Hope, despair, and statistical glitches: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A couple of scientists discovered that Public Health England may be overcounting coronavirus deaths–or as they put it, overexaggerating them. They’re numbers people, not word people. I’d underexaggerate an equation if you were silly enough to let me near one.

Having heard about this, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, is calling for an urgent review of England’s coronavirus deaths.

Why’s this urgent? Because Britain has the highest Covid death rate in Europe, and England has the highest rate in Britain. And that doesn’t look good. So that sense of urgency that was missing when front-line workers were catching the virus (and, some of them, dying) because they couldn’t get protective gear? The one that was missing when an early lockdown could have prevented ten thousand or so deaths? It’s come out of quarantine feeling reinvigorated, partially exaggerated, and raring to go. Dissect those numbers, kids, because we need a better result.


Irrelevant photo: a rose

The statistical glitch that may be overexaggerating the numbers is this: Anyone who tested positive for the virus and later died is counted as a virus death, although they could, for all we know, have been killed by a meteor or a health secretary falling from the sky. Fair enough. But it’s also true that many people, especially in the early stages of the pandemic, never got tested at all. I’m not sure how many of them were counted as Covid deaths. The person I know who died of it of wasn’t counted as a virus death. That’s one out of one, so 100% of my sample went uncounted.

There’s no accepted standard for untangling coronavirus deaths from other deaths, and given the complexity of the situation we’re in, that’s not surprising. Different countries are using different standards. The best measure is probably a count of excess deaths, which compares the deaths of, say, June 2020 with those in June 2019. 


I read recently that Australian researchers have developed a new coronavirus test which can spot both current and past infections using a blood sample. It takes only 20 minutes to get a result. They’ve filed for a patent and are trying to gather both government and commercial support (that means money in case you were about to offer them a nice letter) so they can ramp up production.

It sounds hopeful, and it reminds me that I’ve posted news about a variety of other tests that also sound promising. I’d see and article about them, drop the news into a post, and then never hear of them again. Britain’s still using the same-old, same-old–the test with a false negative rate of 30%. 

So I asked Lord Google about other Covid tests, hoping to find updates on at least one or two of the ones I’d mentioned. Instead, I found one being developed in Canada that promises a 15-minute turnaround and the possibility that it could be done at home. It’s not one of the tests I’ve written about before, but what the hell, it’s a nice shred of hope.

And we do need shreds of hope. This one’s being developed by Sona Nanotech and doesn’t have approval yet. It sounds like it still relies on sticking something long and unpleasant up your nose or down your throat. 

You may be able to untangle the explanations better than I could. I found the article hard going. 

A saliva test had a trial run in Britain–and this is one I wrote about–but it turns out to miss more cases than testing mucus does. So we’re back to sticking something long and uncomfortable up your nose and down your throat. It’s better than no test at all and could be useful for people who can’t or won’t put up with the other, but it doesn’t seem like the solution to our problems. What is clear is that testing’s crucial in controlling the spread of the disease. 


The government set itself a target of June 33 to get all covid tests back to people in 24 hours, but at the beginning of July and 50% of the tests still weren’t being returned in time. During the first week of July, they actually managed to get fewer results back to people on time than during the week before.

It’s okay, though, because we went right into July without passing June 33. 

And our world-beating test and trace system is managing not to trace the contacts of 21% of the people who test positive. Russian hackers may be interested in the vaccines being developed here, but they are, very wisely, passing on the opportunity to steal and replicate our test and trace system.


In the meantime, Britain’s chief scientific advisor, Patrick Vallance, announced on July 16 that he didn’t see any reason to change the advice that people who can work from home should. 

The next day, Boris Johnson–he is, somehow or other, our prime minister–said that starting on August 1 employers would be given “more discretion” on calling employees back.


Johnson told us recently the pandemic will all be over “in time for Christmas.” He did, at least, add “hopefully,” but to anyone who knows the history of World War I it has an ominous sound. When the first volunteers marched off to the sound of brass bands and cheering, that was the prediction: It would all be over by Christmas.

The war went on for four years and, arguably, destroyed a generation of young men.

