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by danielbarker on 11 November, 2020

Dr Kylie Belchamber - Institute of Inflammation and Ageing - University of  Birmingham

Published on Liberal Democrat Voice by Kylie Belchamber |

There has been a great amount of robust debate on all aspects of coronavirus response. This is, of course, healthy – within the bounds of the available science, politicians have had to pick from many possible actions. We don’t have perfect knowledge of this pandemic (we don’t have perfect knowledge of anything) – people have had to make decisions, and these are open to criticism.

This debate has also had another side – a deluge of dangerous misinformation. Misinformation has been linked to hundreds of deaths, as well as protests against public health measures and even the deliberate arson of 5G phone masts.

Science itself has also become a target – through the misrepresentation of data, amplification of discredited scientific theories, or outright attacking the scientific process. This is not healthy debate – facts should be disproven, they cannot simply be denied or misrepresented.

As a scientist I would like to bring some facts to the debate, and address some misinformation that has appeared here on Lib Dem Voice recently:

Lockdown works

In the 4 months post lockdown (March – June), infections and daily deaths decreased dramatically. When restrictions were lifted, infections and deaths began to rise.
On average, there is a 2 week – 8 week delay in death from the onset of symptoms:

(source: coronavirus dashboard)

In some reports, these two charts have been plotted on the same set of axes. This makes the number of deaths look small (dwarfed by the number of cases) and prevents us from seeing that numbers are rising again. Someone doing that might wrongly suggest that deaths have not increased since lockdown restrictions were lifted. When someone shows you a graph to ‘prove’ their claim – check the X axis!

The second wave is deadly

Testing during the first wave was based solely on hospital admissions. We now have community testing, which means we are able to detect more infections (see graph below), which are currently rising alongside the number of deaths (see graphs above). We are more prepared for this second wave, with better drugs (thanks to the NHS’s contribution to rapid clinical trials during the first wave), and more knowledge about how the disease progresses. But, if left unchecked, this wave will be equally, if not more devastating on NHS capacity and lives lost. The first wave shut down almost all non-emergency clinics, surgeries and treatments which will have devastating impact to people’s health and quality of life over the coming years: allowing this to happen again is unacceptable.

(source: coronavirus dashboard)

Excess mortality is evident already in the second wave

Excess mortality after lockdown was reduced back to pre-pandemic levels, but as restrictions eased, it has started to rise again. Mostly in younger age groups (20-40), but this is slowly rising in older age groups as time goes on:

(source: Public Health England)

In some reports, this sort of data has been massaged to suit a narrative that the author wants to tell. Of course, some might cherry pick the data to suit whatever story they wish to tell! Merging these graphs or only showing data from some age groups would skew the evidence and could be used to support a different conclusion. But when the facts are laid bare, you can clearly see that in age groups where people are getting infected, they are also dying.

Infection control isn’t enough

We must continue to follow the data, the science, and logic to fight COVID-19:

  • We do not have an adequate test, trace and isolate system and any such system only works when case numbers are low.
  • Mask wearing is helpful but does not catch all virus particles.
  • Social distancing is helpful but particles can travel further than the 1-2 metres specified in social distancing guidelines.
  • Hand washing and other hygiene efforts are very helpful but not sufficient when the disease is rampant in the population.

Only by combining all methods available to us can we ensure the safety of the population, and the survival of the NHS.

Statistics and data science are specialisms, and everyone from politicians to digital platforms rely on experts to help them navigate through the information – and to spot misinformation. The Liberal Democrat membership has a lot of expertise, especially in this area, with groups like ALDES that happily provide briefings for parliamentarians and would do for others.

Please get in touch with ALDES if you are unsure of data, graphs or charts related to COVID19 or anything else. As Liberals we surely all recognise that everyone is entitled to their own opinion – but not their own ‘facts’.

* Dr Kylie Belchamber is a Research Fellow with the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham, and has led an effort to provide NHS front-line staff with up to date information on COVID-19. She is also a member of the Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers and Scientists, where she has fed into COVID-19 briefings for MPs, Lords and others.

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