A Problem With Numbers

24 February 2021  /  Updated 7 March 2021

by Suzie Halewood

On January 27th 2021, the cover of most daily newspapers showed a picture of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, head hung in shame as the number of Coronavirus deaths in the UK passed the 100,000 mark. Johnson appeared to mourn every loss, knowing some must surely be down to his action – or inaction. Taking full responsibility, he looked beaten. “A grim total”, announced the newscasters. But is it an accurate one?

The figure demands closer scrutiny not just because it is the number being used to justify extended periods of lockdown and the vaccine rollout, but because with big numbers come huge anxieties, with many too afraid to leave their homes for fear of catching or transmitting the virus. These anxieties are compounded by NHS ads in broadsheets and on TV which demand that you “look them in the eyes and tell them you’re doing all you can to stop the spread of COVID-19”. The BBC, ITV and Channel Four are all on board, spoon-feeding the dystopian narrative to a nightly captive audience who feast their eyeballs on flickering images of overstretched morgues, coffin shortages and eye-watering fatalities as they work their way through another case of wine in their new dressing gowns.

We’ve been here before. “Britain Faces Worst Flu Epidemic in 50 Years” is how The Sun reported the 2017 Aussie Flu, “Killer Aussie Flu on Rise (Mirror)”, “Why Australian Flu is tearing through the UK” (BBC). During the Swine Flu epidemic, if any doctors refused to work and the pandemic was severe, they were to be physically escorted to the surgery by the armed forces. When COVID-19 came along, those same GPs were instructed to leave the patient and close the door. There have always been seasonal flus. The press has always exaggerated them and the NHS will forever be under huge pressure in winter. The only difference with this pandemic, is that governments stepped in.

It hasn’t worked. And we are still in lockdown. Time to relook at the numbers.

A quick search on The Office of National Statistics website (which records deaths in England and Wales) throws up some interesting data:
1. Between December 2019 and December 2020, deaths for under-70s with no underlying health issues numbered 621 (total number of deaths ‘due’ to COVID-19 minus deaths ‘due’ to COVID-19 of those with comorbidities).
2. Picking a random month (June 2020 in this case), all ten leading causes of death were below the five-year average. Dementia and Alzheimers down to 18.5 per 100,000 persons, Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease down 16.8, Influenza and Pneumonia down 19.1 – in total, the top ten leading causes of death were down 65.4 for age standardised mortality rate per 100,000 persons. All? Really? 3. Between January and August 2020 there were 48,168 deaths attributed to COVID-19, 13,619 deaths due to pneumonia and 394 deaths due to influenza. As ONS flu statistics go back as far as 1901, it is possible to calculate that based on a 5-year average (excluding any statistically exceptional years such as 1918/1919) deaths from flu should statistically be somewhere in the 16,000-19,000 range between January and August 2020. Not 394. So either COVID-19 is a cure for Influenza or deaths from Influenza are being recorded on death certificates as COVID-19.

If the ONS recorded fatalities due to COVID-19 in 2020 for those under 70 with no serious underlying health issues (i.e. The Workforce) is 621, why are we being kept inside? Three times as many people die in road accidents every year, but the Government doesn’t take away our cars.

Interpreting the numbers isn’t helped by the woolly classifications of what constitutes or might constitute either in whole or in part an actual or presumed COVID-19 death. It is easy to see from the ONS data footnotes how deaths can be conflated and even inflated. ‘Due’ to COVID-19 describes the underlying cause of death of which only 6-8.4% (depending, respectively, on whether you go with the CDC or ONS estimates) had no underlying health issues. Also counted as a statistic is ‘involving’ COVID-19 which means COVID-19 is mentioned anywhere on the death certificate whether as an underlying cause or not. COVID-19 data includes some cases where “the certifying doctor suspected the death involved COVID-19 but wasn’t certain because no test was done”. A death can be registered with both COVID-19 and Influenza and Pneumonia mentioned on the death certificate and deaths where both COVID-19 and influenza are mentioned on the death certificate have been counted in both categories. Once you factor in the rushed, coerced or mis-diagnosis and the increased elderly population for 2020, you can whittle those figures down to something akin to the average annual flu statistic with the addition of a Spring spike.

