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The government doesn’t have a clue where its own vaccine data is


As part of our #FactOfTheMatter series, The Canary Investigations team has spoken to three government departments in charge of the coronavirus (Covid-19) vaccine rollout. We wanted to find out how the vaccine was allocated in England – but no one could tell us who holds that information. We spoke to NHS England, Public Health England (PHE), and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to try and access this data. Yet no one could confirm that they had it. Which begs the question: who does?

We were concerned by reports of vaccine shortages and a decision by NHS England to redirect supplies between counties. This decision left some waiting for vaccines.

1,000 vaccines for 14,000 people

Liberal Democrat MP for St Albans Daisy Cooper said the Batchwood centre had received only 1,000 vaccines for the last few weeks. This was despite the centre having the capacity to vaccinate approximately 14,000 people per week.

Cooper raised concerns after weeks of vaccine shortages meant that those eligible for a vaccine weren’t able to book appointments.

In a statement, the MP pleaded for government transparency:

All I’m asking for is some transparency about when the vaccine is going to come and how much of it is there going to be, so people get a sense of when they are going to be able to get their jab and that helps people to plan

However, MPs aren’t the only ones concerned about vaccines being delayed. As the press have taken to social media to call out the lack of government transparency.

The North vs South

After claims that vaccines were redirected from the North of England to the South, journalists too have given up on government transparency.

NHS England confirmed that some vaccine supplies were redirected from the North East to the South because of a greater demand.

According to NHS England, the supplies were redirected to vaccinate vulnerable over 80s. But Nadhim Zahawi, minister for business & industry and COVID vaccine deployment, denied that there had been any diversion.

This came out when the Yorkshire Post (YP) editor James Mitchinson tweeted a front page that met with backlash from government ministers:

 

Zahawi responded to the tweet denying that vaccine allocation had changed.

But Mitchinson didn’t trust this narrative:

So this got us thinking. Amid conversations about priority groups and supplies, we wanted to know how vaccines were allocated across England, to begin with. We realised that while the government had announced priority groups and addressed supply diversions, it didn’t announce how vaccines would be allocated across regions.

The Investigations team wanted to know how vaccines were allocated in the first place. This was to make sure allocations were done fairly and to try and see why vaccines may have been redirected.

The Canary reached out to three government departments responsible for the supply and distribution of coronavirus vaccines. We asked for data about how vaccines had been, and continue to be, allocated across England.

What we found shocked us.

“On this occasion it’s probably best to get in touch with one of them”

After filing an FOI request to NHS England, we were told to ask elsewhere:

Hi Emma,

DHSC lead on supply and PHE on distribution, so on this occasion it’s probably best to get in touch with one of them.

Many thanks,

**********

NHS England made its position clear. It stated that as the DHSC is in charge of supply and PHE is in charge of distribution of vaccines, those are the government bodies we’d need to contact. And so we did. 

“PHE does not hold the information”

Taking NHS England’s advice, we contacted PHE to ask if it held or had access to this information. It confirmed that it did not:

Dear Ms Guy,

Thank you for your email of 26 January 2021 to Public Health England (PHE) requesting information on the allocation of Coronavirus vaccine rollout in England, per district.

PHE can confirm the subject matter in question does not fall within PHE’s remit. We, therefore, confirm PHE does not hold the information you have requested. Under Section 16 of the FOI Act, public authorities have a duty to provide advice and assistance. Accordingly, you may wish to contact NHS England to make a request to them

FOI Team

Public Accountability Unit

Public Health England

In its response, PHE clearly confirmed it did not hold this data. But what was interesting was that it redirected us back to NHS England. Despite the clear communication from PHE, it doesn’t explain why the department in charge of vaccine distribution holds no information relating to how vaccines have been allocated.

The only department that we didn’t hear from was the DHSC which is in charge of coronavirus vaccine supply.

DHSC hasn’t confirmed anything

Since December, the Investigations team has contacted the DHSC four times asking for comment. We’ve given them several opportunities to send a response that we can include in our coronavirus vaccinations coverage. Each time, the DHSC has not responded.

However, The Canary did manage to speak to the DHSC over the phone and we were told to contact PHE.

We then submitted an FOI request and a right of reply to the DHSC. We asked the department to confirm whether it holds or has access to vaccine allocation data. Since then, we have not had a response.

Considering PHE has confirmed that it doesn’t have this information, we approached NHS England. We asked NHS England to confirm for a second time that it does not hold or have access to vaccine allocation data.

Having submitted a formal FOI and being diverted to other government departments, we were surprised when NHS England responded. It looked like we were finally getting the data we had asked for.

Hi Emma,

This includes a breakdown of vaccines per region and per ICS/STP.

And this was right, it did. But it wasn’t the allocation data we asked for.

This is not allocation data

The data NHS England shared with The Canary is not vaccine allocation data. In fact, it’s not related to allocations at all.

The information sent to us was a rolling total of people vaccinated in England. While the data that NHS England sent us did include a breakdown of vaccines by region, age and ethnicity, it’s difficult to draw any conclusions from it.

1.5 million people’s data is ‘unknown’

As we began looking through the data, we realised something. Not only could you not draw scientific conclusions from it, but some of it was unstated or unknown. 1.5 million sets of it to be specific.

This is the breakdown of those who have had their 1st and 2nd dose between 8 December 2020- 21 February 2021 by ethnicity:

  • White-British: 11.774m
  • White-Irish: 122,938
  • White- any other background: 704,359
  • Mixed- White and black Caribbean: 22,629
  • Mixed- White and Black African: 18,525
  • Mixed-White and Asian: 24,391
  • Mixed- Any other Mixed background: 48,405
  • Asian or Asian British- Indian: 383,460
  • Asian or Asian British- Pakistani: 153,714
  • Asian or Asian British- Bangladeshi: 53,302
  • Asian or Asian British- Any other Asian background: 179,333
  • Black or Black British- Caribbean: 84,828
  • Black or Black British-African: 136,511
  • Black or Black British-Any other Black background: 44,554
  • Other ethnic groups- Chinese: 43,695
  • Other ethnic groups- Any other ethnic group: 170,595
  • Not stated/unknown: 1.5m

Anyone looking at this data at a glance would notice that 11.774m White British people have been vaccinated compared to 18,000 White and Black African individuals. While on the surface this may seem like a massive gap, it doesn’t mean that White British people, for instance, have been prioritised or vaccinated more than individuals from ethnic minorities.

People have the legal right not to state their ethnicity, but this makes drawing conclusions from datasets like this one difficult. As the numbers can never be a true reflection of the demographic makeup.

Return of the ‘Orwellian unit’?

Since receiving this data, The Canary has reached out to NHS England, Public Health England, and the DHSC for comment. But no one had responded by the time of publication.  

After contacting PHE press office via the address listed on their website, we did, however, receive seven bounce-back emails from individual PHE press email accounts. The emails stated that those individuals either ‘no longer worked at PHE’ or that they were ‘out of office’, making it difficult to respond or process journalists’ requests.

The Investigations team is still working to get access to vaccine allocation data. And we continue to seek clarity on who has this information. What we are witnessing is a massive concern, not just for our team but for journalists across the UK. In 2020, we reported on the government’s ‘Orwellian unit’. This was thought to have used the cabinet office to centralise, and ultimately ‘blacklist’, journalists’ FOI requests.

With this in mind, we will continue to persevere and urge the government to work with journalists in their duty to the public. There is a growing divide between government departments and the press. And it’s creating a dangerous environment for transparency – one that is becoming increasingly Orwellian.

Featured Image: US Secretary of Defense





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