The Royal Statistical Society is running a series of events for members and other statisticians to garner opinions on the UK governments’ handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. I gave a two minute talk on data, local government and local communities within England. Here it is.

Hello, I’m Peter Wells. Thank you to the RSS for the opportunity to speak. I’m a committee member for the Data Ethics and Governance section and work with businesses and public sector organisations on trustworthy and responsible use of data.

I would like to talk a little bit about access to data for English local government and communities and how better access could have saved lives and built trust, and how different data was used in local government – particularly in Summer 2020.

In the pandemic there were decisions to be made at the level of England-as-a-nation – where to send personal protective equipment (PPE), where to add hospital capacity, or what non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to put in place for us all.

Data collection and statistical processes – such as those in NHS Test & Trace and the Covid-19 data store – were put in place to meet these national needs.

But there were also decisions to be made locally. Where to advertise the new guidance and rules and in what languages. Where to place testing sites. Which workplaces needed stronger enforcement.

In pre-pandemic times local authorities were responsible for many aspects of public health.

They worked with the NHS and a range of other partners such as care providers, police forces, charities, businesses, community groups and individual citizens to do this.

The kind of partners that helped make and implement these decisions for other public health issues.

But for many months – through Summer 2020 – local authorities and local communities lacked data about the pandemic as the data collection and statistical production processes did not meet local needs.

Decisions were not made, or were made with lower levels of evidence than the evidence available to the national government in England.

Local capabilities that could have helped with the pandemic were underused.

If, as well as prioritising national needs, there had been a greater emphasis on local needs for data and statistics and a greater emphasis on using and strengthening existing capabilities then we may have had better data and more effective local responses.

That could have saved lives.

As a result of this data gap some pIaces started collecting their own data from their communities while businesses – like telecoms operators and data brokers – started selling proxy data collected from non-healthcare related services to local authorities.

This was different data than the data that already existed in the public sector and was being used by the national government in making decisions about England.

Those differences create some opportunities to evaluate which methods worked better, but it also caused some trust issues* between national and local govt as people disagreed on the data and evidence behind the discussions.

Looking ahead, beyond the pandemic building local capability and trust in data use between national and local government may also help with other policy goals like levelling up.

But levelling up is probably a future evidence session…

*Due to the two minute rule, and my usual diversion into a nervous joke or two, I didn’t speak these two paragraphs out loud. They’re in here for completeness:

“When places like Leicester and Greater Manchester were in months long local lockdown both local politicians and citizens wanted to know if the lockdowns were needed, and helping with, the local outbreaks.

They did not always trust the decisions that were being made nationally and did not always have access to trustworthy data to check or challenge those decisions.”