93

[those setting up new systems] did not think about how what was decided or done nationally would arrive at a local level or impact locally.94

111.The consequences of this approach were manifold and included: interoperability issues, problems with sharing data, extraction of data and concerns about (or mistrust in) data quality. As the Health Statistics User Group stated in its evidence:

Because ad hoc systems had to be created in the NHS, there were a lot of data quality problems especially in earlier months. This not only made monitoring the situation difficult, but contributed to lack of trust in the data, especially as definitions and inclusion criteria changed over time, calling into question the validity of time trends.95

112.Councillor Georgia Gould, Leader of Camden Borough Council and Chair of London Councils, reiterated this:

We were getting [test and trace] data with lots of gaps. Often key information is not filled in, and it is difficult to integrate it with our existing systems. That is a real challenge when we are trying to do our own tracing.96

113.When Dr de Gruchy gave evidence in November 2020, she explained that multiple handoffs had resulted from the way testing systems were set up, and this had complicated and delayed the response:

… what you have is quite a lot of delays in processing data all the way through and lots of handoffs … .You have to get somebody who is symptomatic or ill tested quite quickly … Then the test results have to get to the trace system, then the trace system has to have good-quality data to follow the person up. Then the support to that person in terms of whether they can isolate, whether they need help or support … We have to get people who are positive and their contacts home to self-isolate very quickly. That is still not happening.97

114.As the Chair of the Local Government Association (LGA) and Leader of Oxfordshire County Council, Councillor Ian Hudspeth told the Committee, real time testing data is key to acting quickly to stem outbreaks, but this was not available:

One of the key things of course is that we need data in almost real time to assist in cases, because the earlier that we get data, the earlier we can act upon it and make sure that it is true and valid. That is something we have been struggling with, getting the data in real time.98

115.Compounding these system issues was a reluctance from Whitehall to share granular data with local leaders. We heard that Directors of Public Health were expending time and energy on making the case for seeing public health data that might have enabled them to respond better. On testing specifically, postcode data was not shared with local areas until the first area (Leicester) went into lockdown at the end of June and patient level data was not shared until mid-August, after lockdowns were imposed in Greater Manchester, Yorkshire and many other areas.99 Additionally, local leaders had asked for more comprehensive data (including negative as well as positive tests) and it took until late August before they had that data. NHS providers were one of a number of contributors to this inquiry that flagged this concern, stating:

There have also been concerns as to whether the national testing data is being provided to local authorities in sufficient detail to allow them to do their job ‘on the ground’.100

116.The testing programme was run on a UK-wide basis with some devolved delivery. Both Phil Roberts, Chief Executive of Swansea Council, and Steve Grimmond, Chief Executive of Fife Council, said they were now happy with the data they were receiving after what Phil Roberts described as “slow start”. He stated that “until the contact tracing system was up and running effectively, the level of data was not as frequent or as accurate”.101

117.Further to this, the evidence received suggests testing data was being stored in excel spreadsheets rather than in modern data systems designed to process large volumes of information. Spreadsheets of Covid 19 data were mentioned by a handful of people who wrote to us, including the Greater London Authority, who commented on the need to manually transpose testing data, creating the potential for human error.102 Ed Conway of Sky News commented:

I remember, during the initial period of test and trace, there were big question marks about whether the collection of data was in tune with official national statistics guidelines … Some of the data was just being collected on pieces of paper. Some was just being entered into spreadsheets in Whitehall offices rather than going through the normal processes that you would expect.103

118.The Committee heard that, while this was happening, local intelligence was moving faster than the national data and response. Joanne Roney, Chief Executive of Manchester City Council, stated that there was a two-week lag between issues being identified in her area and them being evident in national policy:

We work on the basis of there being a fortnight data lag between what we have locally by way of local intelligence and what may come out from national programme.104

119.The cumulative consequence of this slow and centrally-led response was that local leaders were unable to respond quickly enough as the pandemic took hold. This is particularly frustrating given that the National Statistician had told this Committee in May 2020 (6 months earlier) that the next stage of the pandemic response would rely on localised data.105 As Dr de Gruchy told the Committee in November 2020:

if we had had all the data we have now in July or earlier, we would have had a stronger response to the epidemic.106

Devolved matters

120.Much of the local response is devolved to the nations. This report does not comment on the performance of devolved Government on devolved matters, but the Committee did take evidence from local leaders in Scotland and Wales and asked them to comment on the co-ordination of the response between the nations. While we heard the devolved Governments were working well with local leaders and officials in general, there were some concerns about co-ordination on UK-wide issues. Phil Roberts, Chief Executive of Swansea Council, said:

the dissonance between policy in different parts of the UK [is] causing confusion to the public. That is amplified if it happens in Wales, because we are not a huge country.107

121.Councillor Hugh Evans of Denbighshire County Council also felt that receiving messages from both the UK and the Welsh Governments was unhelpful and left local people trying to work out which applied most clearly to them:

