Coronavirus: Mixed messages muddy the waters

By Marie-Louise Connolly
BBC News NI Health Correspondent

Published
Undated handout photo issued by PSNI showing an officer on patrol in Belfast city centre during the coronavirus lockdownImage source, Stephen Davison/PSNI/PA Wire
Image caption,
Not everyone is heeding the message

Things are starting to loosen... and many believe not in a good way.

Shoppers brushing by too closely and there's an increasing number of cars on the road.

The death toll continues to rise, but there's also been an increase in conversations about how and when restrictions might start to be lifted.

So what's changed? Well, in some key respects, very little.

Twice this week my system got a jolt - when 20 more deaths were reported on Tuesday and then when a consultant said coronavirus "remains unchanged and is still a killer".

Of course it is. It is not the virus that's waned but our tolerance of some of the restrictions around it. All of this will provide a backdrop to what happens next.

I've been reminded how Coronavirus affects individuals and their families.

Testimonies

Sean McGovern leads the emergency department at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald.

His testimony of being a Covid survivor, with coughing spasms that burst blood vessels and lasted an hour, made people stop and think.

Image caption,
Ignatius and Mary O'Connell died earlier this month

As did the story of married couple Ignatius and Mary O'Connell, from north Belfast, who died within three days of each other. Their daughter's testimony was heartbreaking.

As we enter the sixth week of this new normal, it's fair to admit that we want a taste of the old ways - attending church, the hairdressers, the pub, buying clothes, going to work and, yes, even going to garden centres.

We desperately want to dip our toes into life again; the risk is however, that once we dip, we'll soon want a full dunk.

The public wants clear direction and communication and help in dealing with the uncertainties of what might happen next.

'Gaps and losses'

This week, however, it seemed that some of the public health information was unclear.

From the start there has been a problem with the Covid-19 statistics.

Initially the Public Health Agency was in charge, then Nisra (Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency) began issuing weekly figures.

The Department of Heath produced a statistical dashboard, but it broke down after just two days.

Image source, Reuters

It affected how numbers were being reported, so much so that the health minister stepped in to order a review.

And it's not just journalists being critical - on Thursday, the UK Statistics Authority reprimanded the Department of Health for "gaps and losses" in its data.

It said a news release on a departmental website and Twitter were "not sufficient".

It also said information should be released in "a transparent, easily accessible and orderly way".

Image source, Department of Health
Image caption,
The homepage of the new dashboard looks like this

Releasing this information is almost as critical as carrying out more testing, tracing and tracking, as it allows the experts to keep up with the virus and try to shape its journey, so that, in time, we can get ahead of it.

While the minister answered questions about the dashboard breakdown, the public was never provided with a full and detailed explanation as to what went wrong.

On Friday afternoon, the department published a new Covid-19 dashboard.

We are all aware that this is a hugely difficult issue for government at all levels to deal with.

But if there was ever a case for greater openness about statistics, and what they do and don't tell us, Covid-19 has provided it.

Update 14 May 2020 : This article was updated to provide some additional clarity.