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Government failure over false Covid claims ‘missed chance to save lives'

Full Fact took aim at ministers for a lack of transparency and failing to correct mistakes or back up claims with evidence.

27/01/2021. London, United Kingdom. Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a Covid-19 Press Conference with CSA, Sir Patrick Vallance and DCMO, Professor Jonathan Van Tam, in 10 Downing Street. Picture by Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street.

The Government missed several chances to save lives during the Covid-19 pandemic after failing to stem a “torrent of false claims” about the virus, according to a UK fact-checking charity.

Full Fact urged ministers to offer more transparency, correct their mistakes and back up public statements with evidence in a bid to plug ‘dangerous gaps’ in public data and communications systems that have hampered the UK’s pandemic response. 

Failure to fix communication could see more people needlessly lose their lives in 2021, according to Will Moy, Full Fact’s chief executive, after 1,725 deaths were recorded on Wednesday.

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He said: “Last year demonstrated what we have been saying for many years: getting the right information to people at the right time is a matter of life and death.

“If ever there was a time when the public should expect honesty and clarity from our elected officials and public servants, it must surely be now.

 “This bar, however, has not always been met. Amid widespread confusion and a torrent of false claims about the virus, the government missed several chances to save lives.”

More than 100,000 people in the UK have died from Covid-19, giving the country one of the worst death rates in the world.

A Government spokesperson insisted the public had been given “clear instructions” to suppress the virus throught the pandemic and told The Big Issue the media have had access to regular ministerial and scientific press conferences, enabling them to communicate directly with experts.

Full Fact’s annual report called for a commitment to long-term funding to improve government data and communications following several failings throughout the pandemic.

The charity checked more than 400 claims relating to the coronavirus in 2020 and found repeated instances where government ministers failed to correct their mistakes, or back up public statements with evidence.

Out of 12 requests Full Fact made to ministers concerning statements on the coronavirus pandemic, only once did a minister attempt to clarify or correct them.

Several missteps – including Dominic Cummings’ lockdown-breaking visit to Barnard Castle and the use of algorithms to award exam results – undermined trust in government information.

Basic information was also unavailable while the virus spread through care homes, the report said, while data on the number of people receiving care in each area was not known to central government departments.

The fact-checking charity also found failings in the Government’s tracking of data on PPE. The only information made public early in the pandemic related to how many billion items had been supplied and the number of new supplier contracts but did not detail exactly what had been purchased.

NHS Trusts told Full Fact that a lack of available data on national stock levels of PPE made it hard to plan ahead.

Transparency was an issue too – the Office for Statistics Regulation repeatedly called for information cited by ministers in public to be made available to the public.

This happened numerous times according to Full Fact, including Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s use of unsourced figures for the percentage of people in London and nationally with Covid-19 antibodies and inaccessible data and assumptions for a reasonable worst-case scenario when England went into a second national on October 31.

Back in June, then-homelessness minister Luke Hall was warned about a “lack of transparency” after failing to publish statistics on how many people were being housed in the Government’s Everyone In scheme.

Full Fact recommended Government analysts to be allowed to speak directly to the press to answer questions on complex statistics or data and asked ministers to make evidence publicly available when speaking in public, the media or parliament.

The fact-checkers also want a public inquiry into government communications throughout the pandemic and urged Westminster ministers to publish targets on transparency to allow the public to hold them to account.

Mark Franks, director at Nuffield Foundation, the trust that funded the report, said: “To regain some of that trust, the government needs to be more transparent about the data and analysis underpinning public health decisions and to act quickly to correct inaccurate statements.

“This will remain critical in the coming months, when public trust is required to ensure continued compliance with the rules, confidence in the vaccination programme and support for measures to begin to address the damage the pandemic has done to our society.”

In response to the report, a Government spokesperson said: “We have been transparent about the rationale behind the approach we’ve taken throughout the pandemic and have been clear that the government’s primary duty is to save lives and to protect the NHS, whilst safeguarding jobs and livelihoods.

“From the very beginning of this crisis, we have followed the advice of our world-leading scientists and medical experts, taking the right measures at the right time to defeat coronavirus.

“Throughout this crisis we have set out clear instructions to the public about what they need to do in order to suppress the virus and help save lives.”

The Big Issue also runs its own fact-checking stories, check out our archive of Fact/Fiction articles.

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