Sturgeon warns ministers to use ‘properly verified’ stats

Written by Jack Thomson and Chris Marshall on 26 July 2021 in News

Disputed graphic shared by deputy first minister reported to UK national statistician

Credit: Mudassar Iqbal from Pixabay 

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has said her colleagues should "take care to use properly verified graphics" after minister for Covid recovery John Swinney was criticised for sharing disputed statistics in relation to face masks.

Swinney came under pressure last week after he tweeted an image last week which indicated there was zero risk of catching the virus if two people are both wearing masks and standing 6ft apart.

While there is evidence that face coverings can slow the spread of the virus, claims about their percentage effectiveness are not substantiated. The original source of the infographic in question is not clear.

Amid mounting pressure and after being reported to the UK Statistics Authority by the Scottish Conservatives, Swinney deleted the original tweet.

In a new post, he said: "I shared an image on Monday to illustrate that masks and distancing can help stop Covid transmission. I have now deleted the image as the figures in it were not verified. Sorry for that. But the message is unchanged: masks and distancing remain critical to beating this virus."

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Annie Wells, health spokesperson for the Scottish Conservatives, said she had written to Sir Ian Diamond, the UK national statistician, asking for his input on an infographic.

She said: "A message from the deputy first minister that is essentially fake news has been retweeted nearly 1,000 times and has likely reached an audience in the tens or possibly even hundreds of thousands. The continued use of an unverified graphic like this is potentially dangerous. It undermines the serious public health message that masks can limit the spread of the virus. It may even convince some people that there is zero risk from COVID in certain situations, which is not supported by science."

Speaking shortly before the deletion of the tweet, first minister Sturgron said her colleague was illustrating a point that face masks protect people from transmission of coronavirus. However, she added that ministers recognise that in trying to do that, they should use properly verified graphics.

Sturgeon said: "The deputy first minister tweeted an image… that was intended to illustrate, what is absolutely the case, that wearing face masks protects people from transmission of the virus. So, if I wear a face mask it gives you some protection, if you wear a face mask it gives me some protection. He was illustrating that point and I think the more we can illustrate that point, the better.”

She added: "What I will say in addition to that is we recognise that in seeking to illustrate that, we should take care to use properly verified graphics, and we'll certainly take that on board in terms of how we tweet that information in future. But getting the general point across, he is absolutely right to seek to do as I seek to do that on a general ongoing basis as well."

Dr Nicola Steedman, Scotland's deputy chief medical officer, said the data behind face coverings was "incredibly complex" and depends on the type of mask – adding that face coverings are different from surgical face masks.

She said: "I think that figure was an effort to simplistically represent the fact that masks and face coverings do provide some protection – the degree of protection is variable depending on the mask and on the distance from the person."


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Versions of this story originally appeared on PublicTechnology sister publication Holyrood.


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