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Never Fear….Spring is almost here (part II)

David Hockney, (2008), Arranged Felled Trees https://www.flickr.com/photos/gandalfsgallery/49564201146

A year ago, we left the campus and I wrote this blog entry, capturing my thoughts. The government had recently announced (what we now understand as the first) lockdown as a response to the growing global pandemic. Leading up to this date, most of us appeared to be unaware of the severity of the issue, despite increasing international news stories and an insightful blog from @drkukustr8talk describing the impact in Vietnam. In the days leading up to the lockdown life seemed to carry on as usual, @manosdaskalou and I had given a radio interview with the wonderful April Ventour-Griffiths for NLive, been presented with High Sheriff Awards for our prison module and had a wonderfully relaxing afternoon tea with Criminology colleagues. Even at the point of leaving campus, most of us thought it would be a matter of weeks, maybe a month, little did we know what was in store….At this stage, we are no closer to knowing what comes next, how do we return to our “normal lives” or should we be seeking a new normality.


When I look back on my writing on 20 March 2020, it is full of fear, worry and uncertainty. There was early recognition that privilege and disadvantage was being revealed and that attitudes toward the NHS, shop workers and other services were encouraging, demonstrating kindness and empathy. All of these have continued in varying degrees throughout the past year. We’ve recognised the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on different communities, occupations and age groups. We’ve seen pensioners undertaking physically exhausting tasks to raise money for the tax payer funded NHS, we’ve seen children fed, also with tax payer funding, but only because a young footballer became involved. We’ve seen people marching in support of Black Lives Matter and holding vigils for women’s rights. For those who previously professed ignorance of disadvantage, injustice, poverty, racism, sexism and all of the other social problems which plague our society, there is no longer any escape from knowledge. It is as if a lid has been lifted on British society, showing us what has always been there. Now this spotlight has been turned on, there really is no excuse for any of us not to do so much better.


Since the start of the pandemic over 125,000 people in the UK have been killed by Coronavirus, well over 4.3 million globally. There is quotation, I understand often misattributed to Stalin, that states ‘The death of one man: this is a catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of deaths: that is a statistic!’ However, each of these lives lost leaves a permanent void, for lovers, grandparents, parents, children, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Each human touches so many people lives, whether we recognise at the time or not and so does their death. These ripples continue to spread out for decades, if not longer.

My maternal great grandmother died during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, leaving behind very small children, including my 5 year old nan. My nan rarely talked about her mother, or what happened afterwards, although I know she ended up in a children’s home on the Isle of Wight for a period of time. I regret not asking more questions while I had the chance. For obvious reasons, I never knew my maternal great grandmother, but her life and death has left a mark on my family. Motherless children who went onto become mothers and grandmothers themselves are missing those important family narratives that give a shape to individual lives. From my nan, I know my maternal great grandmother was German born and her husband, French. Beyond that my family history is unknown.

On Tuesday 23 March 2021 the charity Marie Curie has called for a National Day of Reflection to mark the collective loss the UK and indeed, the world has suffered. As you’ll know from my previous entries, here and here, I have reservations about displays of remembrance, not least doorstep claps. For me, there is an internal rather than external process of remembrance, an individual rather than collective reflection, on what we have been, and continue to go, through. Despite the ongoing tragedy, it is important to remember that nothing can cancel hope, no matter what, Spring is almost here and we will remember those past and present, who make our lives much richer simply by being them.

David Hockney, (2020), Do Remember They Can’t Cancel the Spring
https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/a-message-from-david-hockney-do-remember-they-can-t-cancel-the-spring?fbclid=IwAR2iA8FWDHFu3fBQ067A7Hwm187IRfGVHcZf18p3hQzXJI8od_GGKQbUsQU

Late: The word that defines the UK’s Coronavirus pandemic management

Picture the scene. We are in Downing Street and the news media are awaiting another coronavirus press conference. Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England is ready. Sir Patrick Vallance the Chief Scientific Advisor is ready. Where is the Prime Minister (PM)? Late again.

I have this vision of our PM frantically scurrying around like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland humming “I’m late I’m late for very important date”. We might all smile at this vision but I’m afraid the analogy of being late is not a laughing matter when it is applied as the major theme for the UK governments management of what I described in a previous blog as the worst public health crisis in my lifetime. I also recall the PM famously using the phrase “A stitch in time saves nine” which is indeed true however in a pandemic being late or not sewing that stitch in time can and has cost thousands of lives.

