The Health Department was forced into a humiliating climbdown yesterday after accusing the Mail of ‘misleading’ readers.
On Saturday we published a two-page analysis raising multiple questions about ministers’ handling of the pandemic and their use of data to justify draconian lockdown rules.
We pointed out that Government predictions on potential fatalities were wildly inaccurate and deaths are not far above average for this time of year.
Shortly after publication, Whitehall spin doctors used the Department of Health and Social Care’s official Twitter account to try to rubbish the report.
The Health Department was forced into a humiliating climbdown yesterday after accusing the Mail of ‘misleading’ readers
Failing to provide any detailed rebuttal, the post said: ‘This article is misleading. This is a global pandemic – national restrictions have been introduced to keep people safe and save lives.’
But the tweet was deleted yesterday afternoon amid a growing backlash among MPs and academics who lined up to back the Mail.
They hailed our analysis of the facts and accused officials of trying to stifle free speech.
After the tweet was removed, the department failed to identify a single error in the figures and data.
Former minister Steve Baker, one of more than 30 Tory rebels who voted against a second lockdown, said: ‘It’s absolutely wrong for the Department of Health to attack the Mail when they accept the data.
‘The truth is, as anyone can see, scientists disagree so it’s right that journalists ask the questions.
‘Fact checking should be about facts, not propagandising for one interpretation of uncertain information. I couldn’t be more concerned about the repeated failures of modelling we’ve experienced.
We pointed out that Government predictions on potential fatalities were wildly inaccurate and deaths are not far above average for this time of year
‘Whether it’s been death projections or NHS capacity, the wheels have fallen off terrifying charts repeatedly. It’s no good afterwards for scientists and ministers to say these models don’t matter. They do because they determine the course of all our lives.’
Another of the Tory lockdown rebels, former minister David Jones, said: ‘The figures and facts the Mail put forward are clearly matters that deserve a proper and considered response, rather than a dismissive suggestion that you’re misleading people. It seems to me to be a valuable public service. There’s a massive amount of social and economic damage being caused to the country and many of us are concerned the justification for causing that damage is not there.’
Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence-based medicine at the University of Oxford, said: ‘The Mail article brought a number of datasets which are difficult to interpret into one place.
‘It also put the data into context, which has been lacking throughout this pandemic, and it’s incredibly important. I read it, and I was like, “This is really helpful,” particularly on the context of how this compares to previous years and the lower limit and upper limit of deaths.
‘The Press is there to inform the public and this notion of, in effect, censorship through social media shouldn’t be coming from over-reaching state or Government organisations.’
Professor Robert Dingwall, of Nottingham Trent University, sits on Government advisory panels but also broke ranks.
He said: ‘What the Mail has done is presented a reasonable interpretation of the data and you would expect the department to respond with an equally reasonable rebuttal. A good deal of the policy-making we’ve seen has been based on the most extreme possibilities rather than on what we might reasonably expect.’
It is understood that Damon Poole, Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s special adviser for media matters, signs off most tweets.
He is said to have been working on Saturday, but the department refused to comment on who had the final say on green-lighting the post.
Earlier this month, ministers and their scientific advisers were criticised by the official watchdog, the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA), over the way data was used to justify a second national lockdown.
One graph claimed deaths could exceed 4,000 a day, substantially more than the highest daily record of 1,224 in April. But it later emerged the projection was out of date.
Former minister Steve Baker, one of more than 30 Tory rebels who voted against a second lockdown, said: ‘It’s absolutely wrong for the Department of Health to attack the Mail when they accept the data’
UKSA accused ministers of failing to provide ‘transparent information’ and ‘confusing’ the public.
Tory MP Peter Bone said: ‘My issue with the Government is that it appears to have decided on the policy and then picked statistics that support that outcome. Well done to the Mail for trying to balance up the information provided.’
A Government spokesman said: ‘It is inaccurate to suggest any data has been deliberately misrepresented. The projections cited were based on what would happen if no further restrictions were put in place and did not take into account the robust action the Government has taken to save lives since then.’
STEPHEN GLOVER: Attacking awkward truths is a sinister sign of weakness
Someone as wild as Donald Trump seems to have been installed at the Department of Health and Social Care.
On Saturday evening this character tweeted an attack on a piece which appeared in that day’s Daily Mail. The article had cited numerous statistics which suggested that the effects of Covid-19 are less uniformly destructive than the Government would have us believe.