Statistics can create or be made to fit any narrative. Public Health England goes with ‘reported’ deaths rather than actual deaths by date. So for example, if the number of reported deaths on Monday is 1,000 and the number of reported deaths the following day is 1,500, you can say the number of deaths has increased by 50% in 24 hours – which would be an alarming rise. Except it’s not accurate. Deaths ‘reported’ are historic deaths, rather than actual events by date, so judging any increase in mortality rates by day using reported figures is meaningless.  PHE also included non-Covid deaths (like traffic accidents) in their data and had to remove over 5,000 deaths from the reported total. Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance were caught out using reports with the highest mortality figures for their daily briefing when readily available more recent reports showed the numbers dwindling. Even the BBC qualifies its big red alarmist totals with the disclaimer “Deaths for any reason” within 28 days of a positive COVID -19 test. Why not deaths due to COVID-19, wholly COVID-19 and nothing but COVID-19?

Statistics can be interpreted any way you need them to be. Even simple algebra can convincingly show that 1=2. 

But why aren’t people digging through the data forensically? Why aren’t mainstream journalists asking about these numbers – real or imaginary? Where are the Woodward and Bernsteins? Are they too embroiled in the Westminster bubble to see outside it? Are they in fear of losing their jobs should those great bastions of morality and ethics Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon cancel them? Are they terrified of looking stupid in the face of conflicting ONS charts, excel spreadsheets and empirical data? Or maybe they don’t fancy the food at Belmarsh.

Granted, two weeks spent sifting through ONS data, charts and footnotes is enough to send even a numerical groupie into an Ulam spiral of despair and anyone with number blindness or dyscalculia is going to run a mile (or 1.609344km), but we are the ones in lockdown, we are the ones who face a credible threat of a mandatory vaccination program as we try to navigate through a labyrinth of signposts and fog of white noise. Anyone with access to the Internet can go straight to the source and decide for themselves. To be sure.

This is not to deny the existence of COVID-19, or to trivialise the suffering of those who have died and the sadness of the families who have lost them. Nor is it intended to undermine the work of the exhausted doctors, nurses and healthcare workers who continue to battle daily on the front line. These are real fights, real deaths, real sadness.

Still the numbers keep coming. The alarming data now being presented about the true cost of lockdown: Cancer screening cancelled for 3.2 million people, depression tripled for 18-39 year olds, suicides up, child homicide up, spousal abuse up 93.1% and if that doesn’t ring alarm bells, how about the fall out from unemployment or the huge surge in sales of sweat pants, dressing gowns and alcohol – 8.4 million are now drinking at ‘problem levels’. If the numbers coming in of those suffering as a result of lockdown are greater than those suffering as a result of the virus, we need to be sure the numbers are accurate in order to make an informed decision.

Interpreting numbers is part of the problem. Each day, during my allocated hour of exercise, I see people in the street, furtive eyes peeping over blue masks, scanning their surroundings for potential plague-carriers as they jump nervously out of my path. If I could get close enough to these frightened individuals without adding to their anxiety I’d ask  – “Would you consider Covid survival odds of 99% for an 80 plus-year-old to be good odds?” and “Do you think a vaccine could improve on those odds?” I want to comfort them, to tell them there is no reason to be scared, but the Government and the mainstream media need them to believe otherwise. And they’ve done a good job.

Collusion is not an option. Whether anyone chooses to believe the virus is akin to the 1918 Spanish Flu or regular Seasonal Flu is an irrelevance to what it actually is, if not to how we behave. But the choice of how we respond should be up to the individual – not the State. When the virus came along, millions signed up to help, delivering medical supplies, manning helplines and taking food to shielding or elderly neighbours. We are adults. We can be trusted to use our initiative. So long as we are deemed capable of voting and paying taxes, we are surely capable of making daily risk assessments. According to the European Transport Safety Council, 90% of aircraft accidents worldwide are survivable. Would we still get on the plane if every night the TV showed only plane crashes? Even for those with underlying health issues, the odds of surviving COVID-19 are far better than the odds of surviving a plane crash, yet we have willingly capitulated to the narrative, cutting ourselves off from employment, freedom, fun and those we love.

By the time lockdown hits the one-year marker (albeit with a few windows of respite) the daffodils will be out, the air warmer, the days longer and it will be much harder to keep people inside. Not least because if a year in lockdown has made no difference to the narrative, then we just need to get on with it and accept COVID-19 as yet another unwelcome winter visitor. Interpreted accurately, the numbers are on our side.

Suzie Halewood is a mathematician and filmmaker. Her film DIVISION 19 looks at what happens when all anonymity is lost.