In the week that has seen the UK pass 100,000 deaths it is right to reflect on the tragic loss of life. The call from government saying this is not the time to analyse why the UK has done so badly is in my view the wrong line to take. The government could learn a thing or two from the UK health care professions who for years have developed themselves as reflective practitioners. Donald Schon (1983) wrote extensively about reflection in terms of the creation of learning organisations who can both reflect in and on action. It is the former that has been sadly lacking in the UKs response to the coronavirus crisis. Reflection needs to be on the table throughout the pandemic and had it been, we may not have repeated the same mistakes. The management of pandemics is well documented in the medical literature. Professor Chris Whitty the Chief Medical Officer for England outlines how to manage a pandemic in this useful lecture at Gresham College.

Indeed it is also important to remind us of the words of Sir Patrick Vallance who when recommending the urgency of action in a pandemic implored that we “go earlier than you think you want to, go a bit harder than you think you want to and go broader than you think you want to in terms of restrictions.” My observation of the UK pandemic response leads me to conclude that we failed to do any of these. However, for this blog let’s focus on timing. Going early in terms of restrictions and other actions can have an enormous beneficial impact.

The last year has been to coin an overstated phrase “unprecedented” with many arguing that any government would have been overwhelmed and struggled to manage the crisis. Is this fair? One can look at other countries who have managed the situation better and as such have had better outcomes. New Zealand, Australia, Korea for example. Others will point to the differences between countries in terms of geography, population, culture, transport, relative poverty, healthcare systems, reporting mechanisms and living conditions which make comparisons inherently complex. 

With the current death toll in the UK so high and continuing to rise, and many scientists telling us that things will inevitably get worse before they get better the question everyone is asking is : What has gone wrong? In this blog I’m going to argue that in large part our problems are based on a lack of urgency in acting. I’m arguing that we have not followed Sir Patrick Vallance’s recommendation and in particular we have been late to act throughout. Below I will set out the evidence for this and propose some tentative reasons as to why this has been the case.

Firstly, despite a pandemic being recognised as the largest threat to any country (it will always be top of any country’s risk register) the UK was slow to recognise the impending crisis and late to recognise the implications of a virus of this nature and how quickly it can spread globally.  History informs us of how quickly Spanish flu spread in 1918. The UK was never going to be immune. Late recognition and poor pandemic preparedness meant we were late to get in place the critical infrastructure required to mount a response. Despite several warnings and meetings of the civil contingencies committee (COBR) the health secretary Matt Hancock was dismissive of the threat playing it down. Indeed, the PM failed to attend several early meetings giving the impression that the UK were not taking this as seriously as they should.

When faced with a looming medical/public health emergency it is important that the scientific advisors are in place early (which they were) and that their advice is acted upon. The evidence clearly points to a slow response to this advice which manifested itself in several critical late decisions early in the pandemic. The UK did not close its borders and implement quarantine measures allowing the virus to seed extensively in all parts of the community. Once community transmission had been established it was too late. It did not have in place a substantive testing regime, largely because we were unprepared. It very quickly became clear when we switched from community testing to testing only those in hospital with Covid symptoms that we lacked critical mass testing capacity and hence spent months trying to catch up. Evidence from previous outbreaks of SARS and MERS demonstrated how important mass testing was in controlling the spread, a position advocated by the World Health Organization (WHO). The UK saw case numbers grow rapidly and was slow to get the important public health messages out. Consequently, hospital admissions increased, and the death toll leapt. We were in serious danger of the NHS becoming overwhelmed with critically ill Covid patients.

Public health, medical and scientific experts suggested through their modelling exercises that the death toll, if we didn’t act quickly, could exceed 500,000; a situation socially and politically unpalatable. Therefore, in the absence of no known treatments and no vaccine we would have to resort to the tried and tested traditional methods for the suppression of a respiratory borne virus. Robust hand hygiene, respiratory/cough etiquette and maintaining social distance to reduce close social interaction. The logical conclusion was that to radically reduce social contacts we needed to lockdown. It is widely acknowledged now that the UK was at least a week late in introducing the first lockdown in March 2020.

In the meantime, the virus was sweeping through vulnerable elderly groups in care homes. We were again late to recognise this threat and late to protect them despite Hancock’s claims of throwing a ring of protection around them. The death toll continued to mount. At this stage both the Health (NHS) and care sectors were under enormous pressure and ill equipped to manage. The greatest worry at that stage was lack of adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Due to our ill preparedness we were late to provide appropriate PPE to both the NHS and the care home sector, exposing healthcare workers to undue risk. The death toll of healthcare workers in any pandemic is high and we were now starting to see this rise in the UK.