A post on the Health Department’s Twitter account declared: ‘This article is misleading. There is a global pandemic – national restrictions have been introduced to keep people safe and save lives.’
The chief danger is for the elderly. But this is not the impression that ministers, and in particular Health Secretary Matt Hancock, like to give. He has repeatedly claimed that young people have much to fear from Covid
Note that no examples were offered either in the tweet or in any accompanying statement as to how the piece by my colleague Ross Clark was in any respect misleading.
Yesterday afternoon, after the tweet had been criticised by politicians and scientists, it was deleted without explanation or apology. The removal implies that the Department of Health is trying to back off from a controversy which it had set in motion.
But isn’t it nonetheless sinister that an arm of the State should rubbish a newspaper article without making any kind of case? To my mind, the failure to do so only emphasises how utterly devastating Mr Clark’s piece was.
Forensically and without polemic, he assembled countless facts which collectively might give a reasonable person the impression that the Government has either bent the truth about the pandemic, or withheld part of it.
For example, although in recent weeks the Government has suggested that the nation’s hospitals are full to bursting with Covid patients, it turns out that only 13 per cent of NHS beds are currently occupied with patients with the disease, and only about 31 per cent of intensive care beds.
The article also stated that 95.6 per cent of those who have died of Covid had at least one pre-existing serious medical condition. Of Covid deaths recorded in England to November 18, 53.7 per cent were among the over 80s.
And in further evidence which suggests that most young people have little to fear from Covid, Mr Clark reported that in the same period just 275 recorded deaths (0.7 per cent of the total) occurred in people under 40. There were only 42 people in this group with no pre-existing conditions.
The article also pointed out that Government advisers have sometimes exaggerated the dangers of Covid. For instance, in July Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance estimated there could be 119,000 deaths if a second spike coincided with a peak of winter flu. So far the grim tally stands at under half that figure.
The Health Secretary displayed a similar reluctance to engage with the facts when three distinguished scientists launched the Great Barrington Declaration last month. In the words of one of them, Professor Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University, ‘we [should] exploit the feature of this virus that it does not cause much harm to the large majority of the population to allow them to resume their normal lives, while shielding those who are vulnerable to severe disease and death’.
Of course, every death is deeply regrettable, and the article certainly didn’t suggest otherwise.
Nor is anyone sensible suggesting – as Mr Clark certainly did not – that Covid isn’t a serious disease. The chief danger is for the elderly.
But this is not the impression that ministers, and in particular Health Secretary Matt Hancock, like to give. He has repeatedly claimed that young people have much to fear from Covid.
‘Be in no doubt,’ he declared in the Commons on September 8, the ‘young are still at risk. The long-term effects can be terrible.’
That’s true, but it’s not often true. If Mr Hancock were entirely honest, he would say that Covid targets the old and the vulnerable. Why doesn’t he?
Because it is Government policy that young people should make possibly life-changing economic sacrifices on the basis that the disease is a dire threat to everyone. It isn’t.
The Health Secretary displayed a similar reluctance to engage with the facts when three distinguished scientists launched the Great Barrington Declaration last month.
In the words of one of them, Professor Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University, ‘we [should] exploit the feature of this virus that it does not cause much harm to the large majority of the population to allow them to resume their normal lives, while shielding those who are vulnerable to severe disease and death’.
How did Mr Hancock react? He dismissed the declaration in the Commons without consideration as seeking the ‘flawed goal’ of herd immunity. In so doing he demonstrated his ignorance by wrongly asserting that there is no herd immunity with measles.
My argument is not that the tens of thousands of scientists who have signed the Great Barrington Declaration are definitely right. It is that they might be.
But Mr Hancock and his ilk are not interested in debate because they have made up their minds, and are seemingly ready to sacrifice the economy as they plough on regardless.
Along comes an indomitable journalist pointing out some uncomfortable truths.
What does the Health Department, acting in Mr Hancock’s name, though presumably not taking dictation from him, then do? Without argument or the exercise of reason, it attempts to discredit the piece.
The upshot, of course, is that the department weakens its case. For if people can see that the Government is unable to defend its position by engaging rationally with critics, they may take its restrictions less seriously.
The term ‘Orwellian’ is doubtless over used. For me it describes a system in which politicians control every part of our lives and won’t entertain the slightest criticism.
We haven’t yet got there, of course. But how richly ironic, and painfully disappointing, that one should even be thinking of the term in relation both to the Health Department under a Tory administration and a Tory minister.