Saturday 18 July 2020

The staggering incompetence of Public Health England

The list of charges against Public Health England since the pandemic began is long. I am sure I have forgotten some, but off the top of my head, there is...

Rejecting the South Korean model of mass testing

Ending contact tracing in early March

Rejecting private sector laboratories and keeping diagnostic testing within the NHS's limited capacity

Assuring us that care homes were safe from COVID-19 and that staff shouldn't wear face masks in them

Making unscientific claims about the risks of smoking and COVID-19

Discouraging the public from wearing masks and advising the Advertising Standards Authority to ban adverts for them

Failing to share infection data with local authorities

The most recent PHE cock up to be revealed is not going to kill as many people, but it is perhaps the most remarkable in its cretinous stupidity.

As Yoon K Loke and Carl Heneghan (from the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine) explained in a blog post on Thursday, PHE collects information on who tests positive for COVID-19, but they do not keep a record of who recovers. When that person dies - of any cause - it is automatically counted as a COVID-19 death.

By this PHE definition, no one with COVID in England is allowed to ever recover from their illness. A patient who has tested positive, but successfully treated and discharged from hospital, will still be counted as a COVID death even if they had a heart attack or were run over by a bus three months later.

... In summary, PHE’s definition of the daily death figures means that everyone who has ever had COVID at any time must die with COVID too. So, the COVID death toll in Britain up to July 2020 will eventually exceed 290k, if the follow-up of every test-positive patient is of long enough duration.

This helps explain why deaths from COVID-19 in hospital have been falling so much faster than overall COVID-19 deaths. It also helps explain why COVID-19 deaths in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been petering out so much quicker than they have in England. The rest of the UK counts these deaths in a sane and reasonable way.

Here's how PHE's figures differ from the Office for National Statistics. Notice to long tail on the right.


Under PHE's methodology, COVID-19 could be wiped out next week but people would still be dying from it decades from now. It's such a rudimentary error that it destroys whatever faith you may still have in the agency's competence.

The day after Loke and Heneghan published their blog post, the government announced that it will be conducting an investigation into how COVID-19 deaths are counted in England. Public Health England tweeted a pathetic half-apology...

In other words: 'Sorry, but this is as new to us as it is to you. You live and learn.'

The fact that COVID-19 is a 'new and emerging infection' is neither here nor there. From PHE's statement, you would think that keeping count of patients who recover was a radical new idea. Note also how they conflate miscounting and over-counting with having 'complete' data.

I have said many times over the years that these people are clowns, but I honestly didn't think they were this incompetent. In his Friday message, PHE boss Duncan Selbie sounded like a beaten man. Reading between the lines, it looks like he is expecting the chop.

The world will never be the same again following the COVID-19 pandemic but this now presents a genuine opportunity to achieve a better balance between risk and investment in the public’s health. PHE is rightly recognised for its science capability, public health expertise and national to local connectivity [no it isn't - CJS] , but resilience also requires flexibility and ability to adapt to a changing context. No public health agency has entered this pandemic thinking it will look the same afterwards. The public’s health is what matters most and whatever future decisions are to follow, the organising principle will be how we as a nation more effectively close the health gap between the rich and the poor and be better ready in capability and at scale for a future pandemic. Meantime we remain fully focused on fighting the virus.

It's telling that Selbie mentions reducing health inequalities ahead of protecting people from infectious disease as PHE's 'organising principle'. The health inequalities agenda is fundamentally political and largely amounts to trying to force everybody to adopt the lifestyles of the upper-middle class.

And on that, there was a sliver of good news for Public Health England yesterday...

Cadbury to shrink all multipack chocolate bars by 2021 - but prices will stay the same

One of the world's biggest chocolate manufacturers has announced plans to shrink all of its products to cut back on calories - but prices will stay the same when the changes come into effect.

Cadbury is shrinking the size of Double Decker and Wispa Gold bars sold in multipacks so they contain less than 200 calories in an attempt to help tackle obesity, but the smaller bars will cost the same.

This is Public Health England's so-called reformulation scheme in action. This is the stuff that Public Health England is really interested in. This is what it was doing when it should have been preparing for a pandemic. Never forget that.

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