44 thoughts on “Hope, despair, and statistical glitches: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

    • The US is in considerably worse shape. For as much of a mess as they’re making of this, the number of deaths and cases (however shaky the measurements are) are gong down here. I’m worried about that turning around as things open back up, but we’ll see. Be careful over there.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Looks like the government has finally cracked it: setting 33 June as their deadline means they can never be held accountable for meeting/not meeting their target. Or did they mean June 2033?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree with everything in the article and these comments, especially the feelings towards NZ. I do admire them so much, and yet the idea of scoring some significant result by applying empathy, common sense and sticking to proper science, seems so intuitive. Don’t forget Germany as well. Denmark and Finland did manage decently too. I can’t fail to notice these are all country ruled by women. I need to point out that none of those PMs ever showed the signs of psychopathy. The UK and the US, on the other hand…

      Liked by 2 people

      • The US and UK are scoring high on the psychopathy scales, aren’t they? At least we’re beating (most of) the world at something. I was going to offer Iceland as another example of a country that’s handled the epidemic well, thinking that the prime minister might not be a woman, but no, their p.m.’s a woman, so I can’t break the pattern with that. Even so, I don’t really think this is a sex-linked characteristic–I wouldn’t have put a lot of money on Theresa May handling this well if she’d still been in office, although I expect she’d have done better than Johnson has.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Tests, tests and more tests. All the King’s horses and all the King’s (or Queen’s) men couldn’t put the tests together again…with a decent turnaround time.
    And yet, all will be put right again by Christmas. Sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. …although they could, for all we know, have been killed by a meteor…or hit by a bus, to quote the Serbian prime minister. But as you said, who knows how many go untested. I know a few myself. So the numbers are, whether our politicians want to admit it or not, much higher.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Not just exaggerating, but OVERexaggerating? I’ve told them, 20,000 policemen, 50,000 nurses and 40 hospitals before, not to do that. Possibly 350 million times a week before that.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Re saliva testing, here’s some hopeful progress in Australia. https://www.abc.net.au/news/health/2020-07-01/new-saliva-test-for-covid-19-how-accurate-is-it/12406912
    Re your last line, I’d argue that you could take out the ‘arguably’. The Battle of the Somme alone resulted in over 1 million casualties on both sides, at the end of which the Allies had advanced 6 miles (10km). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I_casualties

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Doug. It sounds like Australia’s using the saliva test the same way–as a less accurate but less invasive backup for the mucus test, something that’s good to have but not the gold standard. And you’re right about that “arguably.” I try to be careful about the things I think I know (things you think you know are among the easiest ways to trip over in print) and wasn’t going to take the time to double check that one. I appreciate the fact check.


  6. Oh, it IS worse in the US – but somehow the gummint is distracting everyone by sending anonymous. camouflaged troops into Portland Oregon and dragging people off the streets who are not only not rioting, but are leaving peaceful protests to get into their cars. They are given no reason for their arrest, but as soon as one young kidnappee said he wanted a lawyer, he was immediately released,

    And both the governor and the mayor have said they not only did not request these troops, they want them GONE ! So far that has been as effective as if you and I had said that.
    Some sources indicate the storm troopers are part of the Border Patrol/ Even if Canada were planning to invade, the state of Washington seems to be in the way.

    True, one of Portland’s mottoes is “Keep Portland Weird” but some of the nation is wondering if this is leading up to Kristalnacht. And of course, everyone is being told to go back to school – full classrooms, full sessions – by that creature disguised as our education secretary.

    One is tempted to say un-effing-believable – but apparently nothing is, anymore.

    Stay safe.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Maybe Mr. Johnson and Mr. Trump could run for governor or head poobah of Pandemia, a country that has no cases because they do no testing – we’ve established here in the US, that if you don’t test, you won’t have any cases – and where people only die of natural causes.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I heard that the current COVD19 test cannot discriminate whether its the virus or the flu. who knows….we are in a sad state of affairs here in Victoria. Our government hired security firms to do the security on the hotels where travelers or locals were coming into the country. These security companies..well some of the staff…were taking positive cases to 7/11 to buy rubbish…taking them out for a smoke. Then these security were then hopping into Ubers to drive others around. then going home to the Towers where people shared lifts, laundry rooms….can you see whats been going on. So now we are suddenly getting figures of 200 odd a day infected. We are back into lockdown part 2..as of tomorrow we must wear masks when out of the home. Or its a $200 fine. I look at my place of birth Western Australia and they are doing so well. Times like these I wished I was back there. #SeniSal

    Liked by 1 person

    • They must be doing a fantastic job of training the security staff. “Yeah, just stand by the door or something. Don’t fall asleep. You’ll figure it out.” So they went heavy on the “or something” part of the instructions. If they’d use public health people to deal with public health emergencies–

      If countries still had a public health infrastructure–

      I haven’t read anything about tests that can’t distinguish between the coronavirus and the flu. That may be urban legend. If you base your diagnosis on symptoms alone, that might be true for some cases at some stages, but tests? Again, that doesn’t match anything I’ve read.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. You probably saw that Trump finally admitted that things were going to get worse before they got better. Once again, we all fell for the hope that he finally understood what was happening. That was two days before he defended the woman who said we didn’t need masks and female problems are caused by dreaming about having sex with demons. I’m hoping for a vaccine before we all get it over here

    Liked by 1 person

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