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Parliamentary PACA Committee slams Gove over Covid-19 data failures

Parliamentary Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee publishes report critical of government accountability regarding data behind the decisions taken during the coronavirus pandemic

The Parliamentary Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACA) has issued a report that is highly critical of the government’s record in sharing data, especially that underpinning lockdown-related decisions, with the public during the Covid-19 pandemic crisis.

It is particularly critical of Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who failed to appear before the committee to adequately facilitate the scrutiny of his decisions. “The ministers sent in his place were poorly briefed and unable to answer the committee’s questions. Written correspondence has also repeatedly failed to fully answer the questions put to him,” said the PACA Committee report.

In a statement accompanying the report, William Wragg, chair of the committee, said: “This report is not intended to look at the rights and wrongs of the government’s decisions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is about ensuring that we, as parliamentarians, can hold the government to account for those decisions by examining the data.

“Lessons must also be learnt on how the government shares information with local partners. Delays in sharing vital data, and a reluctance to share detailed data, almost certainly hampered the local response. This over-centralisation must not be repeated.”

The report echoes a similarly critical set of findings from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in January 2021. It found that poor data flows and a failure to capitalise on UK strengths in data science had vitiated the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee report found a gaping hole at the apex of government in accountability for the governance of Covid-19 data.

“There has been a distinct lack of clarity over which minister and department should be held accountable for ensuring decisions are underpinned by data,” it said. “The collection of accurate, up-to-date data is critical for ensuring the Covid-19 strategy is effective, and will require coordination between multiple departments and agencies.”

The committee recommends that the Cabinet Office “must clearly outline responsibilities for decision-making before the Coronavirus Act is considered for renewal after 25 March 2021” and this “must include clear lines of accountability at departmental and ministerial level, stating which minister is accountable to Parliament for ensuring key decisions are underpinned by data, and for the data that underpins decisions”.

One particular minister, Michael Gove, has been singled out for vials of wrath from the committee, which “expects Mr Gove to respond to this report, clearly outlining his understanding of his own responsibilities and the ways in which he should be held to account by Parliament”.

The committee professes that, throughout the inquiry, it has struggled to establish who the government sees as accountable for the data underpinning decisions on Covid 19. And it laments what it sees as the shortcomings of Gove in respect of his central role as the chair of Cabinet Office committee Covid Operations, known as Covid-O.

“While only the Prime Minister can stand in front of the country and Parliament and be accountable for key decisions (such as lockdown), it is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster who we believe is accountable for ensuring that these decisions are informed by data, through Covid-O and as part of the coordinated response,” states the report.

“When this committee has asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to demonstrate this accountability, he has failed to do so on numerous occasions. The chair has put questions to Mr Gove in writing that we understood to be within his remit, only for those questions to be passed to the Department of Health.

“On 18 November [2020], a letter from Mr Gove stated, ‘I will address each of your questions that fall under the remit of the Cabinet Office. The Department of Health and Social Care will respond on your remaining points separately.’ None of the questions we put to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, on the tiering system, indicators, escalation and de-escalation plans and whether local leaders could move more quickly on the basis of their own data, were answered fully.

“On 10 December [2020], Mr Gove wrote to us stating that, ‘Ministers are ultimately responsible for data transparency and accountable for the policies of government’, and while we would agree with this general statement, it does not answer the question of which minister is responsible for the transparency of data underpinning Covid-19 decisions. We believe this is Mr Gove.”

Elsewhere in the report, there were directions for improving the presentation and the contextualisation of data. “Graphics used by government, for example slide packs and briefings, should meet Government Statistical Service good practice guidelines on data visualisation,” it said.

The committee found the government was presenting graphics that it judged to be sub-standard. “Ministerial statements published on government websites must include hyperlinks or footnotes directing to the detailed data underpinning any numbers or statistics quoted. This should apply to all areas where data is used, not just in relation to this pandemic.”

Again, the committee found “statistics quoted by ministers have not always been underpinned by published data … [so that] members of the public, journalists and Parliamentarians have no way of verifying the information shared. This means constructive debate cannot happen”.

As the country passes through the roadmap announced by the Prime Minister on 22 February 2021, the committee calls for the government to “share all the available data with local areas in as much detail as possible, ideally to patient level” and advises that “data that will be key to decision-making on the roadmap should be shared immediately, and ahead of the potential renewal of the Coronavirus Act” and “the government should publish a comprehensive list of all data that is available and at what level”.

The report makes particular note of the condition of the hospitality sector, asserting that “hospitality and entertainment sectors have not seen sufficient data to underpin decisions relating to their industry” and that “the evidence the committee received was inconclusive over whether restrictions on hospitality and entertainment sectors were sensible”.

It calls on the government to “publish the data that underpins the restrictions that will remain in place on businesses at each step of the roadmap as a matter of urgency”. 

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