We work very closely with Welsh Government, and that is the way it should be. The information and data coming out of the Welsh Government now is clearer than it was. There is a bit of a gap with Westminster, if I am honest, in understanding the implications of their statements for the region. We struggle to work that out, and the residents end up pretty confused.108

122.Councillor Alison Evison, President of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) and Member of Aberdeenshire Council, made similar points when she said:

There have been particular instances recently where the lack of communication has been an issue, particularly if we are thinking … [about the] the economic harm and jobs. Trying to have clarity about furlough payments has been a particular issue recently, and there is a wider issue for local government on finance.109

Existing systems

123.This report has noted that existing public health data systems could have been put to better use in the pandemic response. However, the statistical infrastructure of our health system is not without fault and the Committee has received a number of submissions commenting on how fragmented the system is (particularly in England). The Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove summed this up:

We currently have no coherent statistical picture of health in England or of the provision of health services and social care.110

124.While Sir David Norgrove commented that, overall, the “statistical system has responded well to the stress and pressures of the pandemic”,111 he went on to say that:

The disparate bodies involved in the provision of health are in terms of statistical output too often inchoate, to the extent for example that both the NHS and Public Health England produce statistics on vaccinations that are published separately.112

125.In May 2020, the National Audit Office (NAO) reported on the fragmentation of digital systems across the NHS. It found that “Changing national strategies have contributed to a fragmented environment” and went on to explain that in addition to the national bodies, including NHS England and Improvement, NHS X and the Department of Health and Social Care:

Patient records are fragmented across thousands of local organisations, including NHS trusts and NHS foundation trusts (trusts), general practitioners (GPs) and social care providers.113

126.The Health Statistics User Group told us that there is “need for a single, consistent and efficient framework for information governance across the health sector.”114 And, the Royal Statistical Society explained that:

Because of this fragmentation in England, statisticians and data analysts are spread throughout the health system and there is a shortage of statisticians centrally in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), where they were needed to pull together data from this disparate array of sources.115

127.The Royal Society observed that “clear, mandated leadership is needed within the Department of Health and Social Care to enable the collection and connection of data from across the health system”.116

128.At the national level, analytical capability is split across Government Departments and, as the UKSA explained in its written evidence:

The UK has a decentralised system of statistics where individual departments are responsible for their statistics and departmental statisticians report within their departments. This has strengths we should not lose. It ties statistics and statisticians closely into the policy making of their departments and any change should not weaken that tie. But the complexity of data and statistics in the current crisis has shown the need in these circumstances for a firmer central controlling mind.117

129.The message from the evidence received to this inquiry is frustratingly clear. The Government knew the response would need to be localised and there were local systems in place to manage infectious diseases already (including statutory duties on Public Health Officials) but, instead of allowing local systems to kick into gear, we got spreadsheets from Whitehall and officials refusing to share data.

130.Vital information which might have helped local leaders to respond quickly to outbreaks simply did not move quickly enough through the system. Central Government was initially unwilling to share granular data on the spread of the virus, systems were fragmented, and new testing systems were set up outside of the existing systems, causing further delays.

131.In May 2020, this Committee heard that local data would be key to the response, enabling local leaders to move quickly, stem small outbreaks and potentially stop a second wave in its tracks. It is impossible to know whether more granular data moving more quickly would have prevented any of the outbreaks that led to the lockdown of whole cities and regions from June 2020 onwards, or even have prevented further national waves.

132.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 should be shared immediately, and ahead of the potential renewal of the Coronavirus Act. The Government should publish a comprehensive list of all data that is available and at what level.

133.The Department of Health and Social Care, with support from UKSA, should undertake an urgent review of health data systems in England. The review should include consideration of the role of the Department of Health and Social Care in bringing together health data from across the different health bodies. The Cabinet Office, with its overarching responsibility for data across Government, should peer review this work and look for lessons learnt to share with other Government departments for future. The Committee will ask for updates from the Cabinet Office at its regular sessions with the Permanent Secretary and for advice from the National Statistician at his regular appearances before the Committee.

88 Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, work of the Office of National Statistics, Q48

89 The Association of Directors of Public Health (DTA0046)

90 Greater London Authority, London Office of Technology and Innovation (DTA0024)

91 Greater London Authority, London Office of Technology and Innovation (DTA0024), Health Statistics User Group (DTA0033), Faculty of Public Health (FPH) (DTA0026)

95 Health Statistics User Group (DTA0033), Faculty of Public Health (FPH) (DTA0026)

99 The Association of Directors of Public Health (DTA0046), Health Statistics User Group (DTA0033),Faculty of Public Health (FPH) (DTA0026)

100 NHS Providers (DTA0020)

102 Greater London Authority, London Office of Technology and Innovation (DTA0024)

105 Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Oral evidence: The work of the Office for National Statistics, HC 336,

107 Local transcript

113 Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, National Audit Office, Digital transformation in the NHS, May 2020, HC317

114 Health Statistics User Group (DTA0033)

115 Royal Statistical Society (DTA0042)

116 The Royal Society (DTA0049)

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