Minister defends data showing 30% of Covid patients get it in pubs

So what figures ARE Number 10 basing the hospitality shutdown on? Business minister defends dodgy data showing 30% of Covid patients may catch the disease in pubs

  • Government relied on data from less than 100 pubs to justify potential closures across swathes of the North
  • They also used a three-month-old study from the US and ‘selective’ information in briefing to MPs
  • Chris Witty linked hospitality sector to a ‘significant proportion’ of Covid exposure despite contrary data
  • Experts warn the data is not enough to temporarily close pubs in northern areas, with many MPs furious 

A business minister today defended the Government’s claim that 30 per cent of all coronavirus transmissions are occurring in pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants after furious MPs accused ministers of ‘cobbling together’ numbers to ‘justify’ their point of view based on flimsy data from fewer than 100 pubs.

Nadhim Zahawi MP argued the sample was ‘quite representative’ on LBC breakfast this morning, stating that when he did business surveys they would use a similar number of venues.

‘I used to work in the serving industry and I can tell you when you do business surveys, 98 businesses, or 100 businesses, is actually quite a representative sample,’ he said. ‘If you’re doing public opinions, 1,000 interviews is a representative sample. It’s actually a pretty robust sampling.’

And the Prime Minister’s deputy spokesman dug his heels in today claiming that the venues account for the ‘highest rates of common exposure to Covid-19, especially for those under 30 years old’. 

His claim comes after enraged MPs slammed the Government for presenting the ‘early analysis’ figures to them, and criticised officials decision to include a three-month-old American study from which they cherry-picked the figures to bolster their claims. 

Slides from a press briefing led by Professor Chris Whitty – published today after they were leaked – revealed yesterday that food outlets and bars may make up 41 per cent of all transmission among the under 30s. But this is in stark contrast with data published by Public Health England, which suggests only four per cent of Covid-19 outbreaks can be traced back to the venues.

And NHS Test and Trace figures show a huge 75.3 per cent of transmissions take place home, with only 5.5 per cent happening in pubs, restaurants and churches.

It was today revealed that the NHS coronavirus app has sent only one alert related to an outbreak in one venue since its launched two weeks ago, despite millions of check-ins and more than 16million downloads.

Shadow digital minister Chi Onwurah told Sky News this was a ‘plain contradiction’ of the Government’s claim that 30 per cent of transmission may be happening in pubs, and said ministers ‘need to get a grip’.

After ministers confirmed they will not shut schools, experts have argued they have few options left in terms of where to close to reduce social interaction, which is where the virus spreads – meaning the axe may fall on the hospitality sector. 

Many scientists have, however, argued against tightening the measures – and urged ministers to instead try to learn how to live with the virus.  

Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty briefed 149 MPs from the North and the Midlands yesterday to tell them that a ‘significant proportion’ of exposure to coronavirus was happening in the hospitality sector.  

Government data had claimed 32 per cent of transmission may be occurring in pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants, but it has emerged that data was taken from a sample of less than 170 businesses 

These graphs were also shown at the briefing. The suggest infections across all age groups are higher in the North of England than the rest of the country

Leaked slide: graphs also warned that more people could be in intensive care in the North within three weeks than were at the start of the pandemic

Slide published online: 


England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty is reported to have shown MPs data suggesting that 41 per cent of people who test positive for Covid-19 in England admit to visiting a hospitality business such as a pub, restaurant or cafe in the days before their diagnosis.

But it emerged last night that Public Health England had produced the data using only a small sample size that referenced just 98 pubs and 67 cafes. 

PHE said each pub or cafe counted in the list had been linked to two or more positive Covid-19 tests.

Industry leaders say it is unfair to tar the entire sector with the same brush – new lockdown rules ordering hospitality premises to close completely or slash their opening hours are expected next week for large parts of England. They have already been set in Scotland.

The ‘exposure’ data is based on NHS Test & Trace questioning of people who have tested positive for coronavirus.

It asks patients what they had done in the days leading up to their diagnosis, to get an idea of where and how the virus might be spreading most often.

While visiting hospitality appears to be common – less common, however, than socialising with family – the data does not prove that people are actually catching the virus when they’re out. It may simply be that this is the most common leisure activity that people do now. 

There is no comparable data to see what percentage of the population at large – regardless of their Covid status – have visited pubs or cafes in the same time frame.

Many activities are not allowed now or have become less popular because of social distancing. People cannot visit one another at home like they used to, sports are trickier and impossible for many indoors, while advice on staying away from people has kept the public out of museums, cinemas and theatres.

One Tory MP who attended the briefing said: ‘It is clear that the data to justify further action on hospitality is incredibly thin. It is so weak they can’t even publish it.’

There are concerns that the tiny data set could lead to the closure of more than 7,000 pubs in the North of England alone. 

But business minister Nadhim Zahawi defended the decision today, telling LBC: ‘I used to work in the serving industry and I can tell you, when you do business surveys, 98 businesses or 100 businesses is actually quite a representative sample.’

One Tory MP from a Red Wall seat told The Telegraph: ‘It was very clear to everyone on the call that they had cobbled together this data as a retrospective attempt to justify closing pubs. 

‘Given what we know from the official NHS figures, why are they quoting data from a tiny survey carried out in America? It’s just meaningless.’

A Labour MP in a northern seat said: ‘We have all been calling on the Government to give us the evidence behind curfews and pub closures, and this is the best they can come up with. It’s quite astonishing, and it’s clearly an attempt to soften us up for bad news that’s coming next week.’

Last night the British Beer and Pub Association warned the Government that the data was not good enough to justify the closure of pubs. 

One expert suggested 7,000 venues across the North would be forced to close. But Downing Street denied that any decisions had yet been taken on lockdown measures. 

One Tory MP who attended the briefing said: ‘It is clear that the data to justify further action on hospitality is incredibly thin. It is so weak they can’t even publish it.’ 

Professor Whitty also appeared to suggest that the national 10pm curfew for pubs, bars and restaurants introduced last month was based on nothing more than the fact that other countries had imposed it. 

Last night northern politicians lined up to condemn the Prime Minister for the ‘reckless’ plan to close all pubs and restaurants in the worst-hit areas. 

Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor for Greater Manchester, told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: ‘I will not any more put up with a situation where they impose things on the North of England that will cause real damage to people’s lives.’

And on Question Time last night he slammed the Government for failing to consult regional leaders on changes to restrictions.

He added: ‘I will use whatever means I can to challenge it to get support for people because otherwise they are going to suffer real hardship this winter, we are going to see businesses failing.’

Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi has defended the Government’s leaked analysis 

And Emma McClarkin, of the British Beer and Pub Association, said: ‘We are still yet to see the hard evidence in England that blanket measures to lock down pubs, with their strict adherence to government guidelines, will significantly stop the spread of the virus.’ 

But Ben Bradley, Tory MP for Mansfield, who took part in the call, said: ‘We talked about the North West and North East in particular, where we were talking about – in three weeks’ time – having hospitalisation levels higher than in the original peak.’

Meanwhile Minister for Skills and Apprenticeships Gillian Keegan said Britain was in an ‘unbelievably serious situation’.

She said the government had to act to stem the spike in coronavirus cases, saying to BBC: ‘This is serious – it is getting out of control, and we have to do something to bring it back under control.’

But she added: ‘We definitely need to work locally and we definitely need to make sure that the communications are much clearer.’

Steve Rotheram, the mayor of the Liverpool City Region, told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: ‘Quite simply the North should not be a petri dish for experimentation by central government.’

It came as No10 faced a concerted backlash from local leaders and MPs over plans to subject millions of people living in the North to even tougher restrictions from next week. 

Sir Keir Starmer accused Boris Johnson of causing ‘confusion, chaos and unfairness’ by revealing the exact measures will be announced next week, while they are still being discussed.  

Sir Keir Starmer also wrote in The Telegraph, saying how people are facing a ‘weekend of uncertainty’ because of the delay in announcing the new three-tier system.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick yesterday came close to confirming that action is looming. 

‘It is correct to say the number of cases in the North West and the North East and a number of cities, particularly in the Midlands like Nottingham, are rising fast and that is a serious situation,’ he said. 

‘We are currently considering what steps we should take, obviously taking the advice of our scientific and medical advisers, and a decision will be made shortly.’ 

The controversial data quoted by Professor Whitty is based on an ‘enhanced contact tracing’ exercise, the Department of Health said. 

It asks people who they met – and where they met them. But it is based on a very small sample. 

If two infected people both tell tracers that they have been to a venue in the past week, it is seen as an indication, but not proof, that the virus may have been transmitted between them. 

But they don’t even have had to be there at the same time. 

The data shows there were 98 occasions where two or more people told contact tracers they had been to the same pub. 

Another 67 cases referred to people having been to the same cafe or restaurant. 

He added it was ‘commonsensical’ that the longer people spent in pubs together, the higher the risk of infection was, as he backed the 10pm curfew.

It also emerged last night that the Public Health England data was based on a very small sample size. 

It derived from contact tracing data referring to just 98 pubs and 67 cafes and restaurants.  

A PHE spokesman said each reported case referred to two separate Covid-positive patients who had been in the same venue within the past week.

But the data is not able to assert if they caught the virus in the same place. 

A Department of Health spokesman said ‘enhanced’ contract tracing suggested the place of infection was in hospitality venues.   

Included in the dossier given by Chris Whitty was a Cabinet Office document marked ‘official sensitive’ which referenced a report from July from the US Centres for Disease Control.

The study found people that of the 154 people who had tested positive, they were around twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant in the previous two weeks before they experienced symptoms.   

Last night a Government spokesman admitted that the ‘early analysis’ did not constitute proof of transmission. 

‘We are seeing coronavirus cases rise across the country, with particularly fast growth in the North East and North West,’ he said. 

‘We constantly monitor the data and are considering a range of options to suppress the virus, protect communities and save lives.’ 

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