Another major criticism during the earlier months was how slow we were in ramping up testing capacity, tracking, tracing cases and ensuring isolation measures were in place. Indeed, concerns about test, trace and isolation continue today. However, lockdown and other public health measures did reduce the case numbers through the summer but inevitably the virus, which thrives in cold damp conditions started to cause further problems as we approached autumn and winter. Combined with this the UK saw a new variant of the virus emerge in the autumn with greater transmissibility. Cases started to rise again along with the inevitable hospital admissions and deaths. It appeared despite warnings from all scientists and health professionals that a second wave was highly possible we were late to recognise the emergence of a second wave of infections. The signs of which were there in September 2020. This led to a second lockdown in November when the advice from the scientific advisors was to lockdown in mid-October or earlier. This decision was compounded by a complex tiered restrictions arrangement to manage outbreaks locally aimed at the avoidance of unnecessary restrictions. Meanwhile the death toll continued to mount.

Notwithstanding the emergence of a new variant of the virus during the second lockdown everyone’s attention was switched to Christmas. The advice offered from government that restrictions would be relaxed for five days was met with incredulity by health professions who argued that this would simply allow the virus to be spread exponentially through greater household mixing. All the evidence at this stage pointed to household mixing as the primary source of transmission. As the situation worsened following the release of lockdown in early December it became obvious that the Christmas guidance had to change. To no ones surprise the advice was changed at the last-minute meaning everyone would have to rearrange their plans. The late change to the Xmas guidance probably meant more family mixing than would have happened had the advice been robust and communicated to the public earlier. Very quickly after Christmas we saw rapid changes to the tier management despite calls for a further lockdown. Cases rose rapidly, hospital admissions were now worse than in the first wave and scientists called for a lockdown. Consequently, we were late implementing Lockdown 3.

Throughout the pandemic the government has provided detailed guidance on restrictions, care homes, travel arrangements and education. It’s difficult to get this right all the time but the issuing of guidance was at times so late it became difficult to interpret the issues with clarity. Probably one the best examples of this relates to the advice provided to schools. Should they stay open or close? What should the Covid secure measures be? How do you construct bubbles of students to reduce social contact? Covid testing of pupils and staff? examinations and assessment guidance? However, the final straw was surely when schools opened in January after the Christmas break to only be told they had to close the very next day as we moved into Lockdown 3.

In conclusion it is said that to manage a pandemic you need a clear, robust strategic plan. The evidence presented here would suggest a lack of strategic planning with crisis decision making on the hoof. Some have argued that we have a PM who struggles to take the big decisions required, who procrastinates and inevitably is left with Hobson’s choice. If you couple this with a group of key ministers who appear to lack the competence to carry their portfolios we have the recipe for a disaster. The consequence of which means the UK has experienced a terrible outcome across a whole set of health, education and economic indicators.

References
Schon, D. (1983) The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action Basic Books, New York
Whitty, C. (2018) How to Control an Epidemic https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rn55z95L1h8

RTFQ and the real world

“365 Math” by MrWoodnz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The other day I had occasion to contact Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and I did this via a web chat. My query was simply about seeking an explanation regarding tax relief. I compiled my question starting off with ‘good morning, I’ve had my tax code updated and am a little confused.’ I then went on to explain in a few short words where the confusion lay.

The response back was quite familiar, it would be to those that use web chat and quite expected, ‘Thank you for your patience, the next available advisor will be with you shortly. You are 7 in the queue’. Little was I to know at this stage, that my patience was about to be severely tested, not by the waiting time but by the advisor who, to avoid any embarrassment to the real person, we will simply call ‘Jo’. After eight minutes of waiting (not a particularly long time) I was through to Jo and greeted with a request for my details for security.

Once supplied, I was told that Jo would be looking at my record. Jo then responded by telling me that the adjustment in my tax code was due to an underpayment from the 18/19 tax year, explained how much it was and the fact it would be collected through the tax code. Now I should point out, this was not the question I was asking, RTFQ, I wanted to know about an aspect of tax relief and just to add to the confusion, the HMRC website tells me I do not owe any tax from the 18/19 year. The latter makes sense to me because I paid off the amount owed in 19/20. A little agitated I responded with my question again trying to make it a little clearer, as if it wasn’t clear enough. I added to this by asking if my assumptions were perhaps incorrect and if so could Jo tell me when the rules had changed. The response was ‘one moment’. Four minutes later I asked, ‘are you still there?’, the terse response was, ‘yeah, i (sic) am looking through the guidance for you’. This does not bode well!

Trying to be helpful, I responded by explaining the tax relief I received last year, and the fact that I ought to receive it this year, unless of course the rules have changed the response, ‘one moment please’. To be followed by ‘the 480 is from 480.00/40% = 1200 so its at 40%’.  Now I’m no Trigger (see Only Fools and Horses) but this mathematical genius has me somewhat perplexed, so I pushed a little further to see if I could get an explanation of this.  I ended up with ‘480.00/40% =1200 which is 40% of the 480’.   

My patience wearing a little thin now, I asked to speak to a supervisor only to be told there was no supervisor available and ‘They will be telling you the same thing, you can call in to speak to someone else if you want’. So, I can hang up on the web chat, start another and in the lottery of numpties, I will take my chance that I might not get another Jo to answer my query, I think not. To add insult to injury, Jo had just previous to this provided me with an answer that was in fact the basis of my question, we seemed to have gone full circle (RTFQ). In desperation and trying to prevent my blood pressure rising further I tried to draw this to a close by pointing out the problem as I see it, prefixing this with, ‘I’m not trying to be difficult. I just want an explanation as to why …’. I followed this up with, ‘If you cannot answer that, then please just say so’. The response, ‘I have explained to you the best way i (sic) can Stephen’. Now that’s me told! Best not push it further.

I recall first hearing the term RTFQ when I was about to sit a promotion exam. RTFQ the invigilator shouted, before gazing upon my quizzical expression, ‘read the f*** question’ he explained. I frequently remind my students of this mantra before they sit exams, it is one that serves us well, not just at university when sitting exams or completing assignments, but in life. Although I’m not sure that RTFQ is something that Jo needs to prioritise whilst tripping through the wonderment of mathematical equations.

Or maybe, just maybe, it is a new tactic by HMRC to limit enquiries. I certainly won’t be calling back in a hurry.

‘Quelle surprise’: it’s all in the timing.

Euro flag

“Inauguration of Polish EU Presidency (011)” by Bruce MacRae is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0  edited by SH

The Office of National Statistics has admitted to some frailties in its data collection around migration. What a shock it must have been to discover that the manner in which it collected the data was somewhat flawed, so much so that they have now downgraded the data to ‘experimental’.

It might seem almost laughable that an organisation that prides itself in, and espouses data accuracy and has in the past criticised police recorded figures for being inaccurate (we know they are) has itself fallen foul of inaccuracies brought about by its own ill thought out data gathering attempts.   The issue though is far greater than simple school boy errors, these figures have had a major impact on government policy for years around immigration with calls for greater control of our borders and the inevitable identification of the ‘other’.

The figures seem to be erroneous from somewhere between the mid-2000s and 2016, although it is unclear how accurate they are now.  New analysis shows that European Union net migration was 16% higher in 2015-16 than first thought. Whilst the ONS admits that its estimation of net migration from non-EU countries is overestimated, it is not clear exactly by how much this might be.

Such a faux pas led to the story hitting the news; ‘EU migration to UK ‘underestimated’ by ONS’ (BBC, 2019) and ‘Office for National Statistics downgrades ‘not fully reliable’ official immigration data as experts claim figures have been ‘systematically under-estimating net migration from EU countries’ (Daily Mail, 2019).

So, there we are the ONS gets statistics wrong as well and the adjusted figures simply support what Brexiteers have been telling everyone all along.  But why release the figures now? When were these errors identified? Surely if they have been inaccurate until 2016 then the mistake must have been found some short time after that.  So why wait until the eleventh hour when ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is about to come to a calamitous conclusion?  And why those headlines?  Why not the headline ‘Big mistake: net migration from outside the EU vastly overestimated’?

I’m not one to subscribe to conspiracy theories but at times it is difficult to overlook the blindingly obvious.  So called independent bodies may not be that independent, the puppet master pulls the strings and the puppets dance.  Little value in headlining facts that do not support the right-wing rhetoric but great political value to be had in muddying the waters about the EU and open borders.

This discourse ignores the value of migration and simply plays on the fears of the populace, these are well rehearsed and now age-old arguments that I and many others have made*. The concern though is when ‘independent institutions’ subtly start to join in the furore and the moral compass starts to become distorted, subjugated to political ideals.  I can’t help but wonder, what would Durkheim make of it?

* It is well worth watching Hollie McNish’s Mathematics on YouTube.

 

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