The propaganda battle

In any war, truth is usually the first casualty as information and misinformation, news and fake news, battle it out for our attention. But at the same time, accurate information on the battlefield is essential in any fight whether it be against human or viral opposition.

Around a week ago, just as we are beginning to make sense of the UK numbers of deaths, one of the daily talking heads (I think it was Sir Patrick Vallance on this occasion) let slip that the daily numbers were relatively inaccurate since there was no time limit on reporting by individual hospitals. In other words Hospital A, up-to-date with its paperwork, might be reporting casualties from the previous 24 hours whereas Hospital B, overwhelmed with workload, might only catch up once a week. Sir Patrick counselled against reading too much into the daily figures because of this.

This makes me angry. Much of the government’s decision-making on when/if to lift the lockdown is based on the much vaunted “flattening of the curve”. If, by their own admission, these numbers cannot be relied upon, how do they expect to make a decision with any accuracy. If the numbers are meaningless, why publish them?

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the government went on to say, a couple of days later, that of course the numbers were an underestimate of mortality since they only reflected deaths in hospital and not those outside. There were no figures for these.

So in other words the data that is published is an inaccurate record of total mortality since it only reflects death in one particular context. And that data itself is inaccurate. We are publishing data that we know to be inaccurate and only partial.

Well why are we bothering?

No, seriously, why are we bothering? Publishing misleading data is a brilliant way of alienating all the people who have self isolated over the last several weeks and who fervently believe that their privations will be reflected in that flattening of the curve. In other words, pretty much everybody. 15,000 deaths. But it could be 10,000. Or maybe 20,000. Who knows.

And then, guess what?

In the last couple of days comes the admission that deaths in care homes have not been recorded at all. The National Care Foundation estimates that some 4000 deaths in care homes have gone unrecorded. And of course care homes are not hospitals, so the data is unrecorded.

I just throw my hands up in despair when I read this kind of information. The truth is that we have no idea how many coronavirus -related deaths there are in the UK. It could be 10,000. It could be double that. But how on earth are we meant to put together any kind of rational strategy to deal with the illness or timeframe to manage the social dimensions without accurate information.

And that’s just the mortality statistics. Don’t get me started on the issue of testing where we are lamentably slow and unfocused. Are we testing the frontline workers to ensure that they are safe and cared for? Are we testing the population of the country to get an idea of overall virus prevalence? Are we testing for antigens or antibodies? What exactly are we doing? Apart from nothing that is.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again because the analogy serves us well. This is a war. In any war you need accurate intelligence on your enemy. That intelligence, on strengths, weaknesses, numbers and disposition is essential to the development of any strategy for attack. Without intelligence we are fighting blind. And we cannot even work out if we are winning or not. Hard to believe but we are losing the propaganda war to some miserable little strand of RNA.

Can somebody go and dig Boris out of Chequers and remind him that there is a war on.