As ever at Downing Street press conferences, Boris Johnson’s scientific advisors deployed their graphs skillfully to back up the warnings of potential catastrophe.
The by now all-too-familiar vertiginous lines were intended to leave the public in no doubt about the consequences of not delaying freedom until July 19.
But take a closer look and the choice of graphs is arguably disingenuous: the slides are most revealing for what they failed to include.
We were shown a graph comparing the change in the proportion of under- and over-65s admitted to hospital in January and May/June.
This showed a big jump in the under-65s column, a point Prof Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, took pains to emphasise.
The problem is that this fails to show just how much lower the raw numbers are now.
In reality, there were 95,172 admissions for Covid in England between Jan 1 and 28, compared with 2,851 between May 16 and June 12.
However, a brief glance at the Downing Street graph – and that’s all the general public will have had the chance to do – could well give the impression that the situation in hospitals is worse than last winter.
This comparison is also weakened by the timing chosen by the Government.
Cases are generally distributed in younger age groups towards the start of a period of opening up, as these people are more likely to return to work in person or to socialise.
In September, at the start of the second wave, those aged 18-to-64 comprised 51 per cent of admissions compared with 60 per cent in May. This was higher than it was for the over-65 age group.
The Telegraph’s own graph below – showing, crucially, the actual numbers of patients in hospitals – demonstrates how incomparably better the current situation is.
The young are now being admitted to hospital – but levels are still much lower
On Tuesday morning, Sir Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, revealed that just one per cent of hospital beds are currently occupied by Covid patients, with most of those young.
Sir Simon also said hospitals are in a “much better position” than last year.
The age distribution has “flipped” he said, so those under-65 now make up 70 per cent of cases
The North West
The second graph deployed by Prof Whitty to illustrate the supposed pressure felt by hospitals was problematic in a different way.
It showed the average number of weekly hospital admissions per 100,000 for both the North West and England as a whole.
Snaking left to right by month, the lines appear to rise sharply – particularly for the North West – in the past two weeks.
The problem is one of scale.
The rise in the North West is significant, but, again, pales in comparison to the second wave.
Admissions are at around five per 100,000 as of June 12, compared with around 20 per 100,000 at the end of December and then over 40 by the peak.
This was in no way evident at last night’s briefing.
On the far left of the government graph, you can just about see the end of the gentle downhill slope, denoting the end of the second wave, at the start of April.
But it would have been far more informative to have shown the colossal mountain of the second wave itself, so the public could have seen how much bigger it was than the recent uptick.
Admissions are rising in the North West – but this pales in comparison to the second wave
Cases by age
The same criticism can be made of the graphs showing the weekly increase in cases, which were also only presented from the beginning of April, rather than December or January.
Properly understanding this metric was further hampered by the failure to set out how the cases break down by age.
Most of England’s new cases are now among the young.
Across all ages, the latest daily rate in England is 67.1 per 100,000 (as of June 9), but for those under-60s the rate is 84.1 per, and for those over 60 it is just 12.6 per 100,000.
Cases are rising in England – but this is being driven by the young
Downing Street’s choice of graphs need to be seen in the context that its own modellers have already admitted that they do not know whether releasing restrictions on June 21 would have caused unsustainable pressure on the NHS.
Arguably, Britain is actually doing better than many scientists had predicted. Undoubtedly, the risk of unlocking has changed as a result of the delta variant, but when compared to the turn of the year it is clear the scale of a ‘third wave’ is not in the same league as those we have already faced.