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

Conclusions and recommendations

Covid 19 data – one year on

1.The Government has overseen a remarkable effort pulling together data on Covid 19 from a standing start 12 months ago. It has also made much of this data and analysis available to the public, primarily through the Covid 19 data dashboard. The Government has responded to requests for new data and improved access to evidence, including a request from this Committee to publish SAGE papers. The work of the Office for National Statistics, the Government Statistical Service, and analysts in Local Government and the NHS is commendable. (Paragraph 15)

Public communication, behaviour, and trust

2.The Government has made significant steps in the presentation of data throughout this pandemic, including through the Covid 19 dashboard. But it is still presenting some graphics which do not meet the basic standards that we would expect. The Committee welcomes UKSA and Royal Statistical Society intervention to support Departments in producing clear graphics. (Paragraph 33)

3.Graphics used by Government, for example slide packs and briefings, should meet Government Statistical Service good practice guidelines on data visualisation. They should always meet the accessibility regulations, which are now law. (Paragraph 34)

4.Statistics quoted by Ministers have not always been underpinned by published data, which goes against the UKSA Code of Practice. Publishing the underlying data is key to transparency and building trust. When the underlying data is not published, numbers may be used to make politicised points and members of the public, journalists and Parliamentarians have no way of verifying the information shared. This means constructive debate cannot happen. (Paragraph 44)

5.When Ministers or senior officials quote statistics, the underlying data must be published. This is already an Office for Statistics Regulation expectation, and OSR should continue to inform this Committee—as it has throughout this inquiry—when it finds examples of statistics that are quoted without published data to back them up. (Paragraph 45)

6.Going forward, Ministerial statements published on Government websites must include hyperlinks or footnotes directing to the detailed data underpinning any numbers or statistics quoted. This should apply to all areas where data is used, not just in relation to this pandemic. (Paragraph 46)

7.The Ministerial Code needs to be strengthened so it is clear that Ministers are required to abide by the UKSA Code of Practice in their presentation of data. The UKSA Code includes the principle of trustworthiness that builds “confidence in the people and organisations that produce statistics and data”. Abiding by the UKSA Code of Practice is a statutory requirement for Government Departments. It is simply not enough to ask Ministers to be “mindful” of the UKSA code. (Paragraph 47)

8.When SAGE advisors speak publicly about the advice they have given to Government it has the potential to create confusion and undermine trust. This report calls for greater transparency, including on uncertainties, but there also needs to be clarity about what has underpinned Government decisions. SAGE is made transparent through the official records of discussions and advice published, and it is important that this is not framed or politicised by individual advisors. SAGE members, and experts from other bodies, can play a role in informing the public. However, as it stands, the public is not well informed about the role of SAGE advisors and might not be aware that differences of opinion are an inherent (even encouraged) element of discussion in that forum. (Paragraph 53)

9.We are certainly not calling for SAGE advisors to be silenced, but for some expectations to be laid about the appropriate way to communicate considering, amongst other things, the potential for the politicisation of their commentary. Civil Servants advising Government are expected to abide by a code of conduct, and there should be a similar code for SAGE advisors. The SAGE secretariat should produce guidance for members on how to engage with the media, in line with the 2012 Cabinet Office Guidance. This should not be overly restrictive as to prevent individual advisors from undertaking their normal work or from outlining the capacity in which they advised SAGE if required. This should be made public. (Paragraph 54)

10.Building trust between leaders and the public is essential to the response. The evidence the Committee has received, including from behavioural scientists, shows that people respond to open and honest information that is clear about the uncertainties within it. Some data has been communicated with the apparent intention of creating a more favourable view of the Government and some data has appeared to have been used to provoke anxiety rather than help people understand risk. It is disappointing to hear that the way data has been presented might have undermined public trust. (Paragraph 81)

11.Government communication needs to focus on informing the public openly and honestly. As we move into the next stage of the pandemic, the roadmap back to lifting restrictions entirely, this becomes even more pertinent. Previous recommendations cover clarity on source information, and adherence to the UKSA Code of Practice. (Paragraph 82)

Decision making

12.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. (Paragraph 96)

13.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. (Paragraph 97)

14.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. (Paragraph 98)

15.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. (Paragraph 99)

16.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. (Paragraph 100)

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

18.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. (Paragraph 102)

19.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. (Paragraph 129)

