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When was the ‘truth’ era?

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THAT was one of the questions posed at a recent panel discussion hosted by the Royal Statistical Society to consider whether we really are in a post-truth world of ‘alternative facts’, and if so what we can do about it.

These terms have become commonplace as people try to make sense of a global political landscape that looks and feels different to what many would have predicted a year ago. So it was refreshing to hear a more critical take on the concepts such as post-truth, fake news and echo-chambers.

That isn’t to say that the panellists thought all is well. It was accepted that misinformation, ‘fake news’, and a lack of regard for evidence in some quarters are issues worthy of addressing, and that it’s vital for the health of our democracy that we do so. What’s more, Helen Margetts (Oxford Internet Institute) presented a compelling case that the Internet and social media may be exacerbating the problem.

“Is anything particularly new about the challenges we face in defending the importance of facts and evidence?”

What was questioned was the notion that there is anything particularly new about the challenges we face in defending the importance of facts and evidence.

Or, to restate the earlier question – against what previous golden age of ‘truth’ are we implicitly comparing our modern era to when we use the phrase ‘post-truth’?

This sense of perspective is welcome. William Davies’ recent piece in the Guardian, which has generated much discussion in the statistical world, painted a gloomy picture of the supposedly waning power of statistics. But as the National Statistician pointed out in response, our supposedly ‘post-truth’ era is also characterised by both a yearning for more trustworthy analysis to make sense of the world and an abundance of data out there to help inform it, if only we can tap into and make sense of it.

And that is central to our mission here at the Office for National Statistics. We are constantly striving to produce better statistics to support better decisions. We have ambitious plans to harness big data and exploit its potential to help us understand the modern world. And we are always looking to better understand current and future user needs and respond to them where we can.

“We will continue to champion the value of evidence and statistics, even in our supposedly post-truth world.”

It’s not just about producing better statistics, however. There are challenges in explaining to a wide audience what the evidence says about any given issue when the matter at hand is complex, the evidence is not always clear cut, and the methodological limitations of statistics need to be made clear in the name of transparency.

The difficulty with that, as panellist James Bell from Buzzfeed explained, is that when it comes to dealing with a mass audience and a controversial issue, a simple and clear message usually beats a complex one.

Those of us working in the field of official statistics always need to challenge ourselves to communicate better and in a way that is clear and accessible. But we cannot get away from the fact that by necessity we deal in complexity and nuance, which can make it tricky to get our message across where others may be peddling a simpler line and in a louder voice.

The answer, as argued by Full Fact’s Will Moy, lies in recognising that the ONS and UK Statistics Authority, along with other bodies such as new Office for Statistics Regulation, are part of a bigger picture including civil society groups, media outlets, businesses and ordinary citizens. Working together is crucial to help people make sense of the world around them, to continue to build the case for evidence, and to challenge those who wilfully misuse or disregard it.

That’s why, for example, the UK Statistics Authority is partnering with Full Fact, the House of Commons Library and the Economic and Social Research Council on the ‘Need to Know’ project. And it’s also why the work done by organisations such as the Royal Statistical Society to improve statistical literacy is so valuable, so we can all understand the importance of evidence and challenge its misuse.

Responding to Mr Davies’ Guardian piece, the National Statistician argued that “this is the moment when we can make our greatest contribution to society” by seizing the opportunities open to us to produce the statistics that Britain needs to answer the big questions of the day. That’s something we certainly intend to do. And working with others, we will continue to champion the value of evidence and statistics, even in our supposedly post-truth world.

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National 20mph limit comes into force in Wales next year

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WALES will be the first UK nation to impose a 20mph default speed limit following a vote held in the Senedd yesterday (July 12). The Welsh Government voted to limit residential roads and busy pedestrian streets to 20mph. 

According to the Welsh Government, this will lessen the likelihood and severity of accidents involving vulnerable road users. It will also encourage more people to cycle and walk. 

39 members of the Senedd voted in favour, while 15 members voted against. 

The new national default speed limit will come into effect from September 2023. The Welsh Government say the changes affect residential roads and busy pedestrian streets. 

According to the Welsh Government, the modifications have an impact on major pedestrian routes and residential roadways. The Welsh Government is still deciding which highways will have 20mph speed restrictions and which ones should stay at 30mph.

The 22 councils in Wales will collaborate with Go Safe to determine implementation timelines, according to the Welsh Government, but enforcement will continue throughout the transition period.

Climate change minister, Julie James, stated: “The future of our towns and cities depends on our ability to move around sustainably and on solutions that have a positive impact on public health environment and communities.

“That is why we will use the principle that walking, cycling and active travel must remain the best options for short urban journeys and a 20mph default speed limit will help achieve this. The introduction of a national 20mph limit would be an important and far reaching policy. If passed Wales would be the first country in the UK to introduce the change. We’re asking you all to be part of this change and make our communities understand the wider benefits of 20mph.

“This change is a generational one and when the time to embed, it will need to be accompanied by an important communication and marketing campaign and behaviour change initiatives. Achieving behavioural change is challenging but Wales has previously shown that we can do it successfully with policies such as organ donation, the banning of smoking in public places, and limiting the use of plastic bags. It does, however, require a collaborative effort between agencies, local authorities and by communities. We need to bring speeds down.”

She continued, saying there is evidence that 20 mph speed limits encourage more people to bike or walk, and she hoped this would lead to people naturally choosing those modes of transportation.

According to Ms. James, 80 people die on Welsh roads on average each year, and current data shows that 30mph is the speed at which 53 percent of accidents occur.

The immediate cost is about £33 million, but according to the Welsh Government, increased road safety brought on by slower average speeds could generate a positive financial return of about £25 million over the course of 30 years due to the money saved on fewer emergency services and hospital visits.

Additionally, the policy might result in significant wider economic gains from increased road safety (£1.4 billion), environmental and health gains from increased active travel (£5 million), and additional unquantified benefits from more vibrant and connected local economies.

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Ben Lake MP chairs discussion in Parliament on the cost-of-living crisis

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Ben Lake MP

The ongoing energy crisis has seen the cost of heating the average home double over the last year. At least 6.5 million households across the UK are now facing fuel poverty and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shone a spotlight on the interlinkages between energy security, demand and affordability.

While energy price rises affect everyone, the impacts are not felt the same by everybody. Low-income consumers face a double burden of the rising cost of bills as well as paying more for their energy due to the poverty premium.

Ben Lake MP chaired a panel discussion in Parliament this week to discuss the current crisis and to consider the potential merits of introducing a Social Tariff. Members of the panel included Alan Whitehead MP, Shadow Energy Minister,  Liz Twist MP, Peter Aldous MP and Alan Brown MP, SNP Spokesperson for Energy.

Commenting after the event, Ben Lake MP said: “I was pleased to chair this important discussion and to listen to the views of cross-party MPs on the potential merits of introducing a Social Tariff.

“Personally, I believe that the UK Government rushed its Energy Security Strategy in response to the energy crisis which emerged last year, and as a result it does not address two pressing issues: affordability and short-term security of supply. A longer-term solution now needs to be found to make energy bills affordable.

“The Warm Home Discount Scheme and the price cap provide important functions in the energy market. As they are currently structured, however, they do not do enough to protect those energy consumers most vulnerable to sharp price increases, which is why I believe the UK Government should consider introducing a new targeted social tariff for energy bills.”

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Large number of NHS staff in Wales currently off work as Covid cases rise

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HEALTH MINISTER Eluned Morgan has said Wales is in the “midst of a new wave” Covid infections” and that around 1 in 20 people had the virus last week.

According to ONS data, it’s estimated that 149,700 people tested positive for COVID-19 for the seven days to 30 June.

Ms Morgan said a large number of NHS staff in Wales are currently off work because they have Covid-19.

Updating Senedd Members on the current situation in Wales, the health minister said: “Over the last couple of weeks, we have seen a steady rise in the number of coronavirus infections in Wales.”

“We are in the midst of a new wave of infections, caused by the BA.4 and BA.5 subtypes of the omicron variant.”

“These are fast-moving, highly infectious forms of the virus, which are causing a surge in infections across the UK and in many other countries around the world.” She said.

Public Health Wales reports the current dominant variant in Wales is the BA.5 variant of omicron.

The latest results of the ONS’ Coronavirus Infection Survey estimate 4.93% of the population in Wales had Covid-19 in the week ending 30 June – equivalent to approximately one person in 20.

This has increased from an estimated 1.33% of the population (one in 75) from the week ending 2 June.

Across the UK, the estimated prevalence of coronavirus ranges from 3.95% in England to 5.94% in Scotland for the week ending 30 June.

Ms Morgan said: “As we have seen in previous waves, the increase in cases in the community, has led to an increase in the number of people being admitted to and treated in hospital for Covid-19.”

“The latest available information shows there are now more than 960 Covid-19-related patients in Welsh hospitals and there has also been an increase in number of people with Covid-19 being treated in critical care.”

She said: “The NHS has been working incredibly hard to provide planned care for people across Wales and to reduce waiting times, which had built up over the course of the pandemic. This task becomes more difficult when pandemic pressures increase.”

“Some hospitals have taken the difficult decision to restrict visiting to prevent coronavirus from spreading among patients and staff; others are asking all visitors to wear face coverings.”

“We are not making face coverings mandatory in health and care settings , but I would encourage everyone to wear one if they are visiting a healthcare setting and I would also ask people to consider wearing a face covering in crowded indoor public places, while cases of coronavirus are currently high.”

“We have extended the availability of free lateral flow tests for people who have symptoms of coronavirus until the end of July.” Ms Morgan said.

She added: “There are a number of other simple steps everyone can take to keep themselves and Wales safe.”

These include:

  • Get vaccinated
  • Maintain good hand hygiene
  • Stay at home and limit your contact with others if you are ill
  • Wear a face covering in indoor crowded or enclosed places
  • Meet others outdoors wherever possible
  • When indoors, increase ventilation and let fresh air in.
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