The government’s Covid analysis will do little to satisfy its critics

Published by DR ROB SUTTON on


The report signifies No. 10’s recognition of the clout wielded by Conservative backbench rebels, but its substance has little to placate them.

Following sustained pressure from the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of backbench Conservative MPs under the leadership of Mark Harper and Steve Baker, the government has published an economic, health and social impact analysis of its Covid-19 measures.

The Analysis of the health, economic and social effects of COVID-19 and the approach to tiering sets out the government’s rationale for following its 4-week lockdown with a lengthy period of tiered restrictions, at a time of growing unrest within the party ranks.

This comes ahead of a vote on the reintroduction of tiered lockdowns in the Commons. To be clear, the government has virtually no chance of losing this vote. Even if all 70 conservative MPs currently threatening to vote against the bill did so, Labour have signalled their intent to abstain, so it should pass easily. But internal tensions shall continue to build if the government fails to take seriously the concerns of the broader party. The publication of this report is a welcome, albeit modest, indicator that some progress is being made.

The substance of the report itself, however, is disappointingly predictable. In its 48 pages, it never gives the slightest hint that the government might be re-considering its overarching coronavirus strategy. Instead, it reads as a something between a think tank report and a political manifesto, trying simultaneously to be rigorous, emotive and common-sensical, and never really managing to achieve any.

The problem in producing such a report is intractable: it needs to confidently present its vision as one of scientific certainty, amid an unprecedented pandemic and a heated academic debate as to the best approach. It is a problem which the report generally struggles to navigate satisfactorily.

Those points presented feel carefully curated and are more descriptive than quantitative. Rigour is generally lacking. Conclusions are conveniently drawn from data which is largely ambiguous. And the references are a mixed bag in terms of scientific merit: at one point, the paper cites the government’s own slide shows when making the claim that hospital occupancy “was on a trajectory to exceed total NHS capacity … within weeks.”

Credit is happily taken for successes, boldly stating that “as a result of the social distancing measures taken, NHS surge capacity has not been breached to date,” and that “it is clear” the deaths would be a “much higher proportion” had such interventions not occurred. Similarly, care is taken to build get-out clauses, lest the blame should come the government’s way, with outside factors such as “compliance with restrictions” and “the path of the virus globally” being cited as contributors in such circumstances.

At the same time, the report places predictions which might confuse the narrative beyond the reach of its scientific prescience. Regarding the economic impact:

“any attempt to estimate the specific economic impacts of precise changes to individual restrictions for a defined period of time would be subject to such wide uncertainty as to not be meaningful for precise policy making.”

As for a possible breach in hospital capacity: “The precise size and duration of a breach in capacity are not possible to predict.” Yet in the next sentence, we are told with confidence that “even if this occurred for a short period of time … the impact would be immediate and significant.” The article gives us an unnerving sense that we aren’t being told quite the whole story.

In another section, a scary U-shaped curve of “Daily number of COVID-19 hospital admissions” is shown to illustrate that, despite a fall since the first wave, these numbers are back on the rise. Yet no analysis is devoted to whether these patients’ admission was due to Covid-19 or whether it was an incidental finding, or how the massive expansion in testing capacity has inflated case detection.

This dizzying movement between perfect certainty and complete unpredictability, and between hard data and inexplicable interpretation, is ultimately more unnerving than reassuring. Instead of settling critics, it instead gives the worrying feeling of a policy built on uncertain foundations, but to which the government has too heavily committed for it to be pedalled back. And to those on the backbenches running out of patience, there will be anger at the selective presentation and interpretation of data to suit a position which the government seems determined to stick to.

The report ends up bogged down in weasel words, circular logic and self-reference.

Where an absence of data precludes drawing a suitable conclusion, it either falls back on emotive language to set itself beyond reproach or the crystal ball of mathematical modelling. This is not sufficient to satisfy those party factions who have waited patiently for so long.

It should not be considered a sign of political weakness to reconsider policy positions from time to time. And there is a wealth of experience within the Conservative backbenches of MPs who increasingly feel that their opinions are not being taken seriously. It would benefit the country, and the party, if those opinions were taken on board.


Rob Sutton is a Junior Doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary Staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.