Expert quoted by Boris Johnson claims daily briefings are 'embarrassing' and 'not trustworthy'

Sanjana Varghese
Monday 11 May 2020 08:15
(BBC / Twitter)

Watching the government’s daily Covid-19 briefings often feels like putting the pieces of a puzzle together, but not really getting anywhere.

You may be thinking that’s the case just for those of us who aren’t scientists – surely it’s easier for them to understand.

But Professor David Spiegelhalter, one of the UK’s leading statisticians who Boris Johnson has brought up repeatedly, went on the Andrew Marr show this week to say the briefings were an "embarrassment" and that they were "nothing more than a number theatre".

In the 10-minute interview, Spiegelhalter, who sits on the government’s Scientific Advice Group for Emergencies (SAGE) board, pointed out that Johnson and the Conservatives had done a bad job in counting how many tests were administered and how many people were actually dying as a result of Covid-19.

He said:

We get told lots of big numbers, precise numbers of tests being done – 96,878. Well, that's not how many were done yesterday; it includes tests that were posted out.

We're told 31,587 people have died; no, they haven't, it's far more than that.

I think this is actually not the trustworthy communication of statistics.

Spiegelhalter also said that he wished the statistics were being communicated by people who knew how to “treat the audience with respect” and so could give a better picture of what the numbers actually meant, rather than confusing people further.

He said that the general public wanted to know what was going on and wanted clear information, but were being led around in circles. He said it was a “missed opportunity”, and that what was happening in the UK was "not inevitable".

Spiegelhalter wrote an article for The Guardian at the end of April where he suggested that comparing death tolls may not be helpful because of differences in how countries use them, which Boris Johnson has cited several times. Spiegelhalter has since clarified that Johnson’s interpretation of the article is not correct and has asked Johnson to stop using it.

On social media, people responded positively to Spiegelhalter’s interview – with many pointing out that it was the first time that someone had communicated clearly and with authority about what all of the different statistics, such as the infection rate, death toll and so on, actually meant.