8 November 2021

Why is the head of NHS England peddling dodgy Covid stats – and why didn’t the media challenge her?

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In these days when conspiracy theories are rampant and misinformation about Covid-19 rife, it would help if senior officials didn’t blatantly lie to the public. It would also be nice if the media didn’t uncritically report claims that are obviously untrue.

This morning, various news outlets reported comments from the head of NHS England, Amanda Pritchard, with such headlines as:

‘Hospital Covid admissions 14 times higher than this time in 2020, NHS boss says’ (ITV).

‘COVID-19: NHS urges people to book jabs as hospitals see 14 times more coronavirus patients than this time last year’ (Sky News)

‘NHS urges UK to get booster vaccines and first jab with 14 times more Covid patients in hospital than last year’ (iNews)

It would be mind-blowing if there were 14 times as many people in hospital with Covid today than there were this time last year. This time last year we were back in lockdown in an attempt to stop hospitals being overwhelmed. If there are now 14 times as many Covid patients it means that we were either lied to about the pressures the NHS was under last autumn or that the NHS completely collapsed a few weeks ago and is now only treating patients in car parks.  

And yet that is what Amanda Pritchard claimed. To quote her in full: 

‘There is no doubt that the NHS is running hot and there are some very real pressures on health and social care. We have had 14 times the number of people in hospital with Covid-19 than we saw this time last year. We also had a record number of A&E attendance and a record number of 999 calls.’

In early November 2020, there were over 11,000 people in English hospitals with Covid. For her claim to be true there would need to be over 150,000 people in hospital with Covid today. That’s nearly five times as many as we saw during the peak of the winter wave in January. Shouldn’t we have been told about this sooner? Aside from anything else, it would mean that the vaccines are totally useless, as anti-vaxxers on social media were quick to point out when this news arrived this morning. 

But the claim is not true. It is about as far from the truth as you can get. There are currently around 7,000 people in hospital with Covid, as can be easily verified by a glance at the government’s COVID-19 dashboard

Where on Earth did she get this bizarre statistic? On Twitter, Paul Mainwood raised the possibility that she was using figures from early September 2020 when the number of people in hospital with Covid was lower than at any time since the start of the pandemic. Back then, the rolling average had been around 500 for a while. Multiply 500 by 14 and you get 7,000. At least the maths work even if nothing else does (September 2020 clearly wasn’t ‘this time last year’).

Something about this claim dimly rang a bell with me so I went looking for previous mentions of it. This led me to Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, who had used almost exactly the same words in a press release a few weeks ago. He said: 

‘There is no doubt the NHS is running hot, with the highest ever number of patients seen in A&E in September, 14-times as many covid patients in hospital compared to the same month last year and record 999 ambulance calls.’

Pritchard seems to have liked this statistic so much that she repeated Powis’s comments almost verbatim, complete with the reference to the NHS ‘running hot’. The only words she missed out were ‘in September’. Or maybe an assistant copied and pasted it into a briefing for her. Whatever the reason, a statistic that checked out in September and was just about defensible in October, so long as it was put in proper context, had become a lie by November.

After a spot of outrage on social media, NHS England ‘clarified’ her remarks. According to iNews’ Molly Blackall, ‘Ms Pritchard was actually talking about August 2020 v August 2021’. She added that NHS England claimed that ‘these are the latest figures they have’. The idea that NHS England does not have access to figures that are updated every day on the dashboard is preposterous. The figures on the dashboard come from NHS England! 

As cover-ups go, this was nearly as bad as the original cock-up. We may never know whether Pritchard’s contribution to the pool of fake news was the result of incompetence or mendacity, but neither trait is ideal for someone who runs a health service. We do know that people in public health are not averse to the noble lie if they think it will change behaviour – the main purpose of today’s announcement was to encourage greater uptake of booster shots. (Another example of the noble lie came early in the pandemic when Public Health England announced that smokers were much more likely to suffer from severe Covid. How much more? 14 times more – that number again! This too turned out to be a long way from the truth.)

As for the media, they can’t be blamed for reporting what Pritchard said. Their headlines (which have now been changed) did no more than reflect what any normal person would infer from her comments, but why didn’t they challenge her? The idea that there are 14 times as many people in hospital with Covid than at the start of the November 2020 lockdown is so patently absurd to anyone with a passing knowledge of the statistics that it should have never been allowed to stand. The headlines should have been along the lines of ‘NHS England chief innumeracy shocker’. 

One explanation is that, nearly two years after Covid-19 first hit Europe, many journalists reporting on one of the biggest stories of the century are still unfamiliar with the basic facts. This would explain why they frequently report cases going up when they are going down. To be blunt, some of them haven’t got a clue and they have few incentives to raise their game when it is pessimism and fear-mongering that gets rewarded, rather than accuracy and integrity. 

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Christopher Snowdon is the Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.