Headline numbers: Help with coping with big figures

A London Ambulance Image copyright London Ambulance Service

On Wednesday we heard that the National Health Service (NHS) in England had a £630m deficit half way through the 2014-15 financial year.

Is that a lot? It sounds like a lot.

On the other hand, it may just be a big pile of money on top of an even bigger pile of money.

The "pile of money" reference comes from an excellent video on Youtube, explaining the size of the US budget deficit by representing it with 8,880 pennies on a table in a living room (that the filmmaker hadn't bothered to tidy first, but that's splitting hairs).

Anyway, his point is that we struggle to cope with big numbers, and this week's story was another example.

The NHS in England has a budget for this year of about £113bn, so £630m is just over half a per cent.

But I think we can help more with this by taking a lesson from physicists. They had a problem with expressing the huge distances between stars and galaxies, so they invented light years. A light year is the distance light travels in a year, which is about 5.9 trillion miles or 9.5 trillion kilometres.

Perhaps we should use an NHS year as a measure of large sums of money. One NHS year is about £113bn, so the deficit so far this year could be expressed as a little over two NHS days.

It may be argued that it is a problem that NHS spending, unlike the speed of light, is not constant, but in spending terms that is a good thing because it allows for inflation to be taken into account.

And the NHS year is not just useful for health spending - it could help people to understand any big sums of money.

For example, the National Audit Office report about the delays to universal credit warned of a £2.8bn bill to cover staffing costs if the credit is rolled out without switching to the new IT system. That could be expressed as about nine NHS days.

Similarly, Labour's threat to cut tax breaks for independent schools threatens about £147m per year in current savings for the schools, which is about half an NHS day.

I think the NHS day is just what is needed to put the big numbers into context for the forthcoming election campaign. Now I just have to convince my colleagues.

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