As numbers rise, so do emotions surrounding the pandemic. So let’s look at hard data, shall we?
We live in a post-truth world. Whatever you want to believe, you can find support for it online. If data doesn’t exist to support your argument, you can just make it up.
The other day I posted this tweet:
As you can see, it got quite a few likes and retweets. It also attracted derision, disagreement, and personal insults.
In the ensuing debate, several people posted the pie chart above. I retweeted it, and then regretted doing so. The chart appears to prove a point I want to believe, but there’s no source quoted, no context. Someone could have just made it up.
So I did some digging, and here are the results. TL;DR – it’s bang on.
Each week, Public Health England publishes a Weekly Coronavirus Disease surveillance report. It does only cover England. It uses data collected from a variety of sources, chiefly coronavirus cases confirmed by laboratories, plus a mix of “syndromic surveillance” using real-time health data from sources including GPs and hospitals and the internet.
The resulting data covers confirmed outbreaks of acute respiratory infection incidents where an outbreak of two or more cases (Covid-19, influenza or other respiratory pathogen) linked to a particular setting, plus situations where an outbreak is suspected but not yet confirmed. The number of incidents reported in each setting is defined by there being at least one laboratory confirmed case of Covid-19.
These are the numbers for the four week period covered by the latest report:
And given that this is a four-week period, here is the percentage of total incidents that have occurred in the latest week of that period:
So what does this tell us?
Care homes are still ground zero for Covid. Given what we know from the peak of the first wave, this is unforgivable, but that’s not the point of this post.
Schools and workplaces together account for 36% of all cases, while food outlets and restaurant settings account for just under 8% of the total.
Pubs aren’t even broken out as a separate category. They are either a fraction of the 8% within the broader food outlet/restaurant setting category, or a subset of “other”. Given that PHE has separately released Covid guidance relating to “restaurants, pubs, bars and takeaway services”, it seems safe to assume that this is the grouping they’re referring to in the above category.
Obviously, the vast majority of education-related infections happened in the final week of the period because schools weren’t back in August. This data is broken down by different types of establishment, and shows that secondary schools are responsible for more than half of all outbreaks, followed by primary schools.
Almost half of all workplace related infections happened in the previous week, suggesting that the “back to work:” initiative being pushed by government at the start of September has had a signifiant impact on new cases.
Obviously some outbreaks are related to pubs, restaurants and “other”, but the lower percentage in the final week suggests these cases are spread more evenly across the month, and are therefore steadier.
I understand that this is an emotive issue. To people who are concerned about their kids’ education or about keeping their jobs, pubs may seem like a trivial thing to worry about. Also, I do believe the rules are insane: it’s mad that you can’t socialise in some other places, be with your partner as she gives birth to your child, or go to a football match, but you can go to a pub. It’s understandable that pubs will attract some resentment because of absurd rules they had no say in drawing up.
But the data shows that pubs are not a significant location for Covid-19 infection. They are a subset within 8% of total infections. Closing pubs or placing further restrictions on when they are allowed to open will have no meaningful impact on reducing the spread of Covid. There is no logic in the idea of “let’s close the pubs so kids can still go to school.”
Also, it’s never useful to generalise among all pubs. There are plenty of anecdotal stories of pubs that are not implementing social distancing rules or of people behaving irresponsibly. Some pubs are just shit – they always have been. But many pubs have gone to enormous lengths to reopen safely and are operating in a safe and responsible way.
Governments of all political persuasions have a long history of implementing measures on pubs and drinking because it makes them look like they are taking action, and because the public will tolerate it. Beer duty is often referred to as a “sin tax” – this is something we enjoy, it’s a bit naughty, so we probably should be taxed or regulated on it. In 2010, a Mandatory Code on behaviour in pubs legally banned the “Dentist’s Chair” drinks promotion, despite there being no evidence anywhere that such a practice actually existed in pubs. It made the government look tough on binge drinking, when it actually solved nothing.
So today the government will once again “get tough” on pubs, which are already on their knees, while the crisis in care homes goes virtually unnoticed, and everyone pretends schools aren’t the problem because, unlike pointless, nonsensical curfews, there is no easy solution or quick win to the real issue of where Covid-19 is spreading.