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The Dragon Says: Official Honesty and Openness in This Crisis Are Vital to Help Us Make Safe Decisions

Published on: 7 Jun, 2020
Updated on: 10 Jun, 2020

Secrecy and poor communication continue to gnaw away at our trust in government at national and local levels in this pandemic, a time when we all need open honesty more than ever.

So-called “pledges” of impending openness ring hollow when surrounded, as they are, by avoiding answers to questions, or “fudging” truths, as well as the blatant examples of rule-breaking at high level.

One might expect the government would be keen to be as open as possible about reporting statistics on the Covid pandemic. Surely, if they want the people to take the threat seriously they need to tell us the unvarnished truth.

We are not fighting a human enemy where “vital truths must be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies”. This deadly virus cannot see or hear, so “defensive” secrecy can cost more lives than careless talk in the campaign against the pandemic, and misleading rumour will always fill gaps left by non-communication.

Some statistics have been forthcoming. We have been able to see the number of deaths in each hospital trust although even those working in the hospitals are unsure if they are being recorded in a standardised way. We can also see how many confirmed infections there have been in Surrey, although it took seven weeks into the lockdown until could we see the figures for our borough.

But there is a plethora of other information that would be useful to allow us to evaluate the situation and the effectiveness of government policy. How many Covid cases does our local hospital have? How many tests have been conducted and where? How long before test results are known? What are the results of the tests conducted locally? What is the capacity for testing at the various venues? How many have died in local care homes?

From our interviews with Louise Stead, the CEO of the Royal Surrey, we found edicts were issued preventing discussion or interpretation of statistics with local officials.

We should ask why? What is being hidden?

When the Covid test centre was set up at the Onslow Park & Ride that could have been a news story that would encourage and reassure residents to believe help was on hand. But the botched communications, which one local councillor described as “abysmal”, only increased the suspicion of official bungling. And 24 hours after the centre commenced operation a Royal Surrey spokesperson did not even know it had been set up a few hundred yards from the hospital.

This centre was obviously rushed in to help the government claim they had met their 100,000 target by the end of April, itself another official failure. But leaving the government PR to one side, more local testing is certainly reassuring.

Clearly, people wanted to know how our local test centre was operating. So we asked:

  1. What catchment area will it serve?
  2. How many tests does it have the capacity to conduct daily?
  3. How many tests have been conducted each day so far?
  4. Who is staffing the centre?
  5. Where are the samples processed?
How long do results take?
  7. How are the results communicated?
  8. How can those without cars attend?
  9. Why was there no public announcement before the opening?
  10. Are the results of tests conducted at the testing centres, included in the Public Health England statistics for infections in Guildford borough and Surrey?

At first, we faced the silent treatment from our county council and, initially, staff at the site claimed, rather ridiculously, that they could not answer questions “to protect public safety”.

We approached county councillors. One ignored us, another agreed the situation was “poor” but he also got no response from the SCC communications team.

Then after four long weeks of silence we were told we had to direct our questions to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) who promptly told us they did not have time to answer questions on individual testing centres.

Only when we asked Guildford’s MP, Angela Richardson, to step in did SCC suddenly come up with some information, that the testing centre has the capacity to conduct 1,000 tests daily, that “Deloittes has been commissioned by DHSC [to run the centre] and is working with Serco and Boots”. Test results are processed through “local and regional labs” and results should take between 42 and 78 hours, to be given to individuals via text message. Those without cars can request a self-test through the national portal or book to attend a mobile testing unit.

About whether test results are included in the data published by Public Health England (PHE), the SCC said: “…each nation provides data based on tests carried out in NHS (and PHE) laboratories. DHSC combines the counts from the four nations, and adds data from tests carried out by commercial partners to give daily and total (cumulative) counts of lab-confirmed cases. These are submitted to PHE to display on the dashboard ( Data from tests carried out by commercial partners cannot currently be included in the individual national totals”.

Make of that what you will, we still have an incomplete picture and that is simply not good enough. Apparently, the test centre results are included in UK figures but not those for England, nor presumably those for local authority areas.

…wrong is still wrong, even if everyone else is doing it

But local statistics as we move into the next phase, requiring local “firefighting” if virus outbreaks occur in certain areas, will be even more important. The local picture on present infection rates in particular need to be known by all of us so we can make safer decisions.

We have all become familiar with the vital significance of “R-rate”, the rate at which an infected person infects others. We know if the number is below one the number of new cases will reduce, above one and they will multiply.

But what is the R-rate for Guildford Borough or Surrey? Does anyone know? Surely we all need to so we can assess our personal risk and in case the lockdown needs to be reintroduced in certain areas.

In a report published on Friday (June 5), Cambridge University has calculated the R-rate for the seven regions of England. Only the North-west is above one but other regions, including the South-east on 0.97, are precariously close.

Graphic based on Cambridge University data. Median estimated value of R, the average number of secondary infections due to a typical infection.

Of course, the culture of secrecy affects far more than information about the pandemic. Often, it stems from a desire to prevent embarrassing information from spilling into the public realm.

This cultural problem is hard to solve. When everyone around you tells you that is how things are done, only a brave soul can resist. But wrong is still wrong, even if everyone else is doing it.

See also: Local Covid-19 Stats


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Responses to The Dragon Says: Official Honesty and Openness in This Crisis Are Vital to Help Us Make Safe Decisions

  1. John Ferns Reply

    June 7, 2020 at 9:46 pm

    I don’t think the DHS and its Secretary of State have too much of a clue. It’s one thing to issue edicts from the top, but quite another to implement them at the coal face.

    Using companies like Serco, Capita, G4S et al, who have collectively demonstrated their shortcomings with other high profile government contracts, it is hardly surprising that there is chaos. Examples include the 2012 Olympics, the Prison Service, the tagging of offenders scandal, failures in the running of asylum seeker centres and prisons and more recently the nonsense they are making of the Covid testing and Track and Trace programmes.

    It has long since ceased to be a joke.

    If you want the job done, the lesson is clear. Call on our military services; we all remember 2012 and the issue of security for the Olympic Games and even more recently, the army colonel who put his retirement on hold to project manage the Nightingale hospital in London. Call in the army – job done.

  2. Mary Searle Reply

    June 8, 2020 at 11:05 am

    Three of us were tested at Onslow Park & Ride last week and it was brilliantly organised with each of us tested by our own nurse and little queueing owing to online booking of the time slot. The test results were delivered by the following evening.

    One member had two symptoms which has is why we were all tested. All came back as negative, but it was a great facility and service.

    We should hear more of the positive. Why do journalists nearly always focus on the negative?

    • Frank Phillipson Reply

      June 9, 2020 at 1:45 pm

      I don’t think that The Dragon is in any way criticising the people at the Test Stations. What is being questioned is which of the numerous different organisations are responsible for the coronavirus decisions and also their lack of clear and open communication between each other and to the general public.

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