20.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. (Paragraph 130)

21.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. (Paragraph 131)

22.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. (Paragraph 132)

23.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. (Paragraph 133)


24.It is deeply worrying that Ministers were unable to answer basic questions about the decision to lift the first lockdown. Proper Parliamentary scrutiny leads to better decision-making and builds trust. While this report does not comment on whether the Government made the right decision, the Committee expects Ministers to be able to justify the Government’s decisions and to explain the data underpinning them. Fielding Ministers who cannot answer questions is wilful evasion of scrutiny. Given how absolutely crucial that decision was for the health, wellbeing and fundamental freedoms of everyone in the country, the inability of Ministers to answer this Committee’s questions was lamentable and unacceptable. (Paragraph 143)

25.It is clear to even a casual observer that the decision to lift the first lockdown (and all subsequent lockdowns) must have also taken into consideration a range of factors, including health, economic and educational outcomes. It is, therefore, our judgement that such decisions can only be made by the Centre of Government, in the Cabinet Office or Number 10. When the Committee has asked about these decisions—both in writing and in person—the Cabinet Office has passed the buck to the Department of Health and Social Care. This is both confusing and unacceptable because the Department of Health and Social Care is clearly not well placed to make decisions that include wider considerations beyond health. (Paragraph 144)

26.Time has passed for Ministers to explain to this Committee why the first lockdown was lifted when it was. It is clear that Ministers are unable to answer that question, and we are sure that this will be picked up by a public inquiry of the kind this Committee recommended in its previous report. It is vital, however, that lessons are learnt, and changes made during this ongoing pandemic. The Committee will ask similar questions when Ministers and officials appear before this committee in future and will expect complete and cogent answers. (Paragraph 145)

27.This report is not considering the accuracy of decisions, but this Committee has serious concerns about the lack of transparency and clarity in decision-making. The Cabinet Office must outline in its response to this report the range of data and information it will use to lift current and future lockdowns. (Paragraph 146)

28.The framework for lockdown and tiering decisions has changed repeatedly throughout this pandemic. While the Committee does not object to the inclusion of new metrics (such as vaccines), changes in the framework to date have not always appeared to reflect new information. This has amounted to a moving of the goalposts, which creates uncertainty, makes it impossible to see trends and therefore must stop. (Paragraph 173)

29.The priority now must be a clear and consistent framework for making lockdown decisions as a path back to normality is charted. The Committee, therefore, welcomes the roadmap. The Government should not make further changes to it, in terms of setting new tests or boundaries. It is concerning that the roadmap does not appear to contain any guidance for moving back into lockdown in the event of a new variant or other unexpected turn of events, even though the Government has taken the stance that this should be the last lockdown. (Paragraph 174)

30.Lockdown decisions have been met with confusion because the data has been unclear. Data was not initially available for local leaders to understand the tiering decisions and there were no adequate frameworks for escalation and de-escalation in place. While this data has improved, gaps remain. (Paragraph 175)

31.The new roadmap must be updated to point to where data can be found under each indicator. The roadmap indicators should be added to the dashboard, with clear links through to the data at lower local authority level underpinning each one. (Paragraph 176)

32.The Government did not publish thresholds for tiering decisions which made it hard for local authorities and businesses to plan. This must be changed for the future. The Committee does not believe including thresholds in the roadmap will cause perverse outcomes (as James Bowler suggested in his evidence). It is, of course, possible that England progresses quickly against some indicators and more slowly against others, in which case the Government would need to make a judgement on whether to move to the next step on the roadmap. Increased transparency created by clear thresholds will increase public trust and confidence. (Paragraph 177)

33.The Government must publish thresholds aligned to the roadmap in ranges or using minimum requirements, and with appropriate caveats if needed. This should be done immediately with the information available before decisions are taken to take the first steps. (Paragraph 178)

34.The hospitality and entertainment sectors have not seen sufficient data to underpin decisions relating to their industry. The evidence the Committee received was inconclusive over whether restrictions on hospitality and entertainment sectors were sensible and indeed it is not the purpose of this report to come to a judgement on that. However, building trust with these sectors is absolutely essential and the level of transparency has not been sufficient. (Paragraph 191)

35.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. Hyperlinks to this data must be included on pages explaining the restrictions for maximum transparency. (Paragraph 192)

Published: 15